To start, they are not the same thing as polygamy (that’s when you have more than one spouse). They are also not maintaining secret relationships while dating a person who believes he or she is your one and only (that’s just cheating).
Polyamorous open relationships, or consensual non-monogamy, are an umbrella category. Their expression can take a range of forms focusing on both physical and emotional intimacy with secondary or tertiary partners , though some relationships can veer toward strictly the physical and resemble 1970s-era swinging or group sex.
To better understand open relationships, we talked to several experts: Dan Savage, an author and gay-rights activist who writes a column about sex and relationships called Savage Love; Elisabeth Sheff, who over two decades has interviewed more than 130 people about non-monogamy and written three books on the topic; and Karley Sciortino, sex and relationships columnist for Vogue and Vice and creator of the blog “Slutever.”
We distilled their thoughts into seven key points.
1. Open relationships aren’t for everyone. Neither is monogamy
Among people who study or write about interpersonal relationships, there’s a concept known as sociosexuality, which describes how willing people are to engage in uncommitted sexual relationships. Sociosexuality is considered an orientation, such as being gay, straight, bisexual or somewhere in between.
If you’re on one end of the sociosexual scale, it might be hard to match with a potential partner on the other . “Growing up, you’re told to find people with the same interests and hobbies, but never told to find someone sexually compatible to you,” Ms. Sciortino said. She recommends figuring out early on whether the person you’re dating is a match on the scale.
Mr. Savage explained that people who would prefer an open relationship sometimes avoid asking for it as they drift into an emotional commitment because they’re afraid of rejection. But “if monogamy isn’t something you think you’ll be capable of for five or six decades, you should be anxious to get rejected,” he said. Saying quiet about your needs can lead to problems down the line and result in cheating.
That said, a lot of people aren’t on opposite ends of the scale. Mr. Savage, who is in a non-monogamous marriage, said that when he first brought up being open to his husband, he rejected the idea. But several years later, it was his husband who suggested they try it.
“If I had put that I’m interested in non-monogamy on my personal ad, and my husband had seen that personal ad, he wouldn’t have dated me,” Mr. Savage said.
2. Polyamory is not an exit strategy.
Open relationships aren’t the way to soften a blow or to transition out of a committed situation. “If they cheat first, and say, ‘Honey, I’ve found someone else; we’ve been together six months,’ it’s very hard to successfully navigate that,” Dr. Sheff said.
Doing something with other people before discussing it essentially betrays your partner’s trust. And trust and communication are crucial in any relationship, whether it’s monogamous or not.
3. Nor is it an option to just keep a relationship going.
“If it’s to avoid breaking up, I have never seen that work,” Dr. Sheff said. “I’ve seen it limp along for a few months. If it’s out of fear of losing the polyamorous person, that’s a disaster in the making. It’s like a lesbian trying to be happy in a relationship with a man.”
Pretending to be happy with a situation while suffering inside doesn’t work for anyone.
4. Rules and situations can change.
“Non-monogamy is a basket of possibilities,” Mr. Savage said. He said that sometimes a person’s first reaction to a suggestion of opening the relationship is anxiety. “They’re going to have this panic response and assume you’re going to have 7,000 partners in a year and they’re never going to see you,” he said. But non-monogamy can be expressed in a range of ways: Some couples only have sex with other people, others date them and fall for them, others are open about being open and yet others keep their openness “in the closet” socially.
“It seems boundless,” Ms. Sciortino said. “But actually, there are so many more rules in non-monogamous relationships than in monogamous ones. There’s only one rule in monogamous relationships.”
For her, pushing her boundaries and talking about them forced her to be honest with herself about what she prefers and to learn to communicate well and clearly. “I don’t think it’s possible to understand your comfort zone until you try,” she said.
5. Prioritizing a primary partner is key.
A term familiar to people who practice non-monogamy is “new relationship energy.” It’s that excited feeling when two compatible people are getting to know each other and want to spend every minute together.
The problem with new relationship energy is that it can make a primary partner feel forgotten. “Your long-term partner can feel hurt if you’re taking your relationship for granted,” Dr. Sheff said. “Wear your special lingerie, surprise them, bring them flowers.”
For some people, it’s not a big deal if their partner has sex with someone else, but they can feel slighted if they are being emotionally neglected.
“It’s emotional cheating that people want to protect themselves from,” Mr. Savage said. He brought up an example from when he was dating his now-husband, who bought a Christmas tree with a good friend. The situation made Mr. Savage jealous in a way that his boyfriend’s having sex with someone else wouldn’t have. “Going Christmas tree shopping is what you do with your boyfriend,” he said.
So his pro tip? “Demonstrate that they are your first priority.” It’s called a primary partner for a reason.
6. Those sharing a lover can get along too.
Dr. Sheff said that in her experience, the most successful non-monogamous relationships are the ones in which the lovers’ partners (the ones who aren’t sleeping with each other) get along. As an example, she brought up a married couple in which the woman developed a relationship with another man when she was pregnant with her second child.
“The boyfriend and husband would do all sorts of stuff together,” Dr. Sheff said. After eight years, the relationship between the woman and her boyfriend ended, but her husband maintained his friendship with the other man.
“They had lunch every other Saturday where the husband would bring the kids,” Dr. Sheff said. “It worked because the husband didn’t have a sexual relationship with the boyfriend.”
In this polyamorous situation, and others she has seen succeed, the partners who are not sexually involved are the glue that kept the group together.
7. Jealousy is present, but not unique.
“A woman once asked me, ‘Don’t you get jealous?,’ ” Mr. Savage said. “And I looked at her and said, ‘Don’t you?’ Monogamous commitments aren’t force fields that protect you from jealousy.”
Jealousy is a universal emotion that transcends sociosexuality states.
“I always say I want to do whatever I want, and I want my partner to be in a cage when I’m not around,” Ms. Sciortino said. And while that kind of setup is possible, it’s not exactly the one she’s looking for.
So what does she recommend? “Put yourself in their position,” she said. “If you can have sex with someone else and it doesn’t take away from your love and even enhances it, you have to allow them the same freedoms.”
Dr. Sheff suggested taking a close look at the underlying causes of the jealousy: Is it insecurity? Fear? Maybe it’s even justified? “Sometimes jealousy is a signal that you really are being slighted,” she said.
Tips for confronting jealousy in open relationships are the same as in most other relationships: writing down your thoughts, talking out your feelings with your partner, seeing a counselor.
And that, all three experts were quick to note, may be the most important point to understand: In many ways, open relationships aren’t all that different from monogamous ones. The best way to feel comfortable is up to individuals and their partner(s).
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