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Grand Opening: A Beginners’ Guide to Open Relationships

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Just what is an open relationship, anyway? Let's find out!

  Open Relationships 101

In the monogamous world, sex and deep emotional relationships are linked— the person you have sex with is the person you love, and you don’t have sex with anyone else without betraying that relationship. Polyamory, the most common form of open relationship, on the other hand, is based on the idea that the links between sex and love are more complicated. ‘Polyamory’ combines the Greek words poly (many) and amore (love)—and that’s a pretty accurate description. (Actually, “amor” is Latin, and one of the frequent complaints from more educated polyamorous folks is that the term is technically incorrect because it mixes Greek and Latin roots. Ah, those cunning linguists. I think they have too much time on their hands.)

Polyamorous relationships are about renegotiating boundaries.

Rather than abiding by the rules our parents taught us, polyamorists prefer to make their own rules, ones that reflect their own values and ideas. Adherents point out that in a country where the divorce rate is more than 50 percent, it makes sense to allow people to explore their desires openly and honestly, in a way that respects the relationship, instead of cheating and lying. After all, for the majority of us, if we are being honest, making a commitment to one person doesn’t mean we will stop being attracted to others. Mainstream advice columnists will be the first to tell you that this is so, and rather than tell readers explore the options, they caution to avoid situations that “can get out of hand.”

One form of open relationship involves a partnership between three individuals. This is known as a triad. In such a set-up, there can either be two (known as a “V/vee”) or three (“triangle”) romantic relationships—which basically means that not all the participants are necessarily involved on an intimate level, physical level. For example, say Sally is “married” to Kate and Roger. Sally has sex with Kate and Roger, but Kate and Roger do not have sex with one another.

More common are committed couples that maintain liaisons outside of the primary relationship. Such arrangements usually have a strict hierarchy of primary and secondary partners, with defined roles for each. One or both members of the ‘primary’ couple may be dating or in a relationship with a secondary party at any given time. Whatever relationships they’ve got going on, though, all participants are aware of who is dating whom.

However, there are some polyamorists who aren’t interested in hierarchical relationships at all, and this is a growing section of the vocal poly community. Noted author, director, and Queen of All Things Anal (and the niece of Thomas Pynchon!) Tristan Taormino refers to those persons who are basically their own primary partner, and for whom long-term committed relationships don’t have to equate to “primary” or marriage standards as “solo polyamorists”.

  Expanding Your Horizons

Let’s say Wendy and Erika have been life partners for 10 years. They’re deeply in love and committed to one another, but Erika is bisexual and wants to explore her attraction to men. Wendy is a lesbian, but she’s also feeling a desire for something new and exciting. It’s a situation that has disaster written all over it. How easy would it be for one or both of them to have an affair? Rather than letting curiosity trump trust, however, the couple decides instead to explore the idea of opening up their relationship. “It’s natural for us to be attracted to other people,” Wendy points out, “so why should we be ashamed enough to lie about it? Why can’t I be as open with Erika about my attraction to other people as I am about everything else? I still love her and want to be with her.”

What sets polyamory apart from cheating is open, honest communication. Cheating involves deception, lying, and betraying your partner’s expectations. In an open relationship, everyone knows what’s going on. Some couples even give one another veto power over potential partners; others write out a contract that specifies the rules and boundaries. Some couples are fine with casual sex, but aren’t comfortable maintaining more than one committed emotional relationship at a time. Some are okay with a long-term commitment to two people, but set strict rules about how they divide their time between partners. Others may allow unprotected sex (or, for that matter, children) between primary partners, but not with secondary partners. Everyone has different boundaries, so the rules can vary, and that’s the point—to create a set of bylaws (or bi-laws) that’s right for you. Of course, this only works if both partners agree to give up monogamy as a condition of the primary relationship.

  Where to Begin

If you’re thinking about opening up your current relationship, or are interested in test-driving multiple-partner relationships at some point down the road, here are some questions to ask yourself and discuss with your partner:

Why do you want an open relationship? There are lots of great reasons to open up your relationship—and there are also some not-so-great reasons. If one of you wants to break up, an open relationship is not a good solution. If one of you is reluctantly agreeing to an open relationship to keep the other one happy, you’re almost guaranteed to run into more drama than Desperate Housewives. You know how they say that having a baby won’t fix a broken relationship? Well, neither will polyamory. On the other hand, if you’re happily involved, but want to explore new people or new sides of your sexuality, an open relationship might work well for you.

How secure is the relationship you’re currently in? If your primary relationship is relatively new, you would be wise to spend an adequate amount of time getting to know one another and building a solid foundation before introducing an unknown element. The more you understand, trust and communicate honestly with one another, the more likely you are to feel comfortable in what can be an unfamiliar and frightening new situation.

The keys to an open relationship are honesty, communication and trust. If you have these before exploring the idea of opening your relationship up, you should be in a good position to get started. If you don’t, it’s very, very important that you work these issues out before leaping into a relationship with anyone new—especially if you or your partner have issues with jealousy. It’s crucial that both of you feel as secure as possible—with each other, and also with yourselves, as poor self-esteem is a red flag for experienced poly folk—prior to introducing a third party into the mix. Many people seek couples’ therapy to explore whether polyamory is right for them. (If you do, it’s important to find a therapist who is amenable to the idea. Polychromatic offers some listings.)

What do you want from an open relationship? Are you looking for casual sex partners? An intense emotional relationship? A co-parent for your kids? Think about how much time you want to commit to dating and/or a new relationship. How will this new person fit into your life? Do you want a potential partner to be close with your primary partner, or do you prefer some distance between them? It’s really important to discuss your expectations with your primary before you get started. If the two of you want very different things, you’ll need to negotiate a compromise that you both can live with.

What are your boundaries? Answer this question as honestly as possible. Write down your answers and talk them over with your partner. Boundaries can be anything at all: Maybe you want to keep your home as a sacred space for your primary relationship, and see other partners outside the home. Maybe you’re okay with your partner having oral or vaginal sex with someone else, but not anal (or vice versa). Maybe you hate the thought of your sweetie making his special homemade chocolate meringue pie for anybody but you. Whatever rubs you the wrong way, even if it feels small or insignificant to you, write it down and talk about it. If you both know what’s allowed and what’s not, you’ll know where you stand, and you can tell your hot new fling exactly what they can and can’t expect from you.

After you’ve had a few polyamorous experiences, your boundaries may change, so take time to re-explore the issue. Once you’ve begun dating, you’ll be discovering new things about yourself and your relationship. You can’t always predict what might push your emotional buttons, so keep the lines of communication open, and tell your partner right away if you’re not comfortable with something that’s going on. Knowing your own boundaries, as well as those of your partner, can save you both a world of pain.

  The Dating Game

One of the biggest questions when dating is when to bring up the fact that you have a primary partner, but are in open relationship. If you meet someone at the bookstore, you may want to set up a test date to see if you like each other well enough to take the next step before launching into the details of your personal life, and letting them know what you’re into. Break the news in whatever way seems right to you, but don’t get past the first date without explaining your situation. Not everyone will react positively, and you don’t want to mislead anyone. Be prepared for lots of questions, and answer them honestly and with a sense of humor. Any potential partner should have a clear idea of what you’re asking them to become a part of.

The popularity of dating and social networking Web sites makes the process a lot easier, at least on certain levels, because everyone is ostensibly there for the same reason. You can simply put your cards on the table up front as part of your personal profile. Potential partners are “pre-qualified,” if you will. If your date is aware that you are polyamorous from jump, it will save confusion later. Whereas, it can be a little hinky, when you’re on a first date that’s going really well, and you have to stop and say, “Oh, by the way, I have a primary partner that I am in love with and committed to, but we have an open relationship, and I would love to have multiple casual sex encounters with you.” (Of course, the look on your date’s face might be worth the risk.)

Once you’ve gotten the “I’m polyamorous and you’re okay” part out of the way, it’s important to follow the rules that you and you partner have agreed upon. Keep your partner informed about the progress of your new relationship. While you might not want to know the details should your primary find him or herself in a new tryst, you might find that your partner is incredibly turned on by a blow-by-blow account of last night’s hookup. Many couples find that sex with new people brings a renewed sense of excitement and energy to the primary relationship.

Polyamory isn’t for everyone—but then again, neither is monogamy. If you’re thinking about opening up your relationship, or dating someone who already has, be as honest as you can with yourself and your partner (or partners). If you’re doing it for the right reasons, and are committed to the pleasure and well being of the people you love, you might just be in for the ride of your life.


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