Update: 344 of your fellow adventurers are now enrolled in Stature, our new character sculpting deep dive. How would you like to grow your character for 2020 and beyond? Join us for this epic journey!
In this post I’ll share some insider insights into what it’s like to be in an open relationship, mainly from personal experience since Rachelle and I have been in one for more than seven years. Many of my friends are in long-term open relationships too. I’d also like to dispel some myths about open relationships.
It’s All About the Sex, Right?
Feeling free to have sex with multiple partners is undoubtedly a priority for some people in open relationships. But this desire is a separate issue and not tied to open relationships. If you want to sleep with different people, you don’t need to be in any kind of long-term relationship to do that.
Open relationships have tremendous variety. For some people it’s important to be able to bond with a partner and also be able to play with other partners on the side. For others the emotional connection with different people is more important. Some are polyamorous and like being in love with more than one person. There is no single form that appeals to everyone.
Many people in open relationships still put walls around their primary relationship; they just place the walls further out than most. For instance, for some it’s okay to sleep with other people, but it’s not okay to fall in love with someone else.
For me the main benefit is the opportunity to explore intimacy and connection more freely. I’m not particularly attached to where this exploration leads, and I usually prefer to go with the flow and see how things play out as opposed to being goal-oriented about it. I like having some spontaneity in life, and having an open door policy regarding connections with other people makes it possible to explore more than I otherwise would. I regard sharing love and intimacy as a natural extension of friendship.
The experience is a lot like having a home base and also traveling from time to time. A couple of years ago, I was seriously considering selling my house and going nomadic. But when I leaned into that experience with some short-term testing, I felt that if I traveled continuously, I’d probably burn out on the experience within a few months. I’d miss having a single home base. I respect minimalism, but I’m not a minimalist myself. So I settled for a more balanced approach that includes traveling for up to 4-5 weeks at a stretch while also having a stable home to live in. When I want to travel, I travel. When I want to stay home, I stay home. For me this is the best of both worlds.
Being in an open relationship is similar. You can enjoy your connection with your primary partner, you can each explore individually, or you can explore together. You both have more options and more freedom available to you.
When I travel to other cities, I often notice amazing and beautiful things that I don’t experience in my home city. But at the same time, I gain a deeper appreciation for the good qualities of my home city. I loved the experience of roaming around Rome last year, but it also reminded me of how much I like Las Vegas’ modern infrastructure and more relaxed vibe. (Note that this comparison is based on living in Las Vegas for 13+ years; the experience of being a tourist here is quite different from being a resident.)
Just as traveling to other cities can enrich your life and enhance your appreciation of your home base, exploring connections with other people can have the same benefits. That’s certainly been true for me.
A common misconception I encounter is the assumption that if a relationship is open, the bonds between the couple must be weaker than if the relationship was 100% monogamous. That hasn’t been true in my experience, and among all the people I know who are in open relationships, I haven’t seen a correlation here either way.
The strength of a couple’s pair bonding doesn’t seem to be affected by the degree of openness in their relationship as far as I can tell. Those bonds could be weak or strong, depending on how much the couple invests in bonding activities, such as cuddling, expressing affection, spending one-on-one time together, sharing experiences, etc.
Does it weaken a couple’s connection if the couple has many friends vs. having few or no friends? That’s really going to depend on the couple. It would be a mistake to automatically assume that a couple with a lot of friends must not be as bonded to each other. Those friendships could easily enrich and strengthen their primary relationship.
Spending time with other partners doesn’t automatically weaken this bond, and in some cases it can strengthen the bond. When I play with someone else, I normally feel closer to Rachelle afterwards since the new connection helps me see more clearly what I value and appreciate about Rachelle. It makes me less likely to take her for granted. I think Rachelle and I would have a strong bond whether we were monogamous or open. I see similar patterns in other couples. If the bond is weak, that weakness wasn’t caused by the openness. However, an open relationship is more likely to expose a weaker bond and to cast light on it. When you start adding other people to the mix, more truth about the core relationship comes to the surface. It’s easier to hide a weak bond in a fenced relationship.
When Rachelle and I connect with another woman together, that connection serves as another shared experience. When the three of us cuddle together or play together in some fashion, it deepens our exploration of our two-person relationship as well. In terms of the effect on our bonding, it’s not much different than hanging out with friends.
Note that bonding isn’t the same as pleasure seeking. You can have a pleasurable sexual experience with someone and not feel much of a heart connection afterwards. And you can cuddle with someone for hours or share a deep spiritual conversation and feel an amazing bond but not do anything sexual together.
In an open relationship, you can explore pleasure with other partners, or you can explore bonding activities, or both. And you can explore different aspects with different people if you want. In most of my experiences, there was a sharing of pleasure and some sharing of bonding activities as well. If I had to choose one or the other though, I’d favor investing more on the bonding side because it’s more fulfilling in the long run, and it usually yields memories that I cherish more.
I’d rather spend time cuddling and talking with a woman and experience a really beautiful emotional connection with her vs. having amazing sex but not feeling a heart connection with her. When I was younger I might have prioritized this differently, but in my 40s I find the emotional bonding aspect more valuable than the temporary pleasure aspect. Either way a lot of touch is involved, but the energy of the touch is different in each case. The sexual side is spikier and more intense, whereas the bonding side tends to be more relaxed, playful, gentle, and caring.
Of course it’s possible to share both bonding and pleasure, and it’s great when that happens. Most of the people I know who are in open relationships claim to value both, but where they strike a balance in practice comes down to personal preference and gradual calibration. Some are much more into the pleasure exploration, while others place more value on emotional connection and intimacy.
I’ve recently learned about a way of making love called karezza, which involves slow intercourse without orgasm for either partner. Supposedly this reduces the spiky pleasure of sex and gives it a more bonding-based, heart-centered form, with some people reporting significant benefits from the practice. I haven’t had a chance to explore it yet, but Rachelle and I are both up for trying it this year. If we like it, then this will become yet another aspect of connection we could also explore and share with other people too.
What about the green-eyed monster? This is probably the most common objection I see as to why an open relationship wouldn’t work for someone.
The truth is that if you’re a jealous person, then no relationship is going to feel secure unless you can sufficiently cage your partner. You can put a fence around the relationship, but if your partner feels disconnected from you, then they may very well start crossing that fence without telling you.
With an open relationship, you and your partner can explore more freely. This has some key advantages. There’s less need to hide information, so you can share and discuss a wider range of desires and interests without threatening the relationship. You can explore with other partners and use what you learn to improve your primary relationship. You can see your partner against the backdrop of other connections to deepen your understanding of how amazing s/he is.
A weak or incompatible relationship will invite problems regardless of whether it’s open or fenced. In an open relationship, I think those problems will be exposed more quickly and easily though, whereas a fenced relationship may try to suppress them. More truth is good for growth, assuming growth is a priority for you.
If you’re insecure in your relationship, if the compatibility is weak, or if your self-esteem is low, then removing the fence around your relationship is going to bring those issues to the forefront sooner. Feelings of inadequacy will surface, and you’ll be forced to deal with them. If you’d rather not deal with those feelings and would prefer to preserve the relationship at all costs, that’s understandable, but I hope you can see that relying on some kind of fence to preserve a weak relationship is a desperation move and not in your best long-term interest if you’re an intelligent, growth-oriented person. This stance will slow you down and keep you stuck where you might otherwise have learned to let go and then to attract and enjoy a more compatible and fulfilling relationship. If the fence is necessary to prevent a breakup, then how strong is the core relationship to begin with?
If you’re prone to neediness, clinginess, or jealousy, do you really think it’s a wise relationship strategy to cage a potential partner by relying on social norms and social pressure to preserve your partnership? That’s an unstable situation to be sure. Instead, see your inner issues as a call to invest more in your personal growth and to elevate your self-esteem – by working on yourself, not by trying to ensnare or manipulate someone else. This is an opportunity to focus more energy on the giving side of your human connections, so you can transcend that clawing clinginess and fear of abandonment. If you rely on social pressure to maintain the fence, you’ll only pay the price later, and you’re likely to hurt other people along the way.
It may take more work to find a partner who would choose to stay with you even when the door is open and the fence is gone, but it’s worth it. Of course you and your partner may freely choose not to explore with anyone else, and if that’s by mutual consent, it’s perfectly fine.
I feel more trusting in an open relationship because there’s less incentive for people to lie. I don’t have to hide my interest in someone else, nor does my partner. In fact, there have been times when I shared my interest in another woman with Rachelle, Rachelle then shared that she was attracted too, and we ended up inviting and enjoying a threesome together. To me that’s a better outcome than pretending I’m not attracted to someone.
One of my favorite aspects of being in an open relationship is the playful and spontaneous attitude that it fosters. Since the door is open to connecting with other people, anything is possible. A new connection could surprise us at any time. This adds an extra sparkle to life that I enjoy and appreciate. It keeps our two-person relationship feeling fresh, light, and fun.
On the surface it looks like an open relationship is all about connecting with multiple partners. In practice I still see it as having only one relationship – with life itself. This bring some subjective reality perspective into the mix. If this reality is a kind of dream world, then we’re not all separate individuals. We’re expressions of different facets of the dream (or the dreamer). On my relationship journey, I’ve learned to prioritize this one relationship with life above all others because I see my human relationships as expressions of this overarching one.
If my relationship with life is healthy and strong, it’s hard to experience jealousy. No matter what happens, I give life the benefit of the doubt. If life bestows what I desire, I appreciate the gift. If life brings me something else, I appreciate the lesson, and I adapt. I assume that life and I are best friends. If a single human relationship dissolves, I expect that it’s for a good reason. Maybe a new relationship will arise with new lessons and experiences. Maybe I’ll go through a period of cultivating a stronger relationship with myself. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to deepen my friendships. Maybe it’s a chance to work on forgiveness or letting go.
If I don’t trust life, however, then jealousy, clinginess, and neediness enter the picture – all forms of scarcity thinking. I can only experience these states if I fail to trust this reality I find myself in. I have to paint a dark and uncaring frame around reality in order to feel that life has turned against me, and therefore my partner’s actions are somehow a threat to my happiness.
What if Rachelle finds someone better than me, and the two of them nudge me out? I’d initially be sad of course, but I’d also remember that I deeply trust the universe and that if that were to happen, then there will be a new relationship path for me. If I keep my intentions elevated and refuse to sink my vibe, then that path will be a good one too. I needn’t wallow in past regrets or missed chances. There is always something fresh and new to explore around the next bend.
What if I find someone better than Rachelle, and I feel drawn to spend more time with this new person, and I feel more distanced from Rachelle? And what if Rachelle is deeply hurt by this situation? Then that’s another challenge to accept from life. It’s another opportunity to clarify one’s values. Is it okay to spend more time with those people with whom you feel the strongest resonance, even if that isn’t your primary partner? Does there come a time when you need to let other people accept their own recovery journeys?
These risks aren’t specific to open relationships. Unless you hide from the world, these possibilities exist in fenced relationships too. But with an openly open relationship (as opposed to hidden cheating), you and your partner can gain more experience discussing and addressing the realities of human relationships as they arise instead of suppressing them. When you stare these risks in the eye, they aren’t so scary anymore. You begin to see them as part of the reality of human relationships, a reality that humans have been experiencing for millennia.
All human relationships eventually end, whether in separation or death. This isn’t something to fear and resist; it’s a simple truth to be accepted. I know and accept that my relationships are temporary. My marriage didn’t last forever, and my current relationship won’t last forever either. And for that reason, I like to cherish each connection, including the really short ones that only last a day or two. I also like to keep the door open to new connections, so I can experience even more to cherish.
Are Open Relationships Better?
I wouldn’t say so in general. An open relationship is a special style of relating, not better or worse per se. For me it’s been a good fit. I experience a lot of happiness, fulfillment, gratitude, and contentment on this path.
Is it better to have one best friend and no other friends, or is it better to have multiple friends? Who’s to say? The answer depends on many factors, and you may answer this question differently at different times in your life.
I like that an open relationship gives me the best of both worlds. I get to explore deeply with one woman that I’m in love with, and I also get to explore with other people when the opportunity arises. I get to express more of my best qualities on this path. I don’t feel trapped or limited.
The main downside of being in an open relationship is that a lot of people aren’t into this kind of openness. It often takes a long emotional and experiential journey to be able to thrive on this path. Of course it takes such a journey to thrive in any kind of human relationship, but a lot of people don’t invest in the journey of openness. The most popular option remains a form of faux monogamy, whereby people are monogamous in label but not actually in practice. Maybe we could call it fauxnogamy… or perhaps fonogamy for a shorter spelling. 🙂
There’s still a lot of fear, shame, and guilt about connecting with multiple partners. These judgments are outdated though, and fortunately they seem to be fading, at least among well-educated people. This judgmental backdrop does make it harder to find partners who feel congruent with it, often because they’re afraid of the potential social consequences. More upfront communication and filtering is required to find people who aren’t corrupted with false beliefs about open relationships, which can be a lot of work depending on where you live. For this reason I tend to be somewhat opportunistic about connecting with new partners, responding to good matches and invitations as they arise organically. This is enough to explore with a variety of partners without unbalancing my life by working too hard at it.
This is the similar to the drawbacks I experienced when exploring polyphasic sleep. I went back to monophasic sleep after 5-1/2 months, largely for social reasons. It’s hard to feel in sync with a world that sleeps so differently since the world is designed for monophasic sleepers. Much of the world is also geared towards mono relationships, so if you want something different, you have to be willing to go against the social grain. It also helps if you’re willing to broadcast these differences, so that like-minded people can recognize and find you.
In the case of open relationships, it may look like I’m exploring against the social grain, but I feel like I’m well aligned with our natural way of relating as human beings. Humans are naturally polyamorous – the book Sex at Dawn gives a great account of this – but we’re also very good at pair bonding. Our current social norms are out of sync with this reality, so people end up doing what they naturally want to do anyway and hide it, or they try to suppress some of their desires and suffer the consequences. Or they opt-out and connect with porn and other addictions instead. I’d prefer to encourage more honest and open sharing about this topic, so we can bring the social norms into closer alignment with our inner truths and our real relationship experiences.
I have a long-term relationship with a woman that I love and adore. And I sometimes connect with other women too. And this feels perfectly healthy, ethical, and congruent to me – not to mention loving, kind, caring, and generous.
Like many interesting paths, this one can be challenging to wrap your head around, but once you grok the mindset and see that it can indeed work in practice, certainly better than fonogamy, then what you have is an invitation to explore.