Dear Broad Strokes,
I’m in a monogamous relationship now, but I’m thinking that I’d like to open it. How can I have this conversation with my partner? If we do open the relationship, how can we make sure neither of us gets hurt?
This conversation can seem tough, because our society values monogamy so highly and we are so often told that non-monogamy means “cheating,” “infidelity,” and the loss of love. Before you have this conversation with your partner, you should think about how to articulate your reasons for wanting to open the relationship. Don’t frame it as a solution as a problem in your relationship or bring this subject up during a fight. Not only will that make your partner feel insecure, but it’s also a poor reason to open your relationship. Instead, tell your partner about how opening your relationship will be fulfilling for you. Will it allow you to express your gender and/or sexual identity? Does it fit better with your ideas of romance, intimacy, and kinship than a traditional monogamous model? Does monogamy feel like a constraint rather than a choice? You know best how this will be emotionally beneficial for you. Of course, you should also ask your partner how they feel about this and whether they think opening the relationship could be fulfilling for them.
Your next move should be to establish norms or rules that will help you both feel comfortable about transitioning to an open relationship. Obviously, you should have this conversation before you have a sexual interaction with someone else. If you’re beginning this discussion having already broken the other person’s trust, it will be difficult for them to feel that you will stick to the rules you set together. On the other hand, you shouldn’t feel like you need to accept rules from your partner that feel overly limiting and intrude on your freedom. Examples of legitimate rules include things like, “Let’s pick one night of the week that we know is a date night for the two of us,” “Let’s talk about our other partners,” “Let’s not talk about our other partners,” or “Let’s promise to use barrier birth control methods with all other partners and get STI tested regularly.” However, if you open the relationship, you don’t get to control each other’s partners, be mean or aggressive to someone your partner is dating, or set limits on how “serious” your partner can be about another person. In other words, pick rules that feel like fair ways to maintain the value of your relationship without allowing you to control each other’s lives outside the relationship.
At the same time, you should be just as careful about hurting your potential new partners as you are about hurting your current partner. This means treating new partners with respect and, at times, prioritizing them and your relationship with them. Definitely do not assume that your current partner is the person you really love and that all other encounters are purely sexual. While you may have some wonderful sexual, non-romantic relationships, it’s not fair to categorically exclude your new partners from the possibility of building a loving relationship with you and objectify them as only a source of sexual pleasure. Accept that every relationship you have will be valuable and special in its own way, and that no relationship is intrinsically “more important” than another, although some may be longer-lasting or more emotionally intimate. Creating hierarchies of relationships is hurtful; just treat all your partners well.
Finally, it’s possible that your partner will be totally freaked out by the idea of opening the relationship. You have a few options here. First, you can wait a few days or weeks, then bring the conversation up again in a gentle, non-nagging way. Your partner may have a negative gut reaction, but then think more about it and realize that they are open to the idea. In most cases, I would say to try this at least once. If that doesn’t work, you have to decide whether having an open relationship or continuing that relationship is more important for you. Both choices are okay, and one is not “more feminist” than another. Trust what feels right to you!