What if you’re already in a monogamous relationship now, and you feel leanings towards a more open relationship experience? Should you discuss this with your current partner or keep it to yourself? What if you aren’t 100% sure about your feelings yet? Should you wait until you’re certain?
First off, there are no shoulds. You’re free to choose whatever you like. So instead of telling you what you should or shouldn’t do, I’ll simply share some perspectives to help you make your own conscious choice here.
A common challenge in relationships is the “grass is greener” syndrome. You know what you’ve experienced in your relationship life thus far, and you may have a pretty good idea about what you like within the realm of your past experience, but how can you evaluate completely new experiences?
In other words, how can you tell if you’d really like something before you’ve tried it?
If you’ve always been monogamous, and you ponder the idea of open relationships, how can you tell if this new path is a good fit for you? How do you determine whether you should stay monogamous or begin exploring open relationships?
The answer — which you may not like very much — is that you can’t tell. At least you can’t tell from where you currently stand. You won’t discover how you feel about the other side unless you actively explore the other side.
Even after you explore the other side for a while, you may still not be 100% certain. Human relationships have many variables, and just because you’ve had some good monogamous relationships thus far doesn’t mean that any monogamous relationship with anyone would work well for you. Similarly, you may explore open relationships and find that some of them work well for you and some don’t. This isn’t the kind of exploration you can completely figure out within a few weeks.
But only by exploring do you have any hope of learning what the experience is really like for you and how you feel about it. This exploration is unlikely to be simple or short-term. Exploring open relationships is like saying, “Let me check out this Internet thing and see what that’s about.”
Should You Tell Your Partner?
Again, no shoulds here… but let’s consider the options.
How can you tell your current partner about your interest in open relationships while you’re still in a place of uncertainty? Wouldn’t it be unfair to unload that onto your partner when you aren’t even sure yet?
The Catch 22 here is: How can you ever be sure about something you’ve never experienced? You can’t. So if you wait until you’re certain, you’ll be waiting forever. In order to get the certainty you desire, you’ll need to explore, and that requires beginning your exploration while you’re still uncertain.
Few people in a mono relationship suddenly wake up one day and say, “Wait a minute… I’m really an open relationships person. What am I doing in a mono relationship now? I’d better switch formats.”
You may suspect that you’d enjoy a more open relationship style, but you can’t really be sure until you try it. So what sense does it make to tell your partner if you can’t be sure?
You could try doing your homework first. You could read books about open relationships (see my polyamory resources page for a good place to start). You could talk to people with more experience about it. You could lean into this to whatever degree feels good to you, without crossing any lines that could be considered cheating.
That isn’t a bad idea if you’re just starting out, but it probably won’t help as much as you’d like. Relationships are just too experiential. Reading about other people’s experiences of open relationships can’t give you an accurate sense of what it would actually be like for you.
I read many books on open relationships first, including those on the resources page I mentioned. At the time I thought they were mildly helpful, but looking back, the stories shared by those authors really didn’t match up with my own interests and intentions very well. While this sort of reading helped me feel like I was at least doing something to get started, it also slowed me down in some ways because I didn’t find other people’s experiences very compelling.
Real relationships are so varied and dynamic that it may be difficult to truly relate to other people’s experiences in this area. Your own exploration will undoubtedly be unique.
The question to ask yourself is this: If I go another 10 years as-is, would I regret that I never explored this path?
One of the top deathbed regrets that people have is not sharing their feelings honestly. Another major regret is not being true to themselves — and putting too much weight on satisfying the expectations of others.
While it may seem very difficult to share your honest feelings with your current partner, I highly recommend that you do this, regardless of what you feel the consequences may be. To hold back in this way would be enormously detrimental to your growth, not to mention your sanity.
You don’t have to be certain. It’s perfectly fine to be feeling fuzzy and unclear. You don’t have to be able to explain it well. It’s okay to fumble as you spit the words out and go back and clarify again and again. You can still communicate your thoughts and feelings to your current partner as best you can. And you can do that right now.
How Will Your Partner React?
How your partner initially reacts isn’t something you control. I’ve seen reactions all across the spectrum when people have done this.
Sometimes the partner freaks out and perceives this as a threat. Sometimes the partner is supportive or curious, even though they’re convinced that monogamy is the best choice for them. Sometimes the partner gets really quiet and becomes nearly catatonic. And sometimes the partner is just as interested, if not more interested, in what it would be like to open up the relationship.
I can’t tell you how your partner will react. Even when people think they know, they’re sometimes surprised. If you’ve been keeping this from your partner thus far, there’s a chance that s/he has been keeping similar thoughts and feelings from you as well. There’s also a good chance your partner won’t be that surprised… especially if you’ve been reading a bunch of books on open relationships, purely out of curiosity of course.
But the main pattern I keep seeing is that regardless of how the partner reacts, the initiator is happier on the other side. A relationship that makes us feel like we have to hold back, even from exploring areas we aren’t yet sure about, is too much of a cage to yield long-term happiness. That sort of situation generally creates long-term ambivalence… which ultimately leads to apathy or resentment.
Does Your Partner Want You to Be Happy?
A healthy monogamous relationship will support you in your happiness and growth, even if it means exploring alternative relationship styles. Your partner may not wish to join you in that exploration, but they can still support you in what you feel drawn to explore, and at the very least, they can avoid blocking you from exploring what you’re curious about. How else are you going to learn and grow?
So when you inform your partner of your interest in exploring more openness, one thing you’ll learn is how healthy your current relationship really is. Do you have a partner who’s conscious and accepting enough to support you on this path, even if they’re sure it isn’t for them? Or do you have a more fear-based, scarcity minded partner who responds with clinginess, neediness, and desperation?
In other words, you’ll learn how healthy the friendship aspect of your current relationship is. If your friendship is strong, you’ll work through this just fine. If your friendship with your partner is weak, it will probably be messier.
If you’re in the weak friendship situation, then you’ll learn an important relationship lesson that applies to both mono and open relationships: Relationships between great friends tend to work out well. Even if you decide to break up in some fashion, the friendship can often still be preserved.
If your partner supports your exploration, that’s great. You can begin discussing how you’ll lean into this and what you’d like to explore, either on your own or together as a couple.
But what if your partner objects?
First, you can continue discussing this. Some people are initially stunned and surprised, but as they have more time to think about it, they realize they can be okay with it.
If your partner continues to object, even a week after you’ve shared this interest, then you have to question the quality of this relationship and ask yourself whether it’s worth maintaining. Why is your partner unable to support your path of growth in this area? What happened to your friendship?
In this case your partner has put you in the difficult position of choosing between them and your path of growth. Any partner who does that is ultimately putting themselves in a losing position. They’re not only threatening your relationship as a couple; they’re also threatening your friendship. What kind of friend would try to block another friend from learning, growing, and exploring on a path with a heart?
If you choose to drop your interest in open relationships and stay with your partner, resentment will surely build. You’ll begin to notice other areas where this partner is expressing neediness and scarcity-mindedness. You’ll notice when they try to manipulate you with fear, shame, and guilt. The part of you that wants to grow and explore — the part that took the risk of sharing the truth with your partner — is going to want to continue that exploration, and it’s not going to be happy being stuffed back into a box. This relationship will eventually self-destruct. The friendship just isn’t strong enough. If you aren’t conscious about what’s happening here, you could drag this out for years. Please don’t do that to yourself. Just let it go. Set your partner free to find a better friend, and set yourself free to do the same.
If you choose to explore your path of growth and let go of your objecting partner, you may not feel so great about this at first. It’s a tough decision emotionally, and you may have a lot of uncertainty even as you move forward, especially if you’re married and/or have kids. But in the long run, you’ll feel much better that you didn’t hold back and that you explored what your heart called you to explore. And you’ll attract much better matches in terms of friendship, which makes for much better lovers too.
What You Can’t See Yet
The thing is… when you’re in a closed relationship, you have some blind spots regarding what life would actually be like on the other side.
There are actually a lot of people with very flexible attitudes towards relationships, and many of them would be delighted to connect with you, but they’re not telling you this now. In fact, they’re actively hiding this from you.
What I’m saying is that there are people in your life right now who might love to get more involved with you, but they’re keeping this interest from you because they respect your choice to be in a closed relationship, and they’re not interested in messing with your existing situation. So instead, they’ll connect with you only in a limited fashion, reserving their deepest intimacies for those who are clearly open and available.
This was a big shocker for me when I first began exploring open relationships. People who were already in my life while I was married suddenly began expressing interest, first in fairly subtle ways and then a bit more overtly as time progressed.
These days I probably have more friends who are into open relationships than closed ones, and I see this fascinating dynamic play out all the time. When my open friends are together, they tend to connect very freely with each other. But when a closed relationship person is in the mix, it’s like the open people go into secret society mode, at least partly. They respect the closed person’s choices and have no desire to flaunt their openness, which might make the closed person feel uncomfortable.
There are countless variations on this dynamic, so this is definitely an oversimplification, but the basic idea is that people in closed relationships are simply not seeing the full spectrum of what’s possible. And they’re especially not seeing how others would relate to them if they advertised a more open posture. Other people are definitely responding to the vibe you’re putting out.
With marriage in particular, the common pattern is to assume it’s a closed relationship. So if you wear a wedding ring, you’re actively advertising your lack of availability, at least to certain people. Take off the ring, and you may find that people start relating to you differently. Again, this is an oversimplification; I recognize that some open people are actually more attracted to married partners. But more often than not, I find that open people will take the advertisement of a closed relationship as a sign that the person isn’t interested in connecting in certain ways.
Even when someone initially steps into the open relationship waters, other open people may be a bit cautious with them at first. Partly this is because people who are truly open don’t want to step into the potential minefield of dealing with a pseudo-open person who might experience discomfort, jealousy, shame, or other negative feelings about being open. So don’t expect the full bounty of potential partners to present itself to you just because you announce your decision to be open. The more you shift your vibe towards openness and become comfortable with it, the easier it will be for other people to approach you.
Generally speaking, human beings are exceptionally good at reading each other’s vibes. You just have to accept that you’re putting out a certain vibe when it comes to your degree of openness, and other people are reading you like a book. Others can tell if you’re tense about your relationship posture or if you’re relaxed and at peace with who you’ve become.
Don’t Be Fake
This is not a situation where I’d suggest “fake it till you make it.” There’s absolutely no need to be fake. As you lean into open relationships, please accept wherever you are on this path, and be willing to share that honestly with others. You don’t have to pretend that you’re shamelessly brave or free of jealousy while you’re actually feeling that the whole experience is a bit beyond your comfort zone.
Instead I recommend that if you’re a newbie engaging in this type of exploration, go ahead and broadcast that. Post on your social media pages that you’re leaning towards open relationships and want to learn more about this. That’s a great thing to do.
Sure, some people may freak out and unfriend you, but so what? That’s a sign that those were weak friendships to begin with. You’ll make new friends who will support your path of growth.
The benefit is that once you advertise what you’re getting into, you invite support from others who are a little further along than you are.
I’ve been on this path for about 3 years now. I’m far enough along to feel comfortable with it, I know that I like it, and I want to keep living this way for the foreseeable future. But I’m not so far past the newbie period that I can’t remember what it was like to get started. This year I’ve been feeling a special fondness for people who are just beginning on a similar journey.
When I learn that someone is leaning into a more open relationship posture, I enjoy hanging out with them and discussing it. I like talking about the reality of what it’s actually like and dispelling myths about it. I like introducing them to open friends that would be positive influences for them. And if it seems appropriate, I may enjoy giving them the opportunity to dabble in some exploration with me, at a pacing they control, so they can see what it feels like without having to make any sort of commitment to it.
Partly I enjoy connecting with people who are just starting on this path because it helps me understand the progress I’ve made, and I also gain clarity about what I’d like to explore next.
I’m certainly not the only one who enjoys welcoming people onto the open relationships path. Lots of open people are like this. But how will they notice you if you hide your interest, or if you pretend you’re an expert when you’re just starting out?
If you really want to explore open relationships, and you want more personal help doing so, then it helps a lot if you stop hiding and raise your visibility. The people I know who are happiest on this path are surrounded by friends who all know what they’re into. They aren’t in hiding.
When I transitioned out of my marriage in 2009 and began earnestly exploring open relationships, I sought a lot of counsel from people who’d been on this path for years, even decades. That was helpful in the beginning since I quickly dropped some limiting beliefs and invited new experiences as a result of these connections. But over time I found that I really had to evolve my own relationship style. I couldn’t model other people very much. I could appreciate that their styles worked for them, but I didn’t find anyone whose style of relating felt totally congruent for me.
The most helpful part of learning from other people was seeing that instead of wanting, they were enjoying having. It was nice to see how they turned their desires into reality. This made me think more deeply about my own desires, and I realized I had to gain more experience just to figure out what I really wanted. Now I have a lot more clarity about what I like, so it’s easier for me to create that. It’s tough to create what you don’t quite understand.
When I think back to what it was like to be mono, it’s hard to remember how I thought and felt back then. Staying receptive to new connections seems so normal and natural now that it’s hard to imagine I didn’t always feel that way. If I tried to go back to mono now, it would feel cold, heartless, insensitive, and uncaring… like turning down the volume of love in my life till it’s nearly muted.
The outsider’s perspective on open relationships is to overplay the sexual aspect. They often see this path as being all about the sex — being open means having more sex with more partners. To these people, an open relationship is synonymous with sleeping around.
But the insider’s perspective is different. Perhaps the best way I can explain it is that it’s about creating deeper friendships. You already have multiple friends right now, don’t you? Well, what if you started getting more emotionally and/or physically intimate with some of your friends? And what if you added new friends that you could connect very deeply with? Can you imagine what that might add to your life?
So whereas an outsider tends to think of opening their relationship as a process of adding more strangers to sleep with, the insider’s perspective is about creating a deeper and more intimate friendship network.
You can still try the path of sleeping with a bunch of strangers, and I know some people who do that, but I don’t currently know anyone who seems genuinely happy living that way. The happiest people I know are the ones who have lovers that are also their friends. If someone wouldn’t make a good friend, they probably won’t try to turn that person into a lover. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s a decent way to explain the difference between the misperception and the reality of successful open relationships.
Sleeping together increases the intensity of the social bond between two (or more) people. This is a great way to deepen a friendship. But you don’t have to go that far if you don’t want to. I find that just cuddling with a woman will deepen the friendship we share. Or we might sleep together but not have sex. Or we might have oral sex but not intercourse. The idea is to take the friendship to a deeper place that both people feel good about, but don’t go past the point where someone isn’t feeling good.
Since I get asked this often, I’ll clarify again that I don’t do anything physical or sexual with men. It’s not my thing. But I have found that deepening my friendships with women in this way also deepens my friendships with men. One way this happens is that my male friends and I help each other improve our relationships with women. In some open relationship circles, you’ll find a really nice sense of community evolves where everyone helps everyone else improve their relationship lives, sometimes very directly.
For example, one guy might encourage one of his female friends to connect with another of his male friends. It can be fun to play matchmaker, which is pretty easy to do when everyone has an open posture about receiving new connections. When you treat people well, word gets around, and you’ll get more referrals to new potential partners through your friends. But if you treat people poorly, you won’t get any referrals this way.
One friend recently helped me connect with a woman, believing we’d be a very good match for each other. He was right. She and I had a wonderful time connecting together, and hopefully we’ll be able to reconnect again in the future (we live in different cities). Isn’t that a nice thing for guys to do for each other? I sure think so.
Even if a woman turns out not to be a good match for me, I may know someone that would be a better fit for her, and so if she seems friendly and open, smells good, and isn’t a psycho, then I may refer her to someone else I know if I think they’d be compatible.
If you’re the jealous type, you may not even be able to imagine people sharing relationship partners like this, but with a group of non-jealous people who enjoy plenty of social abundance, it feels very natural and normal to do so. After all, if you have a friend that you know treats people very well, and you can expect that anyone you refer to them will probably have a good time, then you’re doing everyone a favor by encouraging these matches. Both people you connect will appreciate what you did for them.
If you’re in a closed mono relationship right now, you probably have friends in your life right now who’d be happy to sleep with you if they knew of your interest. Or maybe they’d be up for cuddling. Or oral sex. Or some really intimate conversation. But if you keep quiet, they keep quiet. If you began advertising your openness, you might find that they start dropping hints about their availability. If you sense that someone is dangling bait in front of you, that’s because they are.
The truth is that people really enjoy connecting with each other. People want to enjoy deeper and more intimate friendships. Quite a lot of people are open to enjoying sexual connections with multiple partners too. It often feels good to do so when the friendship and the chemistry is there. Sure, some people have various blocks and fears and hold themselves back in this area, but many are very open to this kind of exploration.
If you keep hiding, then most of the other open people will remain hidden from you too. But if you’re willing to come out and express interest in this path, even before you have much certainty about it, then at least you’ll be able to see some of what’s been previously hidden from view, and this can encourage you to lean into it more.
Lean Into It
You can’t answer experiential questions without exploring, and open relationships are very experiential. The truth is that if you don’t explore this way of relating, you’ll never know what it’s really like.
Some people can handle not knowing what open relationships are like. Maybe they’re disinterested, or they’re certain they prefer something else, or their curiosity can be easily dismissed. And that’s perfectly fine. If you don’t feel drawn to explore this, there’s no need to explore it.
But if you’re the type whose curiosity keeps coming back, and it can’t simply be swept under a rug, and you feel drawn to explore this path eventually (even if you still have doubts about it), then based on that, I’d predict that it’s probably going to work out well for you if you lean into it. You’ll most likely be happier on this path and more fulfilled by it than you would be in a mono relationship. You may have a lot to learn initially, but if this is calling to your heart, please don’t ignore that call.
Don’t confuse the potentially chaotic transition period with the long-term exploration. Transitioning from a mono relationship to a more open posture can be quite disruptive. Not wanting to deal with that initial explosiveness is a block for many people, but try not to let it dissuade you. If the long-term exploration of this path appeals to you, then focus on the joys of exploring that path, and do the best you can to navigate through the transition period. It may be difficult at first, but it’s worth it.
Remember that if you have an interest in exploring open relationships, you’re certainly not alone. If you’re surrounded by mono friends and family members, you may feel like the freak of your social circle, but in other circles you’d be the tame one who still has much to learn. As you lean towards whatever path inspires you, you’ll invite new sources of social support to welcome you. That’s a really fun time as you realize that there are lots of people out there just like you, and many of them had to go through similar transitions. To you this transition may seem like a very big deal, but to them it’s just a memory, and someday that’s how you’ll feel about it as well.