Opening Your Relationship


by Randall S. Frederick

Open relationships are the trendy thing in couple pairings now. To be okay with your Significant Other together with Another is proof of how “chill” and “cool” you are, how non-possessive and “woke.” Part of me wants to agree, but another part disagrees strongly and profoundly to these assumptions. Open relationships are not for everyone and even when they are for you, they might not be for your primary (or secondary!) partners, or even right for any one of you at this time.

Like any relational dynamic, open relationships are a balancing act. Sometimes, you don’t need to be in a relationship. You need to work on yourself, experience freedom for a little while, “clean the palate.” Whatever issues you have, you bring into your relationship – open or closed. If you’re not willing to work on them, to share yourself and your life, and help your partner(s) and expect the same, it doesn’t matter if you’re with one person or twenty. The issues will always be the same.

That said, I’ve seen open relationships work out very well for some couples I know. “Expanding” and “growing” their relationship, welcoming others into their family, has alleviated tensions and helped some of my good people grow in their relationship and as individuals. They bring their issues, but they also bring themselves – your best asset in relationships. 

Communicating your desire to open the relationship can be especially difficult because you do not want to hurt or offend your primary partner. You love them, have shared your life with them, and care for them. You don’t want to hurt them. But you still have interests and desires that cannot be neglected. It’s popular in film and television to present open relationships where one partner is highly sexual – mismatched libidos and sexual drive – and demands that their needs be met. That doesn’t happen as often as you think; at least not like that. More often, a couple struggles for a great amount of time. Very often, they separate or divorce because they are “incompatible” for some reason other than their sexual activity. Whenever someone talks to me about consensually nonmonogamous relationships, I feel like I always have to defend them because it’s so popular to think opening a relationship is just about sex. Far from it.

Couples therapist Sue Johnson, interviewed for the book A Book About Love by Jonah Lehrer, says that couples who claim their biggest problem is sex are often experiencing other issues that they don’t want to admit.  In many relationships, issues with sex are a symptom, not the cause, or big problems.

Secure attachments lead to better sex. But the converse is true, too; when our attachments wither, the passion tends to disappear. As the couples therapist Sue Johnson notes, sexual issues are often the “canary in the mine” of a relationship, a tangible symbol of an emotional loss. Happy spouses attribute only 15 to 20 percent of their contentment to their sex life; unhappy spouses, in contrast, say 50 to 70 percent of their problems are rooted in sexual issues. While many of Johnson’s patients insist that a lack of sex is a primary cause of their relationship issues, she sees sexual issues as mostly a side effect, triggered by larger attachment insecurities. “What’s really happening is that a couple is losing connection,” Johnson writes. “The partners don’t feel emotionally safe with each other.” Over time, this situation creates a dangerous feedback loop, as a lack of attachment leads to a slackening of desire, which only leads to less attachment and even less desire.

This is the opposite of what many people expect. Then again, when it comes to open relationships, it seems everything we know about relationships starts to fly right out the window. Couples may assume that welcoming someone else into their relationship will erode their shared experience, only to find that the opposite is true. Another person can help break up issues, create a majority vote, or help comfort other members of the relationship. What I often hear is that the reluctant partner in a relationship “falls in love with” the new partner, creating a renewed honeymoon effect where everyone falls in love with one another all over again.

When we begin to see love and a “good relationship” as exclusive and isolated with someone who completes our desires, compliments who we are, and fulfills all our needs, we will ultimately find that this is an improbable ideal. Instead, the couples I know who have opened their relationship have struggled, but were committed to loving one another and altering their dynamic. What they found was that many of the “problems” they had were being ironed out and the “problems” they thought they would have once they opened their relationship were, in many ways, positive and beneficial to both individual and coupled health. Initially, it may have been under a thick veil of secrecy as they worked out the new reality of welcoming someone else into their relationship and began to distinguish “roles,” but what they found, and what I have observed from the outside is that these relationships, is that instead of collapsing, these relationships thrived. Partners found out new things about one another, even the capacity to mutually love this new partner who brought new and exciting challenges to their relationship. In other words, we have an idea of relations are or will be, but looking back we find time and again how an idea does not match reality.

To understand why this “trend” is so, well, trendy right now, we might look back to the origins of how we interpret relationships. Thomas Hobbes was a philosopher who proposed that humans are innately troublesome, violent, and vindictive. Humans will seek out what they want to the destruction of humanity, therefore we must institute laws and cultural norms to help regulate a “healthy” society. Those who deviate and “do their own thing” must be shamed, punished, corrected, and in the absence of these remedies, imprisoned. Alternatively, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that humans were innately good and that the “primitive savage” within all of us seeks to live in community with no laws or rules in a harmonious state. Humans are good and want to share with one another – for Rousseau, this is humanity at its best, when we throw off the clothing of social convention and become our true selves. Applied to relational structures, we choose to follow convention or to challenge it. For Hobbes, “traditional” relationships are necessary to keep us restrained and focused on survival of the species. For Rousseau, humans are at their best when they are allowed to do what comes naturally and ignore social conventions like

  • One Partner + One Partner = Happiness
  • Two Partners + Child = Happiness
  • Sexual Safety + Relational Predictability = Happiness

Both philosophers have had their positions defended and rejected; both men and their views have been welcomed and rejected over the years. There are, however, building blocks in their writings and thought for how we approach what is acceptable in relationships. Should two people who love each other get married? If their love is so great, why not add more individuals to the mix to make it even better? Can friends who do not love each other in the traditional sense have sex and still be friends? Are two friends, who have never had sex, somehow more intimate with each other than they are with the people they have sex with? The answer to these questions are all grounded in how we see the story of humankind, whether humans are bad people who must do good things to control themselves, or whether humans are innately good but occasionally do things that unintentionally harm others. Whatever your philosophical approach, it can feel overwhelming by the time we arrive at a question of whether to open up a relationship or keep it closed. Are relationships about stability and performing a social role that we call “husband” and “wife” or “parent”? Is marriage the decision to “forsake all others,” including oneself, to privilege only one other person forevermore? Are relationships an extension, perhaps even a culmination, of who we really are – our best selves? And if so, whatever our ideas on the functionality or “purpose” of entering into a “committed” relationship, what are the roles of those outside the marriage, like friends and family, who often have a greater investment of time, effort, and emotional capital in our lives? Once we exchange vows (since, for Hobbes, that is the only foreseeable end to a “good” relationship), are we to forget all of those important people? Maybe. Privileging each other is commendable. That is, perhaps, why we continue to celebrate “faithful” marriages that last decade after decade. There is something good there, lovers creating a small place in the universe for just themselves. Prioritizing a lover and being prioritized by a lover are both good things. Mark that down for relationship goals. But the “forsaking of all others” can go too far and damage the good thing you’re trying to build because you need to, at least in a limited sense, welcome “others” into your relationship – friends, family, colleagues at work, and casual acquaintances.

One of my most trusted friends teaches on the West Coast. He says that he and his wife have an “understanding.” They are committed to one another and have no interest going outside the relationship for extramarital partners, but they acknowledge their differences and have reconciled themselves to the fact that, in their marriage, they cannot provide everything their partner will need. They need relationships outside of their marriage. It’s “too much to ask of any one person” to be partner, emotional confidant, cheerleader, friend, sounding board as well as the source of sexual, emotional, relational, and spiritual satisfaction. For the health of their marriage, they decided years ago that acknowledging this and allowing each other to “do their own thing sometimes” as long as they were intentional about “coming back together at the end of the night, or every few days” was going to be the key to their marital success. Coming from two conservative homes, it has been difficult in the duration as they embrace some ideas and reject others, at times acknowledging how marriage was modeled to them and navigating the alternating critique of those outside their house and dynamic. But “it works.” It works for them.

In some sense, that is how any discussion about opening up the relationship has to start, by establishing what works and acknowledging what doesn’t for each other, by discussing your philosophies of relationships and where you see this relationship going. Why do you want to expand it – not the fluffy bunny reasons, but the real reasons. What are you trying to expand, what is it you hope to fix? Is it because you are sexually incompatible? Because you need someone to pay more attention to you? When free of judgement, these conversations can be a real growth experience.

While you consider whether to open your relationship, I would encourage you to consider a few thoughts. Don’t be hasty with them. Take time and see where these ideas lead you. Lea Rose Emery has written a really good into for Bustle that I am tweaking here. These are some really important questions to consider when you’re first starting out, trying to decide how to even bring up the idea of changing your relational dynamic.

How Serious About This Are You?

You have got to work this out. If you have feelings for someone and you know you will get over them in a few days because you “always do this,” then it’s probably for the best to let it go. It’s not serious. Just drop it. But if you are serious enough about exploring to risk breaking up or bringing up something that may lead you there, then it’s time to talk about these feelings with your partner.

What Does This Mean For Your Relationship, Right Now?

Maybe you don’t know the answer to this one, and that’s okay. But before you bring it up, have an idea in mind. Honesty about the relationship and how you feel towards one another is of utmost importance; nothing is worse than loving someone who isn’t sure they love you back. If something is missing, consider what, why, and for how long. Is this something that can be fixed with a schedule Date Night or a month of counseling? How did you get here?

What Does This Mean For The Future Of Your Relationship?

Address how changing the relationship will affect the relationship, not just you and your partner individually. If your feelings for someone new are particularly strong, it may mean that the current relationship has run its course. Or, more likely, it could mean you’re just not sure. If you’re questioning the future, though, you need to be upfront about that. Your partner deserves to know this, and you need to figure out what you want. If this isn’t it, and your partner isn’t someone you can see yourself with in the future, then opening the relationship isn’t going to fix things.

Be Honest With Your Partner

Once you’ve sorted out your thoughts, it’s time to sit down with your partner and talk about them. Be honest, but also be sensitive. Take it slowly. Consider breaking the conversation up, or let your partner process and come to you with questions. However you do it, you need to make communicating a priority. Explain your feelings, desires, and needs, and what you think this means for the relationship. If you want to sustain this relationship and stay with your partner, you must be patient and work through this together.

Listen To What They Have To Say

Your partner is important too. You have been percolating on this idea of opening the relationship for so long that you want to unload everything all at once and rush it. Resist that urge. Speak gently and listen. Slow down and listen. Consider the feelings of your partner. Even if your relationship ends right now, you must value the time you spent together and allow them to speak their feelings and thoughts. If they are totally on board, you still need to pay attention to them and what they are feeling. Their “yes” is not a yes to everything, universally, foreseen and otherwise.

Don’t Rush This

Not to beat the metaphorical dead horse here, but even if your partner is on board with opening up the relationship, you want to exercise caution and safety just the same. And I don’t mean just safer sex methods. I mean have check-ins with your partner(s) and move together. Don’t rush things and outpace them, otherwise you hear that referee whistle every few days, “Hey, We Need To Talk.” There’s a rule in couples counseling: You will have sex as often as the person who wants it the least. That rule is true for other arenas of a relationship outside of the bedroom also.

Work Together, Or Not At All

You’re the one who wanted to talk about open relationships, so you better be prepared to take responsibility for that. On the other hand, this is something that you will need to work together on, whether you decide to open the relationship or not. Think about your partner suggesting something you’re not on board for; you might try to be accepting, but you might also be hesitant. Working that out together is a good challenge that brings many couples together even stronger. Two of my very good friends have been married now for over a decade. They once opened their relationship for a period of time, were committed to working through it together, and even after their secondary partner moved away, they found their relationship was stronger, happier, and more trusting because they experienced that time together instead of individually but still in the same room. This is a great time for you, your partner, and your relationship if you can just focus on building experiences together.

Admit If This Is Not Going To Work

A few weeks ago, a friend looped me in on a convo he was having with a friend of his about whether he should break up with his girlfriend. Ultimately, my suggestion to him was to be open to the idea that he was dating someone amazing, but who was ultimately amazing for someone else. Don’t get hung up on the idea that you and your partner are “meant to be together” because they are nice, caring, and accepting of your need to hit up Taco Bell after bedtime. While I would hesitate to ever tell someone they “need” to separate from their partner, I would also caution against holding off something that feels inevitable. If it’s not going to work with your primary, or with your new secondary partner, sooner is better than later.

Even if open relationships are not for you or your partner, they are far more common than you think; about one in five relationships in America has knowingly engaged in some form of consensual nonmonogamy – open relationships, polyamory, or another dynamic. As Suzannah Weiss notes,

Among the 1,000 American adults surveyed, 17 percent of those aged 18-44 had engaged in some sort of sexual activity with someone else—with their partner’s permission. While that number drastically declined with age (only nine percent of people ages 45-64 had done the same, and three percent ages 65 and over had), people’s feelings about their own partners having sex with someone else reflected the same pattern. And though 56 percent of people ages 18-29 said they would be totally opposed to their partner hooking up with someone else, that’s only a little more than half of those surveyed—and their views were in stark contrast to older generations, as 78 percent of those 65 and over said they would definitely not be okay with their partners fooling around with someone else.

Perhaps we owe this to increasing awareness of polyamory as a lifestyle. An April study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that one in five Americans had been in an open relationship, defined as “any relationship in which all partners agree that each may have romantic and/or sexual relationships with other partners.” Even dating apps are changing to serve this growing market: OKCupid lets couples link their accounts to find additional partners, and there’s a dating app just for polyamorous people.

For women especially, exclusive monogamy can feel like a pronounced social restriction. Many biologists and sexual experts claim that monogamy is actually unnatural for women. The sexual response of the average women exceeds men – the ability to have multiple orgasms, the duration of a sexual experience, the increased ability to respond to new partners and sexual creativity, to name a few.

Jacqueline Hellyer claims that there “is no evidence to show that women are naturally monogamous. Monogamy has been an economic and social imperative for women, not a biological drive.” It is a claim that is supported by researchers like Cacilda Jetha and Christopher Ryan, whose book Sex at Dawn awakened and legitimized the latest movement for support of open relationships. In the book, they claim essentially the same thing. While there may be individual emotional reasons for monogamy and secured pair bonding, the “natural” inclination of women is towards nonmonogamy. Monogamy, they argue, is a social construct prioritized in the West and enforced by European cultural values. Humans, especially women, are not biologically inclined towards monogamy. Monogamy, they put forward, is a social construct meant to control and suppress sexual desire – especially the desire of women.

Personally, I’ve always wondered whether Jetha and Ryan have a bone to pick with religion and whether their iconoclasm clouds either how people perceive their conclusions, or even how their conclusions were developed. Part of their argument seems to take satisfaction in tearing down the idea of religion and modernity as they, like Rousseau, seek to reason humanity back towards the “primitive savage,” free of religion and social norms. I feel like they forget the work of researchers like Riane Eisler, whose The Chalice and the Blade puts forward the very popular idea in historical and religious studies that ancient civilizations (where Jetha and Ryan concern much of their work) were matriarchal and supported polyandry (a pattern of mating where women, instead of men, have multiple husbands). Regardless, Asian and Western religions do include multiple stories of large families with multiple sexual partners, so whether we are discussing polyandry or polygamy, there is no doubt that consensual nonmongamy has been around since the dawn of humanity and has never abated. Not ever. In fact, a glaring oversight in religious studies is the frequency with which religious leaders, even in “traditional” Christianity, have supported expansive relational dynamics. St. Augustine and Martin Luther both encouraged women who were unable to get “satisfaction” from their husbands (which many take to mean children, but in the context of the original writings is ambiguous enough to be read as indicative of sexual pleasure) to seek help outside the marriage while keeping themselves legally wed to their spouses. Martin Luther, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, writes about marriage as follows.

What I said was this: if a woman who is fit for marriage has a husband who is not, and she is unable openly to take unto herself another and unwilling, too, to do anything dishonourable since the pope in such a case demands without cause abundant testimony and evidence, she should say to her husband, “Look, my dear husband, you are unable to fulfil your conjugal duty toward me; you have cheated me out of my maidenhood and even imperilled my honour and my soul’s salvation; in the sight of God there is no real marriage between us. Grant me the privilege of contracting a secret marriage with your brother or closest relative, and you retain the title of husband so that your property will not fall to strangers. Consent to being betrayed voluntarily by me, as you have betrayed me without my consent”. 

I stated further that the husband is obligated to consent to such an arrangement and thus to provide for her the conjugal duty and children, and that if he refuses to do so she should secretly flee from him to some other country and there contract a marriage. I gave this advice at a time when I was still timid. However, I should like now to give sounder advice in the matter, and take a firmer grip on the wool of a man who thus makes a fool of his wife. The same principle would apply if the circumstances were reversed, although this happens less frequently in the case of wives than of husbands. It will not do to lead one’s fellow-man around by the nose so wantonly in matters of such great import involving his body, goods, honour, and salvation. He has to be told to make it right.

While Luther is speaking of a man’s inability to perform sexually, I believe there are grounds for “consenting” to new dynamics in a relationship that go beyond this. Surely, his reasoning – which he picked up from Augustine – can be applied to men as well. And if so, philosophically and socially, we have a way to achieve a relational ideal that is not sinful or shameful. Opening your relationship is, in this sense, quite traditional. More, applying the derivatives of these ideas from the “founders” of what we know as Modernity, the question of why someone would want to open their relationship is not simply a matter of lineage, but all kinds of interesting unique and curious reasons that are in line with the sexual and relational variety which so characterizes humanity.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, though! Be sure to comment below, or like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

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