Last Saturday night I picked up a stranger at a bar. There were drinks, a lot of dancing, and a lot of kissing up against a wall. It took courage to do, and I’m so happy I did it. I talked with M, my partner, the next day, and he was happy too.
M and I have been together since 2007. Since then we’ve lived together in a handful of different states, changed jobs, bought a car, and made all sorts of decisions together. About six months ago we decided to open up our relationship. Or rather, about nine months ago we decided to start talking about opening up our relationship. And last week I finally got a few gin and tonics in me and went to town on a very nice stranger.
Yes, open relationships. I’d like to talk about mine. Why we did it, how we did it, how it’s been.
Why WE’RE DOING THIS: Why sleep with other people when you’re in a committed relationship? Well, it can be fun and it can be interesting. Also, we found it can really pull you together as a couple because it means you have to really communicate with each other and yourselves about what you most want and need, and what you need to do to make your partner feel safe and secure. For M and I, one reason to open things up is that we identify as opposite genders, but are also attracted to people of the same gender; or rather, to people all along the gender spectrum. But really, the main reason was that we were interested, and interested in talking about it.
How we approachED the conversation: We were lucky in that M and I were basically on the same page, once we started talking about it. We were both very into sexual non-monogamy, very hesitant about emotional/romantic non-monogamy. If one person in the relationship is much more interested in opening up the relationship, I can imagine it would feel very threatening or confusing for the other person. For us, we both felt like it might be fun and interesting to try, and that it wasn’t incredibly important to us either way, so we were both ready to call it off if the other person got uncomfortable.
Emotional Non-Monogamy versus Physical Non-Monogamy: How does one go about being sexually involved but not “emotionally” involved with other people (without being a total dick to said other people)? Logistically, for us, M has to travel for work, so for the past six months, when he’s away, we are non-monogamous. Being faithful to one another needn’t have anything to do with how many people you sleep with; it has everything to do with honoring spoken and unspoken promises between you.
Deciding on rules: What makes you feel most threatened? The act of your wife receiving sexual pleasure from someone else? Giving it? Confiding in that someone else? Cooking her breakfast? Introducing her to friends? What is the meat of your marriage? What can be changed, and the house will stand? Walking through that discomfort helped us put our fingers on the pulse of what’s most important, what is precious and must be exclusive versus what is uncomfortable but totally possible. Plus, it can teach you how to talk through these most delicate things (which always bring up past hurts and deep fears).
when someone gets hurt: We planned it that way. We were prepared for things not to go great at every turn. As M told a good friend of ours back when we were still just talking about it, “We’ve basically decided that we trust each other enough to go into this situation where someone’s feelings are definitely going to get hurt at some point. So really what we’re agreeing to is that we’ll be really nice to each other when that happens, and we think it’ll be okay.”
jealousy: Oh, the world-consuming thing that is jealousy. Your chest is being pressed, you can’t work because you’ve got to track down X and Y on Z social network. The boundaries of your relationship become quicksand and it’s easy to lose your footing: How do you know when you’re being wronged, when you’re renegotiating the right and wrong of your relationship? Things can feel wrong, but they’re growing pains. Or things can feel wrong because they are wrong. It can be helpful to think through the ways in which we’ve all been taught that possessiveness or jealousy is romantic, and thinking about those traditional ideas can help you distance and name your feelings. But you also have to do what makes you feel safe.
Opening Up by Tristan Taormino and The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy helped me tease out some of the different things I was feeling that can all fall under the jealous-umbrella. It helped me push myself beyond just “I feel bad.” Feel bad in what way? About what specifically? Don’t trust his judgment? Insecurity about my own body? Feeling left out? One of the most valuable things I’ve really committed to is that, even when a feeling is irrational and I’ve already explained to myself that and how it is irrational, it can be very helpful to still acknowledge that feeling and voice it.
No one expects you to be a robot who is only moved by the rational, and your partner loves the messy guts of you. So a good, “Of course I know you’re not going to run off with some hussy you just met, but the fact that you didn’t tell me about it until now makes me feel…” Those books also have some great things about how to comfort a partner, or ask for comfort. Sometimes a good, “I love you, I want you,” can go a long way.
What it’s been like: Upon liberating myself from monogamy, I turned to the world to realize… I was terrified—of rejection, of explaining that I was semi-on-the-market again, but really, of new things. I tried online dating, I tried to change my rhythm and make time for it, but I just felt myself not caring enough to put myself “out there.” Then, with the help of some true friends, the Hella Gay Dance Party in Oakland, and a great shirt, it happened. The music was good, she was beautiful, and I overcame what felt like a million insecurities (hello time travel back to my past-self, very humbling), and I made it happen. Talking with M about it the next day on the phone was nice too, I could tell in the tone of his voice that he was really happy for me, the same way I was happy for him when he’d spent the night with this beautiful bearded musician. I wanted to hear all about it, I wanted to tell him I was proud of him. I was also pretty aroused, and it made me miss him.
M has had three encounters, two of which were great for him and were fine for me to hear about, the third ended up being with a person who didn’t respect the boundaries of our relationship so well, so that led to some not-so-great feelings and overtime relationship-processing. (See “jealousy,” above.)
Expectations versus reality: It is not all that different than our expectations, except that things in the flesh are and feel different than they do in the planning stage. The things that pushed our buttons turned out to be slightly different than we expected. But in so far as you can know what to expect, we went into this with eyes open.
Why AN OPEN RELATIONSHIP IS WORKING (SO FAR): It really has helped us talk through the things that make us feel threatened, how can we communicate that, and how can we each comfort each other and make each other feel loved. There are a lot of things that make me feel insecure, and we have had to do a lot of processing about past perceived wrongs, things that were never talked about before. As two very conflict-averse people, this has been a really great way for us to talk about things we don’t generally like to talk about.
if one of us wants out: We both have the shut-it-down power. If either of us is feeling queasy, because of the relationship or just because work-stress left one of us at the end of our rope or because we just need to feel safe, we can just call a shut-it-down. That shut-it-down can be a week or indefinitely. Neither of us has called this yet, but we both know it’s always on the table and would be happy to shut-it-down no questions asked. More broadly, before each of M’s big trips for work, we have a check-in and decide again if we want to do it.
why taking on the work of an extra relationship is worth it: Ever feel like the long march of time and society’s expectations are running your life for you? We were starting to feel the pinch of procreation and down payments on houses, and this was one of the many ways we felt like we could feel like we were in charge of what our relationship is and what it means. Also M was spending more time traveling for work and this was a way to think through that hardship.
the risks our partnership faces: Having sex with other people can inflame the insecurities and sore spots that already exist in every relationship. A small slight can suddenly feel like a punch in the gut. It’s risky to change the outlines of what your love means, and what it entitles you to. It’s worth it because it’s incredibly freeing to have power over what your relationship means. Also, it can be worth it if you or your partner is interested in having sex with other people—that desire needn’t be a reflection on you or your relationship. If you can get on the same team figuring it out, you can feel like you’re sailing new uncharted waters together, and that’s exciting. And if it’s something your partner wants and you’ve never thought about, it’s worth talking through (no matter what you decide), because don’t you want to understand that desire enough to not feel threatened by it?
This post originally ran on APW in June 2014.