Terms like “poly,” “open,” and “nonmonogamy” are floating around college campuses in a way that feels like a second wave of free love. We are supposed to be having the time of our lives — exploring, discovering ourselves, experimenting. But what do you do when you find someone who you actually like? Someone you suspect your life would be better with? Someone you could maybe see yourself with for the long term? When it happens as early as freshman year, it’s hard not to be a little skeptical.
I should know. Jacob* and I hooked up the first night of freshman orientation and were inseparable from that point on. We kept things loose for a while — a friends with benefits situation. After spending all of Thanksgiving break together (we conveniently grew up about 20 minutes away from each other) we decided to commit to a monogamous relationship, and we remained in one for about a year. That was when Jacob floated the idea of an open relationship. I had been doing my own research on open relationships, but I didn’t quite have the guts to bring up the topic, so I was happy, and yes, also nervous, when he did. We were both starting to feel restless in the relationship. We missed the benefits of being single in college — like the freedom to go out with friends with zero guilt, to dance with someone new, and to feel the excitement of simply seeing where the night goes. Jacob and I were missing out on the opportunities for connecting with new people that being single allows. At the same time, we didn’t want to give up what we had with each other — the relationship still brought us joy and helped us grow as individuals, and our connection was meaningful.
Entering into an open relationship for the first time takes a lot of energy. It requires breaking down years of built-up ideas and notions from the media and social norms of what relationships are supposed to be like. It means forging your own ideas and coming to your own decisions about what being in a relationship means and what matters most to you. For Jacob and I, it was worth it to be able to live our college years fully and without restriction. We both love building deep and emotional connections with many people — this doesn’t always mean doing so intimately, but we both felt that, in that sense, our monogamous relationship was holding us back.
After a couple of long discussions, Jacob and I sat down together, downloaded Tinder, and started scrolling through potential matches, thus beginning this new open relationship and waving an unofficial goodbye to monogamy. Let me tell you, it was not easy. Often, you set rules in a relationship, and then when you put them into practice, it doesn’t feel as you hoped it would. You may think you’ll be okay with your partner going on a date with someone else, but when they haven’t texted you back for four hours because they’re otherwise occupied, you start to wonder if this is really what you want. These are the moments when you have to decide if whatever you’re feeling is something that you need to work through within yourself, breaking down jealousy and old mental models, or if you need to re-negotiate the rules of your relationship. In our case, we experimented with plenty of rules — about what level of intimacy was acceptable with other people, about if we were going to talk to each other about our other partners, and about who we could hook up with (mutual friends are a no). But along the way, we found that we did not want restrictions placed on ourselves, so we decided not to place restrictions on each other. That said, we try to keep a don’t ask, don’t tell policy for the most part. Neither of us particularly wants to hear the juicy details of the other person’s latest hookup. While we’ve each no doubt experienced our fair share of jealousy, it has turned out that I live vicariously through Jacob and he through me. Seeing the other have great experiences makes us happy more often than it makes us jealous. I want him to feel the same happiness and excitement that new experiences bring me.
Although I can’t speak to what it’s like to be in an open relationship outside of college, in college it can feel like a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to other people’s opinions. Your friends will ask if it’s a good idea to be spending your formative years in a monogamous relationship, and when you decide to be in a nonmonogamous one, they’ll still ask if it’s a good way to date — at least in the beginning. But it seems like my friends have, for the most part, adjusted to my ways. Still, they don’t quite identify with how I feel. That’s why I relish seeing someone else on Tinder who is in an open relationship. There is a mutual understanding that I typically don’t get elsewhere.
I try to keep my love life fairly private but if someone does ask, I certainly don’t hide that I’m in an an open relationship, and if they don’t understand what that means I’m happy to explain. My family is the exception. They know and love Jacob, and we let them assume that our relationship is monogamous.
In the meantime, I feel happier and more free than I ever have. College really is a time to experiment and experience, and being in an open relationship allows me to do this fully. I don’t know if I’ll want to be nonmonogamous forever but, for right now, I’m having a lot of fun while feeling fulfilled in my relationship with Jacob.
*Name has been changed.