It’s not uncommon for couples to explore the idea of introducing other lovers and partners to their relationship. For some, it never gets past an “idea in the privacy of my personal fantasy” stage; some couples share the fantasy fodder but never pursue it in practice. And a great many people choose to find out what’s out there, both in ethical and unethical ways. As ethical non-monogamy becomes an increasingly-talked-about topic, more couples are finding this idea slowly creeping or gleefully leaping into their conscious considerations.
What is “Ethical Non-monogamy”?
What does it mean to open the door to other sexual partners in an otherwise-until-now monogamous relationship? It means so many different things to different people that it’s impossible to encapsulate all the varieties of non-monogamy covered by the more nebulous umbrella headings like, “swinging” and “polyamory.” There are constant, evolving discussions even within these non-monogamy communities about what’s open and what is not.
The short answer—there are almost as many different ways of practicing ethical non-monogamy as there are people practicing non-monogamy. Polyamory author and advocate Tristan Taormino writes, “I had an important epiphany while putting this book together: there is no formula for an open relationship. Everyone does non-monogamy differently. Each story and each relationship are unique. There are similarities and patterns, but no one does it exactly the same as anyone else.” This can make things challenging for couples researching how best to open up their relationship without rocking the boat, or running it aground completely.
How Do We Open Up Safely?
Kathy Labriola, an American therapist and polyamory advocate, suggests all couples start with four steps:
- Examine your motives. Why does opening the relationship seem like a good idea? What’s in it for the relationship, and each of its constituents, when we consider expanding to include other lovers/partners?
- Pick a model that’s right for both of you, and do your best to negotiate expectations and boundaries openly and equitably.
- Pick compatible partners. This means choosing partners who want and consent to having the same type of relationship that you’re offering, and who will actively respect their relationship with you, the relationship you have with your original partner, and any relationships your original partner might also have. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE how much impact the stress of incompatible expectations will have on a relational network as they come to light.
- Build on a firm foundation. As Labriola writes, “you cannot build an open relationship if there are some serious problems in your current relationship.” And in the same way, having a baby rarely fixes the problems and disconnects in a relationship, simply adding additional lovers or partners won’t fix things in the current relationship, either.
Couple Privilege and Hierarchies
Often, couples coming from a monogamous model want to retain the privileged primacy of the current relationship, somehow; this may make sense from the perspective of shared resource management around a mortgage, kids, shared businesses, etc., as a way of guaranteeing that time and attention, in particular, go to the established relationship as top priority. Often this puts the incoming relationships on a non-equal footing as “secondary” relationships in a hierarchical, couple-centric structure. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though the anti-hierarchy and relationship anarchy camps inside the ethical non-monogamy movement will often suggest otherwise. It does mean that anyone coming into the structure understand what that means, though, and freely consents to accept the constraints that hierarchy generally places on relationship development.
It can be challenging for couples to give up the privileged center, especially right off the bat when opening the relationship, and sometimes people with anxious or insecure attachments styles will have a hard time giving up what feels like a secured place in a hierarchical structure at all. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in an open relationship, but it does suggest that all parties need to be self-aware and compassionate when negotiating with potential new partners about what they’re really available for, and expect from, new partners within a defined (and probably rigid) relational structure. The clearer all parties can be about what’s ACTUALLY part of the offer and what boundaries exist between relationship expectations, the more likely the incoming parties can genuinely provide informed consent to participation within that hierarchy. Not everyone takes offence to being a non-primary partner, but it does take some special conversations to make sure everyone is truly good with that understanding.
The Challenge of Protecting “Specialness”
Another challenge for new polyfolk in a couple-centred model is the idea that something(s) may be retained as special privileges for the primary couple only. Special privileges may be limitations on when and how dates with others take place, limits on what kinds of activities are permitted (especially sexually) or on where those activities can happen. One limitation that will commonly send new poly couples into counselling is an attempt to limit emotional connections and the inevitable breach that occurs when someone “accidentally falls in love.” Another common distress trigger will be when one partner asks to shift the boundaries around the protected specialness in the heat of the moment, which often works out less-happily than hoped for someone.
Sometimes the issue with these limitations isn’t about the thing that’s limited, but it’s about the need to protect something’s ”specialness,” something that proves to one or both partners that the primary relationships is, in fact, both primary and special. This becomes increasingly important to new poly couples as other relationships start to take on shape and substance that have them looking more and more like the primary relationship. Navigating conversations to clarify the source of potential distress when the words of the argument revolve around specific acts, but the fears underlying the argument are all about the impact of threatened or lost “specialness”, can make this a particularly tricky piece of relationship processing.
But When Things DO Work…
With other relationship models increasingly coming into mainstream awareness and discussion, experimentation is rarely far behind. Morality detaches from rigid religious codes and gender-biased, traditional role models. Couples talk about sex more, and share fantasies more, so it’s a short step from pillow-talk to active investigation. Transitioning into an open relationship is a challenging path with a lot of complex personal stuff to work through along the way, but what we can teach ourselves about self-awareness, communication, consent, intimacy, and respectful sexual and relational delight through these explorations is often worthwhile to the adventurous. Even if it never gets beyond the tried-it-once stage, the lessons learned are often applicable to the core relationship afterward; everyone comes away from the experiences having learned something useful about themselves and their partner(s) that shapes things from there onward.
Sexology International, like all of our work, is for people of all sexual preferences and all forms of gender expression, including people whose identity is something other than male or female. As such, we like to use gender-neutral pronouns. More recently accepted alternatives include words like “ze” and “hir” or the universal pronoun “they.” Throughout our work, we will be doing our best to use alternative pronouns, such as “they,” whenever gender or plurality is unimportant. In doing so we hope it helps everyone to feel included in the discussion and that it inspires you to think outside of traditional sex and gender binaries.