Considering an Open Relationship? 5 Relationship Tips

Tips for an Open Relationship

As increasing numbers of individuals and couples question the viability of long-term monogamous relationships, consensual non-monogamy (open relationships such as swinging and polyamory) is receiving greater attention from the lay public and professionals alike. While the idea of an open relationship can make some people shake their head in disapproval, it’s important to keep in mind that one couple’s version of Eden might be another’s strait-jacket.

Over the last twenty years in my therapy practice, I’ve seen a steady increase in open marriages and relationships, couples struggling with issues not unlike their monogamous counterparts. Not surprisingly, non-monogamous couples aren’t immune to the inherent challenges that come with sex, love and intimacy.

In today’s How to Spice Up Your Marriage article we examine the potential challenges couples face as they consider transitioning from the world of monogamy to an open relationship (that is, having multiple sex partners or, for the polyamorously inclined, multiple life-partners)—a transition that involves potential risks in addition to the anticipated benefits that are sought.

Open Relationship Tips: 5 Issues to Consider

1) Understanding Your Motivation

It’s important to be clear about why you are making this decision (and why it is occurring at this point in your life and relationship)—in short, what are you expecting to change as a result of having an open marriage or relationship? If your relationship currently rests on a foundation riddled with cracks of insecurity, bringing others into the relationship mix can cause a tsunami that flattens everything. Most books on open relationships highlight this potential danger.

Trying to fix an ailing marriage through swinging is like learning how to swim by jumping from a helicopter without a life-jacket.

Understanding the reasons why you are thinking about opening up your relationship is important, and having these discussions with your partner is vital to building a successful transition to non-monogamy. Also, if there is a sense of urgency to open your marriage/relationship, it’s important to slow down—place this urgency under the communication microscope in order to find out what is driving you. Remember, you do not want to impulsively (and mindlessly) make decisions that can ultimately be problematic for you and your partner.

Allow the light of thoughtfulness and discernment to guide these discussions.

Here are a few explanations from couples who are considering swinging or have successfully navigated the terrain of open relationships:

“I’ve always felt like monogamy didn’t work for me but I didn’t want to cheat on my wife (the way my father did to my mother), so after our kids were grown and gone, I anxiously asked my wife if she would be open to at least talking to other couples who have been successfully swinging. If we do this, I first want to do our homework about what to expect.” ~ Emile, 57 years old, married for 27 years

“I love my husband, but our sex life was never great. We’ve even joked about this fact. He just doesn’t have a high sex drive, and I do. So after nine years of emotional pain and frustration and unsatisfying compromises, I told him that I really love him and want to remain married, but I also want to explore and expand my sexuality. Once he was certain that I wasn’t looking to fall in love with another guy and leave him, he was OK with this.” ~Katherine, 29 years old

“I’m Poly and now I celebrate this. But I didn’t understand this fact for most of my life. I didn’t know there was a term for it and that there were others like me. So for most of my life I felt wrong. I was told I had a ‘fear of intimacy,’ and this made me feel broken. But this wasn’t true. I love intimacy, I crave it, I love connecting deeply with others! I’m in my golden years now and I’ve been in a loving, respectful, intimate relationship with two women for almost twenty years. And, thankfully, we’re connected to a supportive poly community, a community of young and old, couples and families.” ~Regina, 72 years old

2) Assessing Your Jealousy Tolerance

Even if you don’t consider yourself a jealous person, the chances are good that you will become jealous at some point on the journey toward an open relationship. Rather than dealing with jealousy by arguing with yourself (and your partner) that you shouldn’t be jealous, a more realistic approach is to accept jealously as a reality and find ways to manage it (rather than denying it or trying to banish it completely).

In short, expect it, manage it and talk about it with your spouse/partner.

If you or your partner have a history of struggling with feelings of jealousy that have led to significant conflict, this is a red flag that should be closely examined. For some, mild to moderate levels of jealousy can be channeled in ways that deepen intimacy; there are those situations where jealousy has aphrodisiac side-effects, fueling both sexual desire and intensifying sexual play. There are clearly healthy forms of jealousy.

Unhealthy jealousy has the opposite effect. It picks away at our insecurities, severing our connection to our partner; it feels unbearable; it distorts our vision, leading us to see red and readying us for battle. It taunts us and won’t leave us alone. If your jealousy has the potential to push you into an emotional tailspin, an open relationship may inflict pain and suffering and nothing more.

3) Is It Really Consensual?

The typical pattern I see in my work with couples is that one partner is eager to experiment with opening up their marriage or relationship and the other partner is willing to try it (though s/he remains somewhat ambivalent about doing so). Here the ambivalent partner agrees because s/he wants to make the other partner happy.

As one wife shared, “I was totally happy with the way our marriage was, but Jimmy kept talking about swinging and he read a lot about it, so I figured I’d give it a try, mainly for him. It wasn’t my thing, but I wanted to do it for him and it has been a lot of fun, but I didn’t feel the need to do it…”

But clearly not all people are this willing to compromise in this way.

Coercion (or feeling coerced) is the important issue to be aware of when considering transitioning to non-monogamy. When coercion is part of the picture, one partner may decide to swing because s/he feels there is no other choice—in essence s/he feels trapped into the decision out of fear of losing the person who wants an open relationship or marriage.

Your willingness to compromise over which movie to see this Friday night in order to please your spouse is one thing; having sex with others in order to make your spouse or partner happy exists in a totally different compromise-stratosphere altogether. Intense anger and resentment (and possibly depression) are likely when one feels driven into non-monogamy out of a sense of desperation rather than a willingness to explore and play.

4) Over-Idealizing Open Relationships

We can call this one the grass is greener in the fields of non-monogamy.

Some couples report enhanced intimacy (both emotional and sexual) with their spouse/partner because of their swinging adventures or as a result of their journey into polyamory, but for couples thinking of transitioning into an open relationship, it is important to have a balanced and realistic perspective about what this world can offer—a perspective that includes both the potential positives as well as the potential negatives that may come with an open relationship.

Not all swinging experiences will be positive, and some might even be downright unpleasant. You can vet someone you eagerly anticipate is going to be an ideal long-term lover only to discover he’s an inconsiderate sex partner and brazen person who you wish you never met. Or the two of you may connect sexually in mind-blowing ways that you can’t wait to repeat, only to find that this remarkable lover doesn’t want anything more to do with you (he isn’t returning any of your calls/texts). Rejection stings, even in the world of swinging.

As you probably know, relationships are challenging enough—that is, relationships with just two people. When you bring another into the mix, you exponentially ramp up the complexity of the relationship dynamics. For instance, what if you really like your new lover but your spouse/partner starts to feel that s/he is bad news and should be avoided at all costs? Or imagine that you are developing a deep connection with your swinging partner and as this relationship continues to build you start to notice that his/her spouse seems upset with you and begins to pull away? These are just a few of the possibilities.

Talk to anyone who has been in a polyamorous arrangement for some length of time, and at some point you might hear about how maintaining multiple love relationships is exhausting at times, requiring ongoing vigilance and heightened communication that takes into account everyone’s feelings and perspectives.

5) Old Hang-ups Die Hard

When you have sex with another person (even someone you don’t have an emotional investment with), you are making yourself vulnerable to some degree. Couples who enter into the world of open marriages and relationships often fail to realize this until they are rejected by a potential lover.

I mentioned above a scenario where one wife met a lover she really connected with and after having sex with him, he never called her again (ignoring her calls or text messages until she got the message). This painful event stirred up old hangups she thought were a thing of the past. Soon after this rejection she started to wonder if she was attractive enough and began ruminating about her physical “flaws” (she was in her early fifties). Her husband’s reassurances (he always made her feel safe and attractive) did little to assuage her insecurities, and she stopped swinging because she feared being rejected again.

As one husband in his late forties put it, “Over the years my wife has done a great job making me feel secure with my body and my sexual performance. I was so happy to be out of the dating scene and in a loving, secure relationship. Now that we’ve been swinging for the last year, I didn’t anticipate the painful self-scrutiny as I put myself out there to look for new sexual playmates. I’m actually thinking of joining a gym so I can lose about ten pounds before meeting someone new…”

In short, couples who are thinking of transitioning to non-monogamy should do so with their eyes (or more accurately, their minds) wide open. The subtext of this cautionary note isn’t that open relationships are inherently flawed or ill-advised. The self-reflection and self-understanding encouraged in this article are just as important for monogamous relationships as with their non-monogamous counterparts.

Falling in love and deciding to spend the rest of your life with someone shouldn’t prevent you from having the freedom to ask yourself these questions, or some variation therein: Is this the only person I want to spend the rest of my life with? Is s/he the last sexual partner I ever want? Might I feel very different five, ten or twenty years from now? Based upon my relationship history, does monogamy seem right for me? If not, why might that be the case?

Open marriages and relationships are lately being given more attention than ever. If you and your partner have been considering trying an open relationship, I hope this article gives you a place to start thinking about it.

To read about one couples journey into non-monogamy, click open marriage.

Wishing you all the best,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured image courtesy of stockimages at Freedigitalphotos.net)