How To Have An Open Relationship

I was falling in love with the woman with whom I was having a transatlantic fling when she told me about her expectations for our burgeoning relationship. Specifically, Annie wanted our relationship to be an open one, meaning that we would each have the option to see other people. I, on the other hand, wanted to have my dream girl all to myself forever and was slightly nauseated by what she was proposing.

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I had a dilemma on my hands: Double down on my long-held monogamous stance and risk losing her, or gamely go along with her plan and risk losing my mind as she flitted from one tryst to the next. Or take the third way: Choose to make it work in a way that would be fulfilling for both of us. Here are some of the things we came up with to make it work (our open relationship turned into an open marriage). Whether you’re thinking of opening up an existing relationship or showing up open to a future one, consider applying them too.

Slow Your Roll

During the same transatlantic phone call in which Annie revealed that she wanted to try a non-monogamous relationship, I suggested a six-month period during which I would do all the things I needed to do to rise to her challenge and make this work for the both of us. I knew that if we set off half-cocked, our romance would quickly crumble.

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For an open relationship to have any chance of success, it’s imperative that you’re both fully on board with the venture when it’s time to actually start seeing other people. If you’re not and forge ahead anyway, things are almost certainly doomed to failure. Of course, it’s not unusual for one person to be more enthused about the prospect of being open, as Annie was. But pressing pause for an agreed upon length of time and letting the less gung-ho partner get become more comfortable is likely going to improve your chances of success should you decide to give it a go. So take your time, explore your feelings and use your words.

Set Boundaries

When embarking on being open, you have to imagine how you might feel in a number of different situations which, in my opinion, is a worthwhile thought exercise for anyone to do.

Practically, all relationships have agreed-upon boundaries. The key boundary in monogamous relationships, of course, is to not screw anyone else ever. Indeed, in some traditional wedding ceremonies, brides and grooms vow to to “forsake all others”.

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Being open means making up your own language for what’s OK and what isn’t. You’ll note that I’m using the word “boundaries” and not “rules”. Open relationships coach Effy Blue says that boundaries are about autonomy over your own decisions, whereas rules are about power over the other’s decisions.

One of the boundary-related agreements that came out of my kitchen-table discussion with Annie was that we both practice impeccable condom use with other partners. This was primarily a health decision, but condom use also imbued our relationship with primacy as we set out on our adventure. We also agreed that we wouldn’t have sex with our friends, that we could only have sex with other people once, and also agreed upon the level of detail we preferred about each other’s solo adventures. She wanted the broad strokes, I preferred a blow-by-blow.

Chances are that your relationship will evolve over time, so you should also review boundaries together if and when they begin to feel too constricting, too loose or irrelevant. That said, to ensure everyone remembers what’s been agreed upon, you might even write down the boundaries in some form so that it’s easier to remain accountable to them.

Don’t Go It Alone

Blue says that a community of open people can provide a support network, insight, tips, comradery, and a space away for judgement and scrutiny. “Open relationships can feel isolating,” she explains. “Especially if you are not in a position to be open with your friends and family or if they don’t understand or support you.” Blue recommends that you connect with other open people, talk to them about their experiences and find out about their their journey.

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Annie and I were lucky to have friends, Charlie and Kiki, as inspiration. The pair had been in an open relationship for seven years and were the only example of a functional, loving, sexy open relationship that we had direct experience of. At the same time, we knew that we didn’t want to copy their agreed upon protocol: Charlie could see other women with and without Kiki. Kiki could see other women too but not other men. From the start we knew that we wanted to be equal and have equal expectations of each other.

Resist the Urge to Compare

Had I met Annie a year or two earlier, her proposal that we had an open relationship would have sent me packing, but at age 30, when we got together, I was feeling more comfortable in my skin than I ever had. I felt secure in my career, at ease with my body, and was getting a handle on my own unique appeal. That meant that I was less compelled to compare myself to the men she saw who were at least two and sometimes all of the following: Tall, handsome, smart, successful, impossibly well-endowed.

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There are plenty of things I did to shore up my self-esteem during my open relationship and marriage that might help you, including positive self-talk, focusing on the things you like about yourself and are unique to you, exercise, spending more time doing things you enjoy, learning a new skill, following a new passion and, yes, meeting new people.

Learn the Lingo

Like kite-surfing or ferret breeding, being open comes with its own peculiar jargon. While getting comfortable with the idea of being open, I came to grips with some of the terminology. One of the first things I learned was that there are plenty of modes of being open, which is a loose umbrella term for them all.

You can be monogamish, meaning that you and your partner have agreed that some degree of sexual activity outside of the relationship is OK. There’s polyamory (literally, many loves) which means that you and your partner can be romantically and not just physically involved with others. Swinging generally means couples consensually exchanging partners for sexual play. There are lots of other ways in which people agree to go about it too. Annie and I decided that being monogamish was for us.

Another new word I learned was compersion. It’s often defined as the positive feeling you experience when a partner is enjoying another relationship. You may find, as I did, an unimagined capacity for compersion. You may, on the other hand, find the reality of your dearest one rimming a comely bartender a bit much when it comes right down to it.

How to Handle Jealousy

One of the first things people want to know about open relationships is how people manage feelings of envy that can arise when someone other than you is gleefully screwing your partner. According to Blue there are two types: Dispositional jealousy — meaning that feeling some degree of jealousy is part and parcel of your personality — and incidental jealousy — meaning that certain activities or dynamics tend to arouse jealousy as they occur. “The former is a character trait,” she explains. “If you are a [dispositionally] jealous person, you might want to rethink non-monogamy. It is the latter that we manage.”

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Dispositional jealousy had always been the thing that prevented me from entertaining the thought of being open in my 20s, but by the time I turned the big three-oh and found a partner I loved, that emotion began to leave me. As I mentioned above, I managed my incidental jealousy by bolstering my self esteem, experiencing and cultivating compersion, and yes, having adventures of my own. It also helped that the thought of my wife being sexual outside of our marriage turned me on.

Annie changed my mind about being open. Then, seven years into our marriage she decided that being monogamous was something she wanted to revisit and we subsequently separated. In the two years since then, I’ve dated several people, some quite seriously, all with the understanding that we always had the option to see other people. Employing some takeaways from my first foray into non-monogamy hasn’t meant that it’s always plain sailing, but I’ve found that going through the list above has been helpful in keeping heartache to a minimum while enjoying a lifestyle that, if it’s a good fit, can change the way you experience yourself and the world around you.