The Four Keys to Communication in Open Relationships

Open Communication

While excellent communication skills are a prerequisite for any healthy relationship, they are even more crucial in any kind of open relationship.

Forget complex formulas for polyamorous communication! Any communication techniques must be simple enough for you and your partners to utilize them when there is a conflict, emotions are high, and no one is thinking clearly. When one or more people are feeling angry, hurt, or jealous, any complicated communication technique will out the window. It has to be simple and easy enough to remember and put into action when you or your partner(s) are not at your best.

These are the four keys to communication in open relationships.

Listen carefully!

 Pay close attention to your partner(s) words, non-verbal communications, and actions. We think we know our partners so well that we no longer have to listen to them. Or we hear the words but ignore the body language, tone of voice, and other non-verbal communication. In an open relationship, one partner may feel pressured to go along with something their partner wants. Common examples are: wanting to spend the weekend with another partner or wanting to have unprotected sex with another partner. A partner may say yes even if they have strong negative feelings about granting permission. However, all their non-verbal signals are saying no, and it is imperative to “hear” that.

Many couples have created major drama and pain by ignoring all the non-verbal signs that something was Not Really OK even though the partner ostensibly agreed to it. And, a partner will often “vote with their feet,” regardless of what they say with their mouths. They may say yes to their primary partner’s request to start an outside relationship, but then veto the new partner for some rather dubious reason, or makes rules that are so unreasonable that the potential lover loses interest, or deliberately sabotages dates with the new person. Or they may agree to you having more frequent dates with your other partner, then text you 25 times during the date or throw tantrums when you get home.

Know what you want and need, and communicate it directly to your partner(s).

You may think you can handle your partner’s request to pursue sex and romance with a new lover, but when said partner actually does so, you may become distraught. It may be that this particular person triggers jealousy for some reason, or this may be a bad time for you because of other stresses in life, or you may be going through a lot of conflict in your relationship already and your marriage can’t tolerate the additional stress of this new partner right now. Express these feelings to your partner, acknowledging that you did actually consent to this, but that you have found that you need a change in the agreement since this is creating more pain than you can handle. Be compassionate with yourself and your partner(s) as you go through this process since it is so stressful and unpredictable.

Because these guidelines often are a moving target, this can cause resentment and disappointment. One partner wants more time and greater freedom to pursue an outside relationship, while their partner can’t tolerate as much as they originally thought. You have to admit to your partner that you have guessed wrong about what you can handle, and tell the truth about your needs even though you know your partner will not be happy about it.

We all have a tendency to tell our partners what we think they want to hear, and to go along with things that will not work for us.

When faced with a difficult decision on polyamorous boundaries, ask yourself three questions:

  1. What would be ideal for me in this situation?
  2. What would be difficult and painful but likely to be manageable, with some hard work on my part and support from my partner and others?
  3. What would make me really unhappy in this situation right now?

Don’t hesitate to say no to any relationship guideline or boundary that fails the last question. Make your best guess about what your bottom line is and stick to that, despite pressure from your partner to go along with something they really want,. Many people have made the mistake of “being a good sport,” or “doing this for your own personal growth.” However, if you push yourself to accept something that makes you feel fundamentally unsafe, mistreated, or unloved, it will cause more harm than good in your relationship.

If you are uncertain about a particular request, try to “stretch yourself” and consent to something that may be uncomfortable but not intolerable. Negotiate a “fall back plan” so that you have a way to re-open the discussion if it proves too difficult. You might agree to try something for a month and then re-evaluate. Or you can agree to accept a range of behaviors with the caveat that if any one of these becomes too painful, you can opt to veto one of the practices for now.

Tell the truth!

Tell your partner the truth about yourself, your feelings, and your outside sexual and romantic relationships. The appropriate amount of disclosure is very important so that your partner(s) know what is going on in your life and how it will affect them. There is no formula for how much disclosure is best. It is a delicate process to create the right balance between allowing each person and each individual relationship to have some privacy, while providing all partners with enough information to feel safe, respected, and up to date.

Most important: don’t lie to your partner(s)! If a partner asks you a question you don’t want to answer or requests information you would rather keep private, tell them “I prefer not to talk about that,” or “My partner would prefer I don’t share that information.” Another approach is to gently ask your partner why they feel they need this information. Often this will lead to a more fruitful discussion about your partner’s needs and their motivation for asking for more disclosure. Usually it will become clear that there is another way to reassure them or reduce their anxieties.

If you are caught off-guard by a partner’s questioning and accidentally react by saying things that aren’t true, don’t panic! As soon as you can muster the courage, acknowledge that you have made a mistake and that you would like to clear up the misunderstanding. This takes a lot of integrity and maturity, but is much better than allowing a lie to stand, because believe me, that will come back to bite you eventually.

Even the most experienced polyamorous people find it very difficult to talk to their partner about another relationship. We have no role models for this, since the existing model is to “cheat” and lie about it. Try practicing this skill in a non-charged situation, such as telling your partner about random people you find attractive, such as strangers on the street or movie stars, or talking about past lovers. If you get in the habit of talking about these harmless attractions, it will be easier when there is a REAL outside relationship.

Honesty and transparency do not include invading your partner’s privacy! Before the advent of email, cell phones, and social media, we never opened our partner’s mail or listened in on their phone conversations! Now that we have devices that allow us to surveil our partners, many people believe they must know where their partners are at every moment, and exactly what they are doing and with whom. Let your partner know what level of privacy you expect, and what types of disclosure you are comfortable giving and receiving. Privacy is not the same as secrecy or lying. As long as you are not misrepresenting the substance of any other relationship from your partner, and not lying about the nature of any relationship, there is no need to disclose details of exactly what was said or done or share texts, emails, photos, etc.

Metacommunication and the Five Goals of Communication

The fourth key to communication is: Metacommunicate! This means “communicating about communication”. Think about the purpose of your communication before starting the conversation with your partner, and communicate that goal to your partner. This gives your partner an idea of what you are trying to achieve, and can both stay on track with reaching that goal.

Generally speaking, people communicate for five different reasons. Usually an individual is trying to achieve one of these five goals through a particular communication:

  1. To make a connection with your partner, to create closeness and intimacy:
    “How was your day today?”
  2. To tell a story or give your partner information:
    “My mother is going to come over tomorrow.”
  3. To ask for support of comfort:
    “I had a rough day at work and I need to vent a little.”
  4. To solve a problem together:
    “We got a bill from the IRS today and I need your help to figure out if we did something wrong on our taxes.”
  5. To make a decision together:
    “Should I take this part-time job or keep looking for a full-time job?”

Because women are so strongly socialized to value relationships and connection, they are more likely to communicate to achieve the first three goals: create intimacy or feel connected, tell a story, or ask for support or comfort. Because men are trained to be assess problems and “fix things,” they are more likely to use communication to solve problems or come to a decision.

Often, you communicate to meet one goal, and your partner responds with a different goal in mind, and neither goal is achieved. A woman may be talking about an interaction with her boss at work that day, as a way of asking for support from her partner. He interprets it as a problem to be solved, and tells her how she could have handled the situation differently. She feels criticized, and he is hurt because his sensible advice is being rejected.

Or a man may talk about feeling dissatisfied with his job, wanting input about whether to quit. He wants help weighing his options to make a decision, but she thinks he just wants to vent and feel validated. So she praises him for his hard work and tells him how much she appreciates him. He is frustrated because she is derailing him from his focus on decision-making, and she feels hurt because he doesn’t appreciate her support.

In one couple, when the wife was talking about something, the husband would interrupt her and ask, “Honey, should I be listening to this, or are you just talking?” This infuriated the wife and made her feel invalidated. However, he was really trying to metacommunicate, to ask her about the goal of the communication she was delivering. His intention was to find out if he should listen carefully to the facts and details, because she would expect him to help her solve a problem or make a decision, or whether he should be listening to the feelings and the flow of the conversation because she was just trying to connect or tell a story.

When there is something you want to communicate to your partner, try this: Tell your partner as clearly as you can the goal of your communication, and have them confirm that they understand that goal. You will probably be surprised at how much more your partner will “get” what you are trying to say, and they are much more likely to respond in the way you had wished.

Communication skills take time and practice, but they pay huge dividends in sustaining happy relationships. Monogamous couples can count on some shared assumptions and expectations embedded in the traditional heterosexual marriage, while those of us in open relationships are in a whole different ball game. We need to clearly voice our needs and boundaries and make explicit relationship agreements. Remember these four keys to good communication, and err on the side of more communication rather than less!

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Kathy Labriola
Kathy Labriola is a nurse, counselor, and hypnotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, California, providing affordable mental health services to alternative communities including the poly, kink, LGBTQ communities and political activists. Kathy is author of two books, Love in Abundance, and The Jealousy Workbook, published by Greenery Press. She has been a card-carrying bisexual and polyamorist for 45 years. She is political activist and community organizer. She is extra crunchy, lives in a housing cooperative, rides a bike, and raises chickens and organic vegetables. Please visit Kathy Labriola to learn more.