Why an open relationship probably isn’t for you

Open relationships are all the rage these days. There are news articles about them, celebrities mention being in them, sex books claim that monogamy isn’t possible (if you’re looking for a great book on sex Marty Klein’s Sexual Intelligence is way better), and even thoughtful sex commentators like Dan Savage argue that monogamish is a better approach to relationships.

The above voices are of course met by opposing arguments. It is claimed that monogamy is actually better for society, might be why humans developed larger brains, is a result of greater valuing of women, and even that it’s the best approach for governments to take.

In the midst of this debate I was lucky enough to become friends with two of the most thoughtful people I know on this topic. They’re a couple who met while one of them was in an open marriage. They have tried a wide variety of approaches to relationships and in the entirety of my life I have never known two people more thoroughly free of judgment.

Discussion with them can be a profound pleasure because there is a sense of openness, a freedom from expectation, and an acceptance of all things that is almost exhilarating. And this is also mixed with their being, at heart, just deeply kind people. Knowing them is life-enriching.

The Story

In my early years of knowing this couple I was fascinated to ask them about their experiences and romantic choices because I was trying myself to understand if open relationships can ever work. One story jumped out at me:

At one point one member of the couple was traveling with a group and ended up in a situation where the combination of too much alcohol and a complicated social situation led to her sleeping with someone. She regretted this and went home and told her partner what had happened.

The immediate reaction of her partner was to say “what can we do to make sure you don’t end up feeling this way again?”

What it Means

Let’s take a moment to consider that. Here is a person whose first kneejerk reaction on being told they were cheated on is to be concerned for the emotional well-being of their partner! They’re not upset at the cheating, they don’t feel betrayed, they don’t feel jealous; they are upset because their partner is upset. That’s it!!

Hearing this story was a revelation for me. This was when I understood why an open relationship can work for this couple, and this is when I began to believe that open relationships can work. The biggest problem with open relationships is in fact the risk of hurt, particularly via some form of jealousy, and in this case the man in this couple more or less proved that he simply don’t have a jealous bone in his body.

This is what makes an open relationship possible.

Is it for me?

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This story also made clear to me the simplest and easiest way to tell if a person can actually have an open relationship. Want to try it?

Imagine you are in a relationship. Imagine your partner comes to you crying because they slept with someone and regret it now. Imagine they tell you this. Which of these is your first reaction?

  1. A deep sorrow at their pain and a desire to help them avoid feeling this way again, without any sense of jealousy or anger whatsoever.
  2. Absolutely anything else.

If you have reaction 1, congratulations! You’re one of those rare people who just don’t deal with jealousy. Not as in “aren’t a jealous person” but as in “a person without jealousy”. Such people are rare but if you feel this you might be one. In which case, if you are in a life moment where an open relationship seems like a good fit for you and is a good fit for your partner and you both want it, go for it!

If you have any tendency whatsoever toward any other reaction, then an open relationship probably isn’t for you.

Open relationship fans disagree with me on this. They declare that it’s hard but with absolute honesty, high quality communication, good self-awareness, and full openness you can find a way for an open relationship to work.

In practice though this becomes an effort to pick apart exactly what might make someone jealous, and separate those things out as forbidden. Does kissing someone else make you jealous but sex doesn’t? Well, then sex is allowed, but no kissing. What if only penetration bothers you; everything else okay? What if it’s about regularity; one-off sex is okay but if you see the same person repeatedly that’s not okay? What if the physical stuff is fine but emotional intimacy is the problem, you can have sex but can’t go on romantic dinner dates? Or get/give flowers or other gifts? Or use the L-word? This is a never ending game that you can’t win.

Why couldn’t it work?

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The situations that enable an open relationship are rare

I’m not saying it absolutely never works. In fact, I admire the better open relationships because they are truly a MODEL of good communication. We all have something to learn from those who try this because their levels of openness and honesty are something every relationship should aspire to; detailed, thoughtful, and requiring absolute honesty and openness. Impressive.

At the end of the day though, they’re all just efforts to figure out the complicated human psyche and segment out what might make someone feel jealous from what won’t. There’s one big problem with this. People change. We see this in all things. Ten years ago you fantasized about something that doesn’t even turn you on now. Once you were absolutely dying to try X out and now it doesn’t really matter to you. You used to love tomatoes but now you hate them, and you now take your coffee black where you used to like it sweet.

Tastes, feelings, and even our turn-ons and fantasies shift over time. Open discussions and clear boundaries are great, but they only work when people don’t change. You can build up a perfect list of everything that’s allowed and not allowed for your partner to do, and you might be absolutely right, but you might not know yourself that something changed until it’s too late. You have no way to prevent this.

The only potential exception is if you HAVE no boundaries. In other words, if you’re like my friend to whom all this stuff really doesn’t matter. And you know what, even that friend might change one day!

If you have jealousy to a degree any higher than this though, which the VAST majority of humans do, then an open relationship is playing with fire. You can communicate as much, as well, and as openly as possible, know yourself and your partner as deeply as can be done, and work out clear senses of what’s okay and what’s not. At the end of the day though you can’t predict tomorrow.

And that means that no matter what there’s a decent chance that at some point your open relationship will hurt someone. More so, hurt the person you care about most in life, or you. If the option to have more sex with strangers is really worth that to you, maybe you should reconsider why you’re in the relationship in the first place…

When Open Relationships Typically Happen

In the cases I’ve seen, open relationships typically happen in two situations, both of which generally result from a power imbalance.

  1. A relationship is basically ending, but the couple hasn’t accepted that yet.
  2. The partners aren’t really that into one another.

A relationship that maybe should be ended

In the first case what often happens is one partner asks for an open relationship and eventually manages to get the other to agree. The couple tries to pursue this for a while, and it generally leads to a lot of hurt, heartbreak, and eventually the couple breaks up. These breakups can be pretty nasty. The power imbalance here is that one person is starting to be interested in dating other people but isn’t yet willing to admit that they’re not as interested in the relationship anymore. The other person agrees to try an open relationship in hopes of keeping the relationship alive.

If your partner comes to you asking for an open relationship, it’s a good time to have some serious talks about if the relationship is going well. Real thought and honesty are necessary; if the thought of your partner sleeping with someone else is upsetting to you (or vice versa) then you shouldn’t make your relationship an open one. In such a case it is a setup for unnecessary heartbreak and pain. This is a moment that often merits either finding ways to reinvigorate the relationship or seeking a way to end it amicably. If done well this kind of ending can be heartbreaking and kick off the usual kind of grief every relationship end causes, but is still much kinder to everyone involved. Better to end it in sorrow now than in hurt, accusation, and a sense of betrayal later.

A relationship that isn’t that interesting

In the second case people have a partner that they like, but not that much, and so they keep the relationship open. It gives them the chance to have the daily intimacies of a partner they can text, have dinner with, sleep with, or have escapes with when in town or while traveling, but still get the chance to flirt with strangers and not be tied down. I often think of this not as an open relationship but rather a more committed friends with benefits situation. It’s a bit of sex and/or companionship while one or both partners are still really hoping to find someone they actually connect with.

This can work okay for a while, but again it is often a setup for hurt as generally one partner is a little more into it than the other. If everyone involved is open and honest this can still be okay, but it’s worth having regular check-ins to ensure this stays true. Consider planning a check-in every so often to discuss if this is still a good fit or not. In this case it is also even more important to have clear discussions about boundaries and safety (e.g. protection, lines that should be discussed before being crossed, etc.).

A second downside in this situation is that it can inadvertently prevent the participants from finding other partners whom they might be excited enough about to not want to share. I myself have lost interest in someone when I learned they were in an open relationship. They might perceive themselves as still available to date, but others can perceive this as an indication of an entanglement complex enough to dissuade pursuit, whether ongoing or recent.

If you are considering this kind of relationship, or in it, it is also worth considering checking in with a therapist to see if some part of this choice is coming from a sense of lacking self worth. Not all open relationships come from this place, but some of them do. We all have such moments or phases in life; a relationship of this type can be a good indicator that it’s time to check in and make sure that’s not what’s driving this choice. Or, if it is, working through the drivers of that.

Even if you have no jealousy

I’d add one further note. As mentioned in the article on the kind of relationship we all really want, the connection and intimacy of a truly successful relationship is quite deep and profound. The truth here is that this kind of depth and intimacy is not something we have enough hours in the day to do with more than one other person. This kind of exploring takes, literally, a lifetime, and the deeply joyous relationship that results is something that you never stop building.

As such, even if you are the kind of person who can pull off an open relationship it’s perhaps worth asking yourself, what kind of relationship do you want? If you’re happy with something less than the life-edifying connection we’re talking about here then maybe that’s not really a loss to you.

If, however, you want to find that true, deep connection in this way, then maybe even you should give up the open idea. Not because of jealousy or fear of hurt or betrayal or confusion, but simply because you don’t have the time. To truly love someone, and to love them well and deeply in the kind of connection a marriage means, you can’t afford to divide your attention. It’s hard enough when it’s undivided! So consider what it is you really want when making this choice.

There are many different and strange moments in life, and the world is full of many varieties of people. For some of these moments and people an open relationship may absolutely be the right choice! If the deepest most satisfying love of a lifetime is something you want though, it’s worth making sure you’re not killing your chance at that for a bit of extra sex.

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