[relationshipfilter] Suggestions on working within an open relationship (not including, get out of it)?
October 24, 2009 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Offer me suggestions on my open relationship. I believe in it - but still feel a little weird about it.

My partner and I have been together for four years now. We are one another's primary partner in terms of emotional relations - but we have essentially a don't ask/don't tell policy with regards to what we each do with other people. We both feel that monogamy works poorly as a universally imposed standard and feel that sexual monogamy is not important to either of us. We certainly don't believe that enforced monogamy "saves" a relationship that isn't going to work on all other counts - so we see no point for ourselves in enforcing it.

Our only rules are - if you have sex, have it safely; and if an outside relationship starts to impact what we have, you have to be forthright about it so we can work through it. We've discussed these issues on several occasions, and I firmly believe both she and I are on the same page about it.

My problem is, although I do honestly believe these things, there is some part of me (maybe linked to too much Disney viewing as a kid?) that feels that I'm doing something wrong if I start to think about acting on this policy - I haven't done so myself, yet, and I don't know whether she has. I think it is probably cultural absorption - but it makes me feel a bit badly. And then of course I feel bad that I'm not living up to what I believe in - at least, abstractly, I'm not down on myself because I'm not chasing hot ladies.

I'm also worried that, despite what I believe about monogamy, if these feelings continue to bother me, it might damage our relationship. I'm not worried about jealousy - thinking about things from her POV doesn't bother me at all.

I'd prefer no responses along the lines of "this is a sin" and "this can never work" - I respect that other people's opinions about whether this is OK to do will differ. But what I'm looking for is specific advice about how to deal with feelings I didn't expect - not lectures on my sinfulness or misguided-ness. (If you want to offer a detailed exposition of where I've mistaken something, that would be OK.)

If you have a relationship like this, do you get these feelings too? How do you work with them? Do you feel that your open partnership works for you? Or have you found that feelings of jealousy or guilt - wherever they come from - have gotten in the way, despite your best intentions?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Is it a possibility that you don't actually believe what you think you believe?

Because it doesn't genuinely sound like you genuinely believe in this--it sounds like you're saying you believe in it, but you don't, and you feel bad about that. I'm just saying on this writing alone.

I'm sorry I can't offer much on the feelings of jealousy/guilt, other than that those feelings are what's making me suggest the above.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:05 PM on October 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

I don't think open relationships is a 'belief', it's a preference. It sounds like you don't prefer it. Most people don't. It doesn't matter whether it's "cultural absorption" or not -- if you'd be more comfortable with monogamy, what's the problem with just being monogamous? That's what you're doing anyways.
posted by creasy boy at 12:13 PM on October 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

Sometimes there is a difference between emotions and thoughts... they are not the same. You cannot decide what you (must) feel.

This is not entirely unlike to people who decide they are tolerant, but find out to their despair that they don't accept their daughter marrying that kind of boy.
posted by flif at 12:14 PM on October 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I agree a bit with a terrible llama. It happens to me with religion. Sometimes logic is simply insignificant when you confront it with emotion. My brain says "Agnostic is rational" but then whenever I have a problem I find myself praying a talking to God!

I vote for doing what makes you happy, and not putting pressure on yourself just to live up to your standards. Just be happy, and accept that you can't be 100% rational...it would be the correct thing to do, but NO FUN!
posted by Tarumba at 12:15 PM on October 24, 2009

I would second A Terrible Llama's wisdom. Forget sin and workability; consider that your argument against monogamy seems legalistic, like it's from the Supreme Court rather than the gut.

In theory, you chose an open relationship so that you would not squelch basic human nature. But if you are having to suppress other feelings, is it possible you have traded one ball and chain for another?
posted by johngoren at 12:15 PM on October 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

To believe in something logically, and to have something work for you emotionally are two different things. I can logically believe in a lot of things, but still know that it is not something that works for me. I think that is the first place to look for answers, how you emotionally react to it.

(for example, I totally, fully believe in pro-choice, support it, vote for it, yet know that I could not make that choice myself. It does not create a conflict in me at all)
posted by Vaike at 12:18 PM on October 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

It seems like your 'feeling badly' has to do with your sex life not living up to what you believe in. But my first instinct is that your sex life doesn't necessarily have to be about what you believe in or what you think you ought to be doing – isn't that the same thing as applying a moral fiat on it? Shouldn't your sex life instead be about what you feel like doing and what gives you pleasure and contentment? People are designed for sex, but they aren't designed to have sex 24 hours a day, seven days a week; it's okay if you're not out having sex with a bunch of people all the time. Those nagging feelings that say "why are you being monogamous when you're in an open relationship?" are misguided feelings; they're putting the same now-defunct labels on you, labels that you shouldn't be falling into. The openness of your relationship includes the freedom to just hang back and be yourself if you want to, and there's nothing wrong with that if it's what suits you at the moment.

Also, while I hope you don't take this as a moral comment – you're free to do all of this however you please – my observation is that "don't ask, don't tell" isn't a very practical approach to open relationships. The point of an close emotional relationship like the one you have with your partner (if I'm not mistaken) is love and intimacy; those things include watching each other's back and being open and direct. You say that both of you feel as though sexual monogamy isn't something that's deeply important for you; then why hide what's going on? "Don't ask, don't tell" just seems like an unnecessary measure of isolationism and confidentiality that won't really foster any kind of intimate relationship between the two of you. If you're both okay with an open relationship (and it sounds like you are) then what do you have to hide?

I only bring that up because I have a feeling the best thing would be to talk to your partner. If you have a don't ask/don't tell agreement, then you may as well respect her position; you don't exactly need to go barging in and asking her if she's done anything yet. But it's totally fair to say: "I really believe in this, but sometimes I think I'm not living up to what I believe in. What do you think?" Other human beings are a tremendous comfort; and if you're not in a partnership in order to have somebody to talk to when you're a little confused, then what are you in a partnership for? The likelihood is that she knows you better than we can, she sees you day in and day out and can probably help you figure out why you feel the ways you feel better than anybody else.
posted by koeselitz at 12:25 PM on October 24, 2009 [9 favorites]

I don't think your "beliefs" and current feelings are necessarily at odds.

Just because you don't feel sexual monogamy is important doesn't automatically = you should be off chasing hot women all the time.

To me, it means that should the opportunity and desire be present, its OK within the rules of your relationship/beliefs and there's no need for guilt or shame afterwards. Its about accepting and understanding that sometimes you can't get everything you need/want physically from a partner who fulfils you emotionally. If all your needs are currently being met then its OK to not be sleeping around.

I don't think that monogamy is a necessity and if my boyfriend couldn't get what he needed from me, I (intellectually at least) wouldn't have a problem with him getting elsewhere, so long as it was safe. But personally, I couldn't do it. He's the only man I've ever been with and he's the only man I ever want to be with.

It sounds like rationally you don't think monogamy is important but emotionally you're not ready to act on your 'beliefs'. Maybe that will change over time, maybe it'll change when a hot lady starts chasing you ;) Don't over think it and don't pressure yourself to do something you're not ready for or don't actually want.

If jealousy isn't an issue, how do you think these feelings will negatively affect your relationship (ie. if you only feel its wrong for you to act on it and not for her, what are the potential problems you're forseeing?)
posted by missmagenta at 12:30 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's okay to want what you want right now. It's okay to be living in polyamory and yet at this moment have sex with only one person. It's okay to want what you want when you want it.

You have to keep that in mind – it's okay to be doing precisely what you're doing right now.
posted by koeselitz at 12:32 PM on October 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was struck by your comments about "too much Disney viewing as a kid", and your sense of the 'rightness' of monogamy as "probably [just] cultural absorption".

In my experience with open relationships, the fact that I was trying to work out a relationship for which widespread cultural norms don't really exist really made it a lot harder.
In a relationship that's heterosexual, monogamous, non-BDSM, or what have you, you have a lot of cultural codes and scripts and ideas about how relationships work that you can fall back on. You have more people who can give you advice.
I don't think that this shared cultural background is a bad thing, although it is certainly reactive and limiting. But a lot of people underestimate how hard it can be, at least for a lot of people, to be in open or otherwise non-traditional relationships. It is really, really hard, and it is not for everyone, and you shouldn't feel obliged to do it.
I certainly fell into the trap of blaming myself for not being cool enough, or progressive enough, or something, when I found that open and multiple relationships didn't work for me.

Ultimately, you have to go with what works for you, regardless of what ideological stance on the issue seems most logical.
posted by ITheCosmos at 12:43 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Don't ask, don't tell" is a strange rule to have if if you're in accord on this type of relationship. That rule suggests that you both have an unexamined awareness that knowledge of the other's sexual experiences outside the relationship would cause pain, or at least would be very unwelcome. The very presence of this rule makes me wonder if you don't already know deep down that this type of relationship doesn't sit well in some ways with one or both of you.

One way to get to the bottom of this is to revisit that rule, at least hypothetically. Imagine that you both changed that rule and were completely open and forthcoming about your outside experiences, to the point of even becoming acquainted with each other's sometime partners. Really imagine this. How would that make you feel and why?
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:50 PM on October 24, 2009 [9 favorites]

Most of what I came in here to say has already been said. But I think there's another possible explanation here besides "Nonmonogamy isn't right for you." You might ask yourself if you'd feel better about things with more communication with your partner.

In principle, there's nothing wrong with don't-ask-don't-tell. In practice I don't know anyone who makes it work. The happy, successful, guilt-free open relationships I've seen have all included a lot of talking about who's sleeping with who, and how it's going, and how everyone feels about it, and so on. And my experience is that even people who wind up cheerfully polyamorous in the long run need some reassurance the first few times. ("You're really not mad? No, seriously, I mean it — you're really not mad? And you don't think I'm some kind of filthy slutbag? Whoa....")
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:51 PM on October 24, 2009

(Oh hi George. Make that "All of what I came in here to say has already been said.")
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:51 PM on October 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

You may want to get a copy of The Ethical Slut (actually, get two), read it at the same time, and re-evaluate your DADT policy. The individual rules within every relationship are different but if I had literally no idea what my partner was up to in that context, I would feel extremely alienated and that would be icky.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:12 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

You could try visiting alt.polyamory, which is inhabited mainly by people who are more familiar with open relationships than your average mefite may be. People in situations like yours often arrive there and seem to get wise and well considered advice.

From my perspective, it seems like "don't ask, don't tell" is storing up problems. Your partner is presumably someone you enjoy sharing your life with, so being completely unable to share a significant part of it could be difficult. Are you expected to lie about your whereabouts? What if your partner says "Wow you're happy and bouncy and unusually horny today! What happened?" and the real answer is that you just finished screwing someone else who you're really excited about. What are you going to say? What is that untruth going to do to your relationship with your partner?
posted by emilyw at 1:14 PM on October 24, 2009

I've been in the same sort of thing for years. To my knowledge, neither one of us has exercised our "options" as it were. I kind of like knowing that I really prefer not acting on every crush, and not just because I'd be a bad person if I "cheated." I like suspecting she feels the same way.

I don't think you're going to ever get to a point where you don't feel some jealousy pangs from time to time. I do, when she's out with mixed-company friends, even though I'm pretty confident nothing will happen. I'm pleasantly amused when she keeps calling my cell phone when I'm out - I could be wrong, but I think she's subconsciously trying to mark her territory so nobody will take me for a single person. (I'm open about being married anyway, so it's totally unnecessary)

It works for us. If it's not you, it's not you and there's nothing wrong with that.
posted by ctmf at 1:39 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another possibility: if you've been together four years, it may be that your conception of your primary relationship is changing, and so your feelings about your previous policy of "don't ask, don't tell" might be changing.

Are the two of you thinking about marriage? If it's not an active topic of discussion, are *you* thinking about whether this relationship is one for the long haul? Four years is a pretty long run, this can elicit some reflection along these lines, it wouldn't be weird at all to rethink boundaries if this is happening.

My experience in polyamory circles is (in general, not looking to get into a big argument) that relationships described as "primary" and "spouse" are pretty different. Most of the married folks I know who happily enjoyed outside relationships still referred to their Significant Other as "husband" or "wife", not "primary partner". There's a lot of freight behind those traditional terms, even in nontraditional situations.

I dated the man who became my husband for five years, and during that time we were not exclusive, by mutual consent. When we decided to marry, that definitely changed some dynamics in my other relationships-- and they fell by the wayside entirely when kid #1 came along. That option isn't totally off the table, but it's been put aside for the forseeable future. I am not too worried about it either way. Life changes, the demands on a relationship change, boundaries can change too. So, what you're describing doesn't seem too weird to me.

Nothing left to do but talk about it with your sweetheart. Good luck!
posted by Sublimity at 1:58 PM on October 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

nthing what everyone here has said.

However, I would like to add that human beings are hard-wired for monogamy. Not the culturally-idealized-and-equally-unrealistic thirty-year-happily-married monogamy, but just plain I-don't-want-someone-else-messing -with-my-partner variety.

Sexual competition and mate selection are fundamental instincts that reside in our "reptilian brain". The amygdala, if I recall correctly. The instinct to protect what we have won from interlopers is also fundamental human biochemistry. It doesn't do your genes any good to waste energy rearing someone else's children.

That's what you are fighting. Millenia upon millenia of natural selection and evolution.
posted by Xoebe at 1:59 PM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

You are fearful. What could you be afraid of? I suspect the idea that you could lose your partner to someone else. Or someone else could get her pregnant despite best efforts. These things would likely hurt you. You will have to find a way to deal with.this fear. The two possiblities that come to mind first are to change the circumstances, or to find a way to work through the feelings so you can continue the way things are currently. You can request that the relationship be closed or learn to accept your feelings of fear.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:03 PM on October 24, 2009

Take this into consideration, too: having thought about my feelings regarding my wife sleeping with someone else, I've decided it isn't the act itself I would dislike. If she did sleep with someone once in a while, that would of course make me jealous, but that's what we agreed to. I would start to get uncomfortable if she were out slutting it up every night, or if she clearly had a steady emotional/sexual relationship with one other person so that I was starting to wonder if she was going to leave me or use me for nothing but a paycheck. That would be time for a talk, DADT be damned.

Everyone's line of I'm-not-comfortable-anymore is different on the spectrum from "don't even fantasize about others" to "just don't give me any STDs." You should talk about where each other's line is, and think about if you're ok with where she wants to be, and vice versa. DADT doesn't mean you can't talk about the rules.
posted by ctmf at 2:26 PM on October 24, 2009

You feel "weird" because it is "weird"--this is not a judgment, nor, BTW, a proper use of the word weird, but it is statistically unusual/non-normative/ outside the cusp of of most relationships. The fact you feel "weird" is a testament to your own reality testing and the appropriate response to behavior that is essentially non normative. Congratulations, you are OK. However, regardless of how you structure the communications, DADT, candor, openness, secrecy, etc. I would posit that you will continue to feel some sense of "weirdness", uncomfortableness, strangeness, stress, whatever. Why, because it is intrinsically stressful and requires continual adaptation, attention, redefinition and accommodation. While monogamy certainly presents its own problems, particularly during prime fertility, there is a contract that is clear, theoretically predictable, and allows one to focus attention on the other major tasks of living. As a practicing therapist for over 20 years I do not think I ever saw an individual who was able to maintained this for any length of time. There are just so many complications--fighting pervasive contradictory social values, ambiguity, limited time/energy, changes in partners values, the risk of "falling in love" with non-primary partner, and confusing expectations by sexual partners who are not the primary partner. While monogamy is not the universal standard for stable relationships polyandry/polygamy require supportive social structures or it tends to be limited to those privileged by power and/or wealth.
posted by rmhsinc at 2:26 PM on October 24, 2009 [8 favorites]

Rmhssinc, the class aspect you mention is fascinating. Is there a study of this somewhere?
posted by johngoren at 2:32 PM on October 24, 2009

Suggesting the obvious, monogamous relationships aren't stress free and aren't free of communications issues. Statistically, just based on raw numbers, I'd rate them unsuccessful in an arbitrary goal of assuring mutual happiness. They are also not particularly durable, except when compared to casual uncommitted or transient relationships.

They are not free of doubt and uncertainty. They are not universally the norm, and I take issue with monogamy being 'hardwired'. Plenty of cultures practice both polygamy and polyandry.

You make what you are confronting sounds like it's some inherent and fatal flaw in your model, but is it really? Is it not just possible that it's only the different set of problems that accompanies your model, as opposed to the more widely and openly publicized closed relationships we see every day?

Different isn't necessarily bad; it's just different.

You have few personal examples of how this is done, so you're inventing your own.

Invention is a trial and error thing. You can adjust whatever you need to, in order to achieve your goals. Tweak.

BTW... I applaud your self-direction. You are making the life you want. Good for you.
posted by FauxScot at 3:44 PM on October 24, 2009

To me, it does sound like perhaps your stress is based on what other people would think - not what you feel.

If that is the case, you and your partner have to decide if that stress offsets the stress of a conventional relationship.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:04 PM on October 24, 2009

You don't have to choose between the relationship as you have had it structured up to now vs turning that relationship into conventional monogamy. The range of options is much wider than that. You and your partner can choose to make your life together anything you mutually want it to be. There's a heck of a lot of permutations out there of monogamy and nonmonogamy, which you borrow from and adapt until things fit truly comfortably. Tristan Taormino's book "Opening Up" is a good introduction to a lot of different ways of thinking about, and living out, nonmonogamy. If nothing else, it'll pointedly reassure you than many couples in open relationships have experienced significant periods where one or both of the partners has either chosen monogamy or had no pressing interest in pursuing additional relationships/encounters.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:36 PM on October 24, 2009

My husband and I had an open relationship for almost 15 years. It worked well for us. It started as "don't ask, don't tell" and after a few years (when one of us asked and found out that the other person was in fact in another relationship), we renegotiated into an "ask and tell" format. I understand and agree with your belief in responsible nonmonogamy.

Given that you philosophically like the idea of an open relationship, it seems likely that your feelings of reluctance are cultural (a little voice from your upbringing, or traditional religion, or just general social mores telling you that monogamy is the only way). Don't underestimate the effect of a lifetime of socialization and cultural messages (in books, movies, music, etc.) to make doing something so outside the mainstream feel downright weird. On the other hand, the issue of nonmonogamy can seem very different when you think about it abstractly then how it seems when you've actually met someone you're interested in. If you think about having a second relationship and the idea feels odd, it might feel very different when there's a specific person you really like attached to the idea.

I guess what I'm saying is: don't worry about it, and don't go looking for a relationship just because you're allowed to. One of these days, you'll meet someone else you really want to have a relationship with, and then it will feel good knowing that you can let that relationship go where it may. When you're face to face with someone you're crazy about, the abstract doubts have a way of fading.
posted by mkuhnell at 7:05 PM on October 24, 2009

We both feel that monogamy works poorly as a universally imposed standard and feel that sexual monogamy is not important to either of us. We certainly don't believe that enforced monogamy "saves" a relationship that isn't going to work on all other counts - so we see no point for ourselves in enforcing it.

First line of action (and I mean this as someone who is genuinely excited for you) is stop being so pretentious about this. You and your partner have decided/realized that monogamy is boring and a dead end for you. Great. That's all the analysis it warrants.

My wife and I were monogamous for a little under a month when first dating. She told me "I'll go crazy if this is how it has to be." We started talking and set rules pretty similar to yours. We're not on the cutting edge of modern relationships, we're not setting a standard for some future morality, we're doing what works for us. You have license to have the excitement of dating without the negatives of not having someone to come home to.

I don't know the real motives for your objections-- no one does. But if you think she's actives (and it seems like you do), your moral high ground that you get from being idle doesn't matter. You've got the most valuable gift card that you'll ever be given; it's sitting unused in a drawer. Your idleness doesn't have any effect on how this story plays out.

I hope your relationship is many years of future bliss. But sitting on your hands isn't going to further that goal if it means she's exploring and you're waiting at home.
posted by Willy Wombat at 8:22 PM on October 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Sometimes the best way to get beyond a problem or concern is to just say it out loud...talking with your partner may help you pin point the real issue or concern and your partner being aware will only increase your intimacy and level of understanding with one another. Sometimes just knowing you have the option is enough for some people. Perhaps for you the option is nice but you are simply content not pursuing other relations...isn't that okay too? Not knowing about your partners activity may not be the best solution, it leaves you wondering are they or aren't they which would drive anyone a bit crazy.

Good luck.
posted by gypseefire at 11:21 PM on October 24, 2009

I agree with rhmsinc. I basically asked my therapist straight out, a therapist who is incredibly feminist, open minded, alternative- if she thought open relationships it worked, (I'm know from friends she has seen her fair share of couples in all different phases of polyamory) as she said in her experience, not in the long run, and that she felt intimacy can just go so much deeper when you really commit to your partner. She said if you can keep showing up and be fully present with your partner, and have other sexual partners, than polyamory can last longer, but for so many reasons as rhmsinc already said, it usually doesn't happen for any length. I think it's still worth a shot for some people, but you can't just "think" your way out of it, you have to be willing to go on a wild ride. ( But even for the most cutting edge people I know, the ride hasn't been worth it for more than a few months)
posted by Rocket26 at 7:48 AM on October 25, 2009

I haven't read all the comments above, so forgive me if I am repeating.

I will just speak from my own experience in a very happy open relationship for the past six years.

We also have somewhat of an asymmetry in terms of our outside romances - I have dated several people rather seriously, while he has not gone beyond making out at parties.

He also felt somewhat insecure about the fact that he wasn't pursuing other partners - and he was somewhat jealous of the fun I was having. We talked it through and identified some of the emotional blocks he was experiencing. Gradually he has become more outgoing and is now sort of dating someone.

I think you need to give yourself time to get over your hang-ups. Now that you have identified them and they are out in the open, take baby steps. It may take years but I see no reason why it can't work for you.
posted by mai at 10:47 AM on October 25, 2009

Hmm, seems right now you're just a non-jealous, one-woman dude. No big deal. Just make the decision not to sleep with other people for the time being.

Freedom is uncomfortable sometimes.
posted by kathrineg at 11:29 AM on October 25, 2009

Also...polyamory and an open relationship are really different things. If you're not looking to date outside of your relationship, just have casual sexual interactions with others, polyamory-based advice is going to be less than useful.

Example, openness is a must when you're dating two people for any length of time. When you have a one-night-stand? Not much to be gained from chatting about it, is there?

Keep an eye out for the "one true way" advice about open relationships. Your focus is what works for you, not what someone's therapist once said won't work.

You might like "Opening Up".

Cheers, and good luck.
posted by kathrineg at 11:32 AM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would like to add that human beings are hard-wired for monogamy. Not the culturally-idealized-and-equally-unrealistic thirty-year-happily-married monogamy, but just plain I-don't-want-someone-else-messing -with-my-partner variety.

Frankly, human beings are wired for polgamy for me monogamy for you. We are beings that have to be aware of our desire to control. That sort of defines the alternatives here. Agreeing not to take advantage is really the key thing here.

I think you need to take some time, think about how you feel about this and then, having it worked out, talk with your loved one.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:18 PM on October 25, 2009

Paradoxically, the fact that you're emotionally committed to a woman who believes it is in your best interest to be able to have sex with other women, might have led you to realize how amazingly incredible she is; as a result you are not too desiring of other women.

I'm going to file this under "good problems"
posted by teg4rvn at 4:36 PM on October 26, 2009

I'd say that one of the best things you can do is talk to her about it; it sounds like your relationship has been founded on a lot of honesty and communication, so the best thing might just be to say - hey, partner, I'm concerned about how to handle feelings of jealousy, and while I still think DADT is a good call (if you do), I have some concerns there too. The two of you can work out where to go from there.

I don't agree with the commenters who said that you can't have a good relationship and not inquire about extracurricular activities, as it were - it makes sense to me that you'd rather not know the gory details unless someone had a compelling reason for bringing them up. But if you do have a good relationship, your partner should understand your concerns and the two of you should be able to work out how to address them.

Good luck!
posted by mccn at 12:54 PM on November 2, 2009

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