Ask Adam: Should My Boyfriend and I Try an Open Relationship?
Advice on men, sex, and love.
My boyfriend and I are thinking about opening up our relationship. We’re excited about the idea of being with different men, but also scared about hurting our great relationship. How can we experiment without messing up a good thing?
Hungry in Huntsville
Dear Hungry in Huntsville,
If you and your partner want to have a close relationship and have additional sex partners, be prepared for a lot of talking. And I’m not just referring to discussions about when, where and with whom. I mean talking about feelings, what we therapists call “processing.”
If that kind of conversation makes you squirm, I understand. Most men are not raised to share intimate and vulnerable emotions. However, if you aren’t willing to experiment with processing then I suspect the closeness of your relationship could be limited, and you guys could be headed for trouble.
BEING NUMBER ONE
Here’s why learning to talk about feelings is extra important in the context of an open relationship. Most of us enter into long-term relationships because we want to feel special to another person. We want that experience of being number one in the eyes of our partner.
Additional sex partners can be perceived as a threat to the special safety we long for in our long-term relationships. Some of us may not feel threatened on a conscious level, but I believe most of us do feel it unconsciously. And in some manly circles, it is not cool to admit that.
So if you want the experience of an open relationship that works, you will need to continually tell each other how much you love each other, how deeply committed you are to the partnership, and how glad you are to see him. Lots of hugs and kisses will need to be exchanged.
HEARING ABOUT IT
Additionally, you will need to listen without getting defensive while your partner tells you about their moments of insecurity when you have sex with others. You will need to encourage this kind of sharing. And you’ll need to push yourself to express your own feelings of vulnerability or jealousy when he plays with others.
You are not responsible for changing your partner’s emotions but you are responsible for listening to them. Make sure that your partner feels heard by you. Repeat back to him what you heard him say so you both know if you really listened.
WHAT IS OK?
Beyond feelings, couples must also agree on the guidelines of sex outside of the relationship. They need to talk about what kind of sex is acceptable and what is not. These rules will require negotiation. Again, lots more talking. A good book on this subject is called The Ethical Slut, written by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt.
The core actions of a successful open relationship are identical to those of a successful monogamous relationship: Shower your partner with attention, offer lots of physical touch, share your more vulnerable feelings, and listen well when he does the same.
These principles are easier to say than to do. They require practice and risk, with lots of missteps along the way.
Monogamous couples can sometimes get away with avoiding this work and do OK. Not great, but OK. But couples in open relationships never do well in an autopilot relationship. To be successful in working through the inevitable hurt feelings, these couples need to lead the way on relationships based on deep communication and empathy.
Adam D. Blum, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in relationship and self-esteem issues for gay men. Adam offers services in his San Francisco office or by Skype and phone worldwide. Visit his website to subscribe to his e-newsletter and his free guide on building gay relationships. Follow him on Facebook and read his blog. Send your questions for possible publication to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Questions may be edited.)