(ADULT) One of the biggest challenges you may face when in a committed relationship is exploring “opening” that relationship. To many people, opening a relationship involves being in agreement to pursue interactions with others normally shared only with each other.
This kind of arrangement or experience is not for everyone. The purpose of this article is not to encourage or discourage anyone from this arrangement. However, it is not uncommon for at least one person in a relationship to have a desire for such an arrangement, either when beginning a relationship, or after having been together for some period of time. Here we explore some considerations.
Where to start
When one, or both, individuals decide to explore the possibility of opening up their relationship, at the core, this is a declaration to change the relationship agreement. This in itself can be quite difficult.
At times, people who enter into a common agreement do so “organically.”
In more realistic terms, this means that the agreement unfolds over time – you don’t discuss everything up front. It is actually rare for couples to actually sit before a commitment begins, and to fully and thoroughly articulate what each wants and expects in the agreement. I mean, where’s the sexiness in that?
As a result, it can be difficult (if not perilous) to move to something different if you aren’t on the same page about what you currently have. So, starting there is crucial.
It’s fairly easy to figure out where you both differ in your current agreement. Experiencing strong emotions about what he does often signals a lack of alignment with your partner. What *is* difficult is having the ability to speak authentically about those situations. If you already communicate fully, truthfully, and frequently, meaning you are both ready and willing to have the potentially uncomfortable conversations, then congratulations-you probably are ready for that next step.
What you need
Successfully opening up a relationship doesn’t begin with both of you together-it begins with both of you within yourselves. Rarely-if ever-do both partners arrive authentically at a place where they truly want to change their agreement at the same time. More likely, one, or the other, has determined they want to step into that experience, and the other “goes along to get along.” Don’t be one of those people.
Instead, when the desire is first declared in the relationship, each of you should spend time exploring some key questions. These questions can help you focus on the “me” rather than the “we,” and can lead to some healthy discussion. Some questions to consider:
- Do *I* want this? Or am I doing it for him?
- Why do I want this? What is it helping me to get, that I don’t have already?
- What does this look like, for me?
- How have I felt in the past, if there have been transgressions in our agreement?
- What will I do with those feelings if they emerge again?
- What are the possible new agreements or parameters? Which ones am I totally fine with, which ones am I unsure about, and which one are definitely not acceptable?
- If I find myself challenged, will I be able to speak up? Will I be willing to open myself up to him if he does the same?
- What happens if things change between us-permanently?
Once you explore these questions, have a full, complete, and authentic discussion with your partner. By the way, if you can’t do this, it is quite safe to say you are not in a place to be considering an open relationship. You have to be able to speak your mind and your heart, now, as well as in the future, in order for this arrangement to work.
What it looks like
If you have both determined you are in a place of comfort within yourselves, and you are able to have the first conversation, you can begin to discuss how your agreement changes, and what that looks like.
The pitfall here that some couples make is they become fixated on what I call “the mechanics” of the arrangement, neglecting the potentially more challenging aspects of the new dynamic. For example, you may discuss what will be acceptable outside the partnership, that was not acceptable before. This often leads to a dizzying array of rules and expectations that could cause a lawyer to stumble – “Only at the gym, with guys that you know, one time, and no kissing allowed.”
I would propose that these kinds of parameters can become frustrating and confusing. They are also excellent ways to create situations that can cause conflict in the relationship. I often suggest that these kinds of conversations are a signal that the couple is not ready for modifying their relationship.
Refocusing on more substantial issues
Instead, there are several conversations that *can* be healthy and helpful. For example, it can be helpful to explore with one another what you are seeking in these experiences, and what you are *not* seeking. At times, an individual may seek to explore a fetish or a desire that their partner is uninterested in, or unwilling to, engage in. Other times, it may be an arrangement meant to allow one partner to address sexual needs their partner does not wish to provide; it is very common for partners to vary in their libidos. Another reason may be that a partner is eager to find ways to bring creativity or renewed excitement into their current relationship. Having an opportunity to explore intimacies with another often helps individuals discover new ways of connecting with their primary partner.
Another conversation that can be helpful is related to transparency and communication. Opinions on this differ significantly. Some couples choose to use the “don’t ask, don’t tell” model, meaning that there is no agreement to share with the partner any of the details of interactions outside the primary relationship, up to and including that an interaction has occurred. Others have chosen to be fully open, and share as much of the experience as the partner is willing to, and wanting to hear. In the midst of these two extreme agreements are variations of different kinds.
Ultimately, it is up to each individual to determine what is best for them in terms of disclosure.
Depending on the maturity, relative comfort, and confidence both individuals have in their primary relationship, there are ways to use these situations to strengthen the primary relationship.
For some, there is such a confidence in the primary relationship that no disclosure is necessary. In some instances, this can almost benefit the connection, as some individuals find some sexual charge in fantasizing their partner with others.
For others, full disclosure can strengthen the commitment to the relationship. Sharing why you are pursuing, or have pursued, an experience, and sharing that with your partner, can be quite vulnerable and intimate in itself. It also provides the opportunity for you to reinforce with your partner what you value in your connection with them. For both, it also offers the opportunity to fully experience the inevitable feelings that emerge, and recognize how they can be helpful for themselves. Jealousy, for example, may be useful to determine a lack in the primary relationship that can be addressed.
In the end, inevitably, some relationships become stronger and more fulfilled as a result of opening up the agreement. In others, it leads to dissolution. I would argue, however, that relationships that end can be a blessing to each person in the relationship. Every experience that a couple has allows them to grow together as well as individually, and, at times, that growth leads them in different directions. Experiencing the full spectrum of relationship dynamics ultimately helps everyone who is involved.
Always begin, of course, with recognizing that this experience is not for everyone. For those who find they are ready, it can be an expansive life experience that can contribute to the depth and breadth of life’s journey, alone or with a lifetime partner.
This article was originally written for publishing on Himeros.TV, a project of Davey Wavey, Digital Storyteller.