Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Is it possible to have your cake and eat it too? Is it possible to be in a healthy, loving relationship and have the ability to hook up with other people? Can this type of relationship last? Have you ever wondered just how prevalent alternative relationships are?
These are just some of the questions people exploring alternative relationships have. An alternative relationship is any relationship that goes against the norm of monogamy. Consensual non-monogamy, swinging, polyamory; these are all examples of alternative relationships.
Alternative relationships have always been around but in Western cultures they tend to operate in the shadows. Nowadays, these types of relationships are hitting the mainstream and you might be surprised to learn just how prevalent they are. A poll conducted in February 2023 found that 34% of Americans prefer their relationship style to be something other than complete monogamy. Another study found that socioeconomic status, political beliefs, religion, race/ethnicity, or geographical region don’t play a significant role in whether someone is interested in or participating in non-monogamy.
The research points to evidence that people of all backgrounds either practice, or are interested, in the idea of non-monogamy. It’s a lot more prevalent than many people think.
Many people struggle with how to discuss the idea of opening up a relationship with a partner or spouse. Often, people think that by bringing it up their partners will think they are not satisfied or are looking for something else. They worry that by bringing it up, it will amplify the problems in the relationship and make it seem like the relationship is not strong.
Sometimes people struggle privately with the mere thought of it because they might believe that having these thoughts means they are not happy. Our society tends to shame anyone who goes against the norm and alternative relationships are against the norm. These are the thoughts that get in the way of having this discussion.
I had a client who wanted to work on anxiety. He reported that he felt anxious about the state of his relationship and whether he was a good partner. It came out that he had been thinking about an open relationship for several years.
He had been with his partner for more than a decade, but he felt so much shame about the idea of desiring other people. He loved his partner more than anything and they had a great relationship. Their sex was “good” according to the client but there was a small problem.
You see, he was kinky and his partner was vanilla. When they had sex, it tended to be vanilla sex, which according to the client was ok, but he felt that he needed to engage in his kinky side a bit more. This was not a new issue for the couple, they knew one another’s sexual roadmaps very well, his partner was just not interested in kinky sex.
My client’s partner brought up the idea of opening up the relationship before, so that he could get his needs met, but my client declined. He thought he could be ok with what he had, but over time he was finding that this was not the case, hence the spike in his anxiety. Shame was his biggest deterrent, along with not knowing how to approach the discussion of opening up the relationship. He just didn’t feel comfortable at the time.
In therapy, we began to explore and work on his hesitations. He became more amenable to the idea and wanted to find out how to go about bringing the topic back up to his partner. Since his partner had initially offered this arrangement, he did not have a lot of groundwork to do.
For those that have never had this type of discussion in their relationship, they can feel lost. Whether you’ve discussed open relationships in the past or not, it can feel quite daunting to have this type of conversation. The principles discussed below can be applied to almost any situation, they are general guidelines for how to have these discussions and what should be discussed.
Guidelines for how to talk about an open relationship
1. Have a heart to heart with yourself. Explore why this is important to you. Think about how this can fit into your current life and how it may have an impact.
Things to consider are how to handle an open relationship if you have children, whether to come out to friends and/or family, how this might impact your job, current relationship, etc.
Reflect on how an open relationship will fit into not only your values or your partner’s, but the shared values in the relationship. If after all this reflection you’re still wanting to explore this, then it’s a good indication that it might be less of a want and more of a need.
2. Find the right time to talk. This is really important; you shouldn’t be having this discussion in the middle of preparing dinner or right before bed. Make sure that you carve out enough time to have an honest and open conversation about this. Consider your partner’s stress levels and emotional wellbeing as well, don’t spring this on them before a huge work deadline or when they’re not feeling their best, emotionally. Pick a time when you can both be fully present and give yourselves plenty of time.
3. Express your feelings. Let your partner know why this is something you’ve been thinking about and why you think you might want to explore this. Reinforce for your partner that this is not a sign that the relationship isn’t good or that the sex is lacking; let them know that you’re looking to enhance your lives. Use “I-statements”, don’t bring blame into the equation, and allow your partner to take it all in.
4. Be prepared for push back. If this is something your partner has never thought about then it’s natural that their initial reaction is “no”. Give them time to digest the information, this may require several conversations and it may take some time but if it’s important, keep at it. Your partner may eventually come around, they may not, however. Read on for more on what to do if this is the case.
5. Lead with curiosity. If your partner is resistant, be curious and not offended. Ask them to help you understand their point of view. Ask them to help you understand their resistance, hesitation, or fears regarding the topic and validate their feelings. Ask what they need from you to consider this or to make it more comfortable for them.
6. Discuss ground rules. Once your partner is on board (it might take a while, be patient) you must discuss rules and boundaries to protect your relationship. A few things to consider are:
a. Rules around play: where, when, with who, what frequency, what activities are ok vs what’s not? Only play together, or separately, or both? Do you talk about encounters or not?
b. Rules around sexual health: how frequently you are being screened for STIs, whether PrEP is right for you, use of condoms, use of substances.
c. Boundaries to protect the relationship: are repeat partners ok or only hookups? Are friendships with sexual partners ok? How open do you want to be with one another about what you’re doing? How do you meet potential partners – bars/clubs, kinky spaces, apps, at the grocery store, etc?
7. Take baby steps. Once the ground rules have been established, decide together what the best way to drip your toes into the world of non-monogamy looks like. Maybe it’s flirting with someone in front of your partner, or going to a sex party and seeing how that feels, or inviting in a third, or going on an app and looking for potential hookups. There’s no right or wrong way to do this as long as it fits within each partner’s comfort zone. I’ve worked with clients who jump in head first and immediately start hooking up with others, I’ve worked with others who take it very slow (both were successful at establishing a non-monogamous relationship).
8. Keep communicating. Keep checking in with each other, it’s important to continue to make sure that everyone is comfortable, feels safe, and continues to want this. If anything changes at any point in time, it’s important to talk about this. Non-monogamous couples are known to be excellent communicators, they check in frequently, talk about what’s going on, and work together to repair any issues that come up.
The eight points above include general guidelines on how to structure the conversation, what to negotiate, and how to handle pushback. These suggestions should help get the conversation off the ground.
Some people are not on board with non-monogamy for a variety of reasons. If that happens to be the case in your relationship and your partner is a firm ‘no,’ there are a few things to consider. First, if your partner is closed to non-monogamy, are you able to conform to a monogamous lifestyle? If not, then you have to consider how to navigate this difference.
If you feel that there may be some wiggle room or feel that the conversation did not go as planned, ask your partner if they’d be open to discussing this in therapy. Find a therapist who is experienced in working with non-monogamous couples. The point of this is not to convince your partner, but rather to get guidance on how to navigate this gridlock. I’ve worked with couples who have come in completely gridlocked on the issue and have successfully worked to ultimately open up the relationship.
I also know of couples who were just not compatible in this way and deciced to part ways. No matter what, if this is something you’re interested in, it’s best to try to have a discussion about it rather than avoid it. Avoidance can lead to dissatisfaction with the relationship and in the worst case, infidelity. Talking about things, no matter how difficult or awkward, is always best.
Consider the information above if you think that non-monogamy is for you. Determine how it’s right for you, your partner, and your current life setup. Be patient with the process, it almost always takes some time. There will be bumps along the way and that’s ok, you just have to know how to navigate them effectively.
Work out any issues that come up by having open communication. Non-monogamy isn’t for everyone and that’s ok, but for those that are interested, it can be a great lifestyle to compliment your current relationship. The hardest part is having the conversation.
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