When I discovered my sexual fluidity, it not only expanded my sexual horizons, but my definition of a relationship as well. Growing up in the rural suburbs, if you weren’t married to an opposite-sex partner by your mid-20s, you were seriously behind. Pitied, even. That wasn’t the case once I moved to Toronto, where I had my first open relationship.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go terribly well. I felt like I was always on my toes, fearful the other people my boyfriend was sleeping with were better than me. It upset me so much that it killed my sex drive. But that’s not to say consensual nonmonogamy can’t be wonderful. Most of my friends are in open relationships, and they’ve never been happier. In fact, research from the University of Michigan found individuals in consensual nonmonogamous relationships have lower levels of jealousy and higher levels of trust.
I consider myself open-minded and yet I couldn’t navigate a healthy open relationship — my ex and I barely lasted six months — and the reasons why confounded me. So now, with the help of Liz Powell, Psy.D., sex educator, psychologist, and author of “Building Open Relationships: Your hands-on guide to swinging polyamory and beyond,” and a number of open couples of all orientations, I’m doing the research I should have done prior on what to consider before opening your relationship.
1. Consider what it takes to thrive in a nonmonogamous relationship.
“I think some folks are more inclined toward nonmonogamy than others,” Powell says. “Skills that tend to be helpful are clear, honest communication; a willingness to examine your own desires, motivations, and judgments; commitment to setting good boundaries for your own self-care, and a desire to keep growing and learning from your mistakes.” If you struggle with insecurity, fear of abandonment, possessiveness, manipulative or controlling behavior, or high emotional reactivity, you might not be fit for an open relationship — at least not until you work on those issues.
For Blake, a 31-year-old from Portland, Oregon, the question of how to satiate his non-binary sexuality influenced the decision to open up his partnership. “My spouse and I are both bi, and I was continuing to feel attracted to men but didn’t want to cross a line,” he says. “Meanwhile, she’d been worried that I was hooking up on business trips and that I would eventually meet the man of my dreams and leave.” Blake says opening up about their concerns helped them learn that they were both open to exploring consensual nonmonogamy.
Adam, a 24-year-old in Toronto, and his partner knew early that sex and emotional attachment were both integral to their relationship, but not to the point that these experiences couldn’t also be shared with others. They opened their relationship after six months. “The love we have for each other is deep,” he says of the decision. “The years we’ve spent together have shown us that the amount of love we have to give isn’t diminished when we also love others.”
2. Know there is never a right time to open a relationship.
“I don’t think there’s a single right or wrong length of time [when you should open a relationship],” Powell says, explaining it can be more difficult to open a closed relationship than starting out that way. “When we build a relationship closed, we often set up expectations that aren’t sustainable once it’s open.”
Calvin, 29, who lives in San Francisco, and his partner went into their relationship knowing they wanted to it to be open, but it took a year for them to feel comfortable dating and having sex with other people. This was a trend among the couples I spoke with — most entered their relationship with a mutual understanding that it would eventually be open.
It was two years before Stephanie, a 29-year-old in Toronto, and her partner opened their relationship, and they did so incrementally, first trying it when they travelled abroad. “We didn’t want to miss out on fun experiences if they were to stumble onto our laps,” she says.
3. Brace yourself for a difficult conversation.
“[When discussing an open relationship], you want to be open about what you want and why you want it,” Powell says. “Tell your partner what you love about them and reinforce that this isn’t a breakup, it’s a transition.” She recommends keeping the language positive and emphasizing the love you already share. “Be prepared for them to struggle with it or for them to decide it’s not for them,” she adds. “Each person has to take care of themselves first, hold their boundaries, and ask for what they want. If you reach a point where what it would take to make one person happy would make the other miserable, then it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship.”
The conversation can, of course, go in a more positive direction as well. Adam says once he set a foundation of trust with his partner — saying things like “I love you,” “I want this relationship,” and “I’m here for the long-term” — the ability to express desire for other people came naturally.
4. Set boundaries, not rules.
“I don’t advocate for rules, in part because rules create imbalanced power structures,” Powell says. “I do think you should discuss boundaries, but remember that boundaries are about your own body, mind, and time, not anyone else’s. For instance, I can have a boundary that I only have sex with people who are exclusively having sex with me. I can’t have a boundary that my partner can’t have sex with someone else.”
She encourages being honest and clear about what you are and aren’t willing to compromise on, and keeping in mind that this is likely to change as a relationship evolves.
“We started with a list of rules: no exes, never see the same person twice, and no emotional attachment,” Adam says. “These rules devolved into guidelines over time and we eased off of the ‘no’ language, which led us to ‘yes’ language and brought us to people who made us better versions of ourselves.”
5. Understand that open relationships aren’t a cake walk.
Calvin’s open relationship was difficult in the beginning — he still remembers the sickness he felt the first time he watched his partner leave a bar with another suitor. The next day, as part of their agreement, they discussed the reasons why he felt this way. “Our relationship is so strong now because we both grew into it and learned together,” he says. “Now it’s pretty easy. But there are times when odd situations come up and we have to take a moment to say ‘Is this OK?’ and check in with each other.”
For Adam, people’s judgments are what’s most difficult. “The conversations my partner and I continue to have about love, trust, and respect — while sometimes difficult — are liberating,” he says. “The conversations with other people and the feeling that we constantly need to justify our relationship, those are the most difficult, and they never seem to end.”
After seven years in an open relationship, Blake admits things are still sometimes difficult — and he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to the jealousy. “Maintaining an open relationship, especially one that’s don’t ask/don’t tell like ours requires finesse,” he says, explaining that the challenge is communicating enough, but not too much. “Sometimes we have to overhaul our policies, and that’s never a comfortable conversation.”
I see now why nonmonogamy isn’t for me: I’m insecure. In an open relationship, this trait fueled by others (jealousy and fear of abandonment, in particular) was problematic. Partners must be willing to communicate whenever they’re feeling even the slightest bit unsure or uncomfortable, something my ex and I had trouble doing and to which I attribute to opening our relationship prematurely.
Hopefully, if you decide to enter an open relationship, you will be better prepared than I was. But make no mistake about it: I don’t regret the experience. Being in an open relationship taught me that I’m better suited for monogamy, and I’m just fine with that.