A recent article came out in the NY Times that posed the question “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage”.
At first glance I was excited to see this. I immediately considered how amazing it is that the topic of non-monogamy has become mainstream enough that the NY Times would feature an article on the topic. And then, I read the article.
I found myself a bit disappointed that of all the people they could get to share their story of being a non-monogamous couple, they chose an open relationship that came to be out of desperation, lack of communication, and infidelity.
Infidelity is only one way some non-monogamous relationships come about, and it is true that some of those do turn out to be very successful. However, there is a bigger, less popular version, of how many non-monogamous relationships come to be. Less popular only because the society we live in has a bias towards monogamy and to think anyone would actually make a conscious choice to live non-monogamously is not easily understood. Many are in this place of non-monogamy by complete choice and open dialog with all partner(s) involved.
So just how does that open dialog begin? As a clinical sexologist, and sex and relationship educator, a common question I get asked is “How do we open things up?” Couples that ask this vary from being newly dating, to having been married and monogamous for thirty plus years.
In a word: COMMUNICATION.
While that answer seems simplistic, it is anything but. Most people find a comfort in bonding with their partner over conversations of hopes, desires, dreams, heartaches, and life goals. The most intimate details about one’s past and hopes for the future are easily shared. With the exception of sexual desires.
To find that sweet spot of communication around the subject of opening up can be especially tricky. Not only does one face the potential of their partner not being okay with the suggestion, but their partner may now become filled with doubts about their value in the relationship.
The only real way to know if opening up your relationship is right for you, is to have a fully transparent conversation together. To begin the conversation of opening up with couples, I usually begin with the following talking points:
What is your motivation, desire, need, for opening up this relationship?
The answers to this question are as varied as the people who ask them. Reasons can span from:
- A disparity in sexual interests. One partner may enjoy sex slow and quiet in the space of the bedroom and in the form of gentle love making while the other may be into something more aggressive and even have a desire to explore sexual kinks
- Disparity in libido. Example – one partner is content with sex once a month and the other would like it daily.
- Illness or injury – sometimes life may throw a curveball that can place a once completely sexually compatible couple in a place of one not being able or interested in being sexual at all. However, as understanding the un-ill or un-injured partner may be, they may still have sexual desires that they need and want to be tended to.
What guidelines will be agreed upon?
Many couples find that having a set of guidelines they can agree on helps to maintain the security of their relationship. I advise people to steer away from calling these agreements “rules” as the very word can evoke feelings of restriction, and thus resentment, in some people.
Common guidelines that couples should consider:
- What type of sexual activity is okay?
- Kissing? Oral sex? Full intercourse? Will barriers be used?
Who is sex permitted with?
For some, this is the ultimate comfort. Everyone involved knows everyone else and there is a good chance of less happening that the other is unaware of. Most couples who choose this style also find that sexual relationships with mutual friends can be more ongoing and relational. For others, the very idea that a mutual friend is someone that either partner would have interest in is an absolute no.
When is sex with others permissible?
This can vary greatly as some decide that sex with others will only take place when either partner is traveling or out of town. For others, this is a non-issue and as long as the partner is aware and it doesn’t interfere with their time together, it’s all good. And for others still, the additional partner may be seeing a mutual friend of the couple and maybe the group of them even play (or only play) sexually together.
Where is sex permitted?
When many couples begin to open up, one of the first guidelines I hear them put out is “no other people in our bed.” Others are more particular in this and only partake with others sexually when out of town. At the opposite end of the pendulum, although rarer, are some who only feel comfortable when everything sexual, whether with one another or others, all activity is to take place at home where each other is fully aware and involved on some level.
Through these talking points couples can begin creating a blueprint of a relationship that works best for them. It is helpful, and in some cases may be necessary, to seek the help of a relationship coach, counselor, or therapist to help through the process of opening up. If this is done, it is important to find someone who is sex positive and has experience working with people in non-traditional relationship configurations.
Most importantly through all this, keep in mind that the only wrong way to do a relationship is to do the one that is not true to each individual involved. Beginning the conversation is often the most challenging part and once the dialog begins the possibilities of your ideal relationship can begin to take form.