Welcome to Reader’s Request Fridays. As a reminder, I’ll be addressing one reader email every other week, so if you have a specific question you’d like answered or a topic you’d like covered, please email me. If you’re interested in counseling, call (415) 658-5738 or visit my Appointments page to schedule a consultation.
This week’s question comes from Davis*. He writes, “I’m interested in your take on Poly relationships. My girlfriend and I have been struggling with intimacy issues and she has been talking about opening up our relationship.”
Thanks for your question.
The first thing I want to address is the difference between polyamorous (poly) relationships and open relationships. Both these terms are used for relationships that are more fluid than typical monogamous relationships.
The broader umbrella term here is open relationships, which simply means that the relationship isn’t necessarily monogamous. Both partners have the option to engage in sexual contact with other people.
Poly implies that you have multiple relationships. You are in love with, or committed to, more than one person.
A lot of people use “poly” and “open” interchangeably, and there are also words like “monogamish”, “fluid”, “polycurious”, “polyfidelity”, and “swinging”.
My intention in pointing out that there is a difference is not to get hung up on technicalities, but to encourage you and your girlfriend to make sure you’re on the same page. It doesn’t matter what the words mean to the general public, so long as they mean the same thing to the both of you.
In other words – what kind of “openness” are you each talking about?
My biggest piece of advice for those considering opening up their relationship is to do your research first.
I think The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide To Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures is a great place to start. As the title implies, there’s a lot of practical, useful information about what to expect when embarking on this adventure together. The book will help you and your girlfriend have a candid conversations about why you want to open up your relationship, what you’re each looking for, and how to maintain your connection throughout the process.
Of course you can’t anticipate exactly what will happen once you open up your relationship, but it can be useful to get a sense of some of the common issues. Talking through things before you get started is crucial.
One of the big areas to explore is going to be defining your “rules”. Co-creating a set of guidelines can be a bonding experience, and it ensures that you both know what is expected of you. (As an aside, this is also an experience that can be beneficial for many monogamous couples).
Here are just a few of the many questions to consider:
Who are you each allowed or not allowed to hook up with?
Is it OK to have casual hookups? One night stands?
Where should hookups take place? Are there any areas that are off-limits?
Which sexual behaviors are acceptable? For instance, you may feel comfortable with your partner kissing someone else, but not OK with them having sex with someone else.
Are you allowed to go out on dates with other people?
Is it OK to start a romantic relationship with another person?
Are you comfortable with your partner being in love with someone else?
One great guideline for beginners is to try to build in opportunities to check in with how the process is going. After each of you hook up with someone new for the first time, take the time to talk to each other about how you are feeling. You can even schedule weekly or monthly check-in times.
You may also want to talk through some of the following “what-if” scenarios. Many of these are bound to happen, and it’s a good idea to picture yourself in each of the following circumstances.
Acknowledge and talk through the feelings you could imagine coming up for you:
What happens if you don’t like the person your partner is hooking up with/dating/in love with? Do you have some sort of veto power?
Will your girlfriend continue to be your “primary” partner?
How will you split your time between partners?
What happens if one of you breaks one of the “rules”?
What if you agree not to have other relationships, but one of you ends up inadvertently developing feelings for one of your casual hook-up buddies?
What if your partner is able to find someone else to hook up with quickly, but you can’t find anyone?
What happens when someone gets jealous?
What if someone changes their mind and wants to close the relationship again?
Finally, I want to issue a word of caution about taking such a big step during a precarious time in your relationship. You mention that you and your girlfriend have been “struggling” lately.
Deciding to open up your relationship is a big step, and one best taken when your relationship is on steady ground. Nothing is going to “fix” your relationship or intimacy issues other than you and your girlfriend deciding to work on your problems together.
Opening up your relationship can bring a lot of love and joy into your life, but it can also bring a lot of complication and heartache. It requires honest communication, careful planning, and (pun not intended!) an open heart.
* Names changed to protect privacy