She Said, He Said: How about opening up the relationship?
She Said, He Said
Dear Jeff and Lori,
My partner and I fell in love because we’re both a little unconventional in how we see life and the world. When we got married, we both had full intention of maintaining traditional monogamy, but as time has gone on and our relationship has shifted, I’m starting to wonder whether something more open or alternative would be a better fit for us. We love each other and have no desire to end the relationship. But I also feel like there could be a lot more to experience and feel. We had much more joy, excitement and passion early on, and I believe we both deserve to feel some of that again. My partner has expressed being willing to discuss it, but then is reluctant when we actually do have the chance to talk. How can I make it easier for them to explore the topic, and what advice do you have for making a decision like this?
Lori and Jeff: Acceptance and curiosity of open relationships (also called consensual non-monogamy or ethical non-monogamy) is growing in our culture. CNM can include one-off sexual interactions, bringing a third partner into a relationship and everything in-between. Some studies have estimated 1%-3% of couples have open relationships, others conclude as many as 20% of couples have experienced an exception to traditional monogamy, and it’s approximated that 30% of gay male couples are CNM. Data on how many couples are successful at maintaining their relationship after opening the borders are much harder to mine.
Jeff: I want to make one thing very clear: Opening up your marriage to any form of CNM is not going to fix any fundamental problems that you might have in your relationship. With a strong foundation and clear intent, however, CNM can have the potential to expand and enhance some of the dynamics of the relationship. But … you will need to be crystal clear about your (and your partner’s) why. Before you make any decisions, take some time to contemplate what’s missing from your marriage and why it seems that the excitement and passion have faded. While most couples experience a lessening of intensity after the honeymoon phase of the relationship is over, it is not an indication that you need to look outside of the relationship to rekindle the fire.
As couples get to know each other over time and develop deeper trust and vulnerability, there comes a greater level of intimacy — the primary ingredient for increased passion and connection. If there are fundamental issues that get in the way of you connecting on a deeper level, then please address those first. If, on the other hand, you believe your bond is intrinsically strong and it’s more about your curiosity around adding in some alternative energy, perspective and experience to your marriage, then you may already know your why. Now it’s time to figure out how. Whether it’s discussing your why or how, you and your partner will need to have some very in-depth, transparent and honest conversations about the path forward. Start with talking about your curiosities and interests but make sure you both feel safe enough to really get to the root of the issue. Be open to hearing each other’s fears and concerns in addition to the hopes and desires you have about possibly creating a new experience.
Lori: CNM couples we’ve worked with have landed in our office because they’d underestimated the emotional complexity and risk that comes with doing so. Your partner’s behavior is likely communicating worries or discomforts that they’re reluctant to speak. More importantly, the fact that you don’t know why they’re avoiding the conversation shows there’s a crack in your marriage foundation. There’s a reason they’re not talking. If the two of you can’t communicate about this, what’s going to happen when it really gets messy? If they were truly interested, you would have already talked about it. Opening the relationship when one partner has doubts will likely be disastrous.
If I’m wrong and they come to the table tomorrow saying they’re game, you need to explore sexual and emotional boundaries. What are the guidelines for the new version of fidelity? Where will you meet the others? Can you see a person more than once or have social contact? How much do you share with one another and how do you emotionally manage knowing if your spouse is keeping secrets? What happens if you develop strong feelings for someone? If your past committed relationships have been monogamous, you may be surprised by the potential for friction, jealousy, emotional wounds and feelings of betrayal. Many couples who open their marriage do so with the best intentions and when the relationship feels steady. But every relationship ebbs and flows and there will be a time in the not so distant future when the connection with your partner is strained. And when this happens, the added element of others can increase vulnerability and pull partners away from the critical work of repairing the marriage.
Lori and Jeff: If there are issues in your marriage, work on those before you discuss opening your relationship. If the marriage is solid and you’re looking for new experiences, here are a few key points to keep in mind:
- Know what you really want and why
- Define fidelity and establish clear, comprehensive ground rules
- Assess if you’re confident and secure enough as individuals to handle increased vulnerability and navigate jealousy
- Agree that either of you can end the arrangement at any time, and pre-plan a strategy to do so
- Commit to always putting your relationship as first priority
- Be honest with yourself if the risk of losing your marriage is worth it, and discuss what else you need to do as a couple to mitigate that risk.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.