Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reluctant Participation in Open Relationships

Bruce Philip: Myth of Reluctance
An anonymous reader commented on the description of the 2Plus blog and requested advice on their own relationship.  In the comment, the reader said,“This is new territory
for me and not something I would be particularly interested in if my girlfriend of 7 months hadn't recently expressed to me how stifled and unhappy she has always felt in a monogamous relationship (similar to your itchy sweater description). I love her dearly and the thought of her unhappy or us breaking up is absolutely gut wrenching.”

While I’m not comfortable offering explicit advice to individuals, as is the case with all entries, I can only offer my own experiences and hope they are in some way helpful.

My first open relationship was with my first boyfriend; let’s call him Jason. Jason and I had been together since high school, I had shed my virginity with him, and we had been together for about 5 years when I told him I wanted to open the relationship.  After many hours of discussion, including why I wanted it and how it would look, he agreed. 

In retrospect, I am fairly certain that he agreed because he knew it was the only way I could be happy, and he didn’t want to lose me.  I’m speculating, but based on my and his behavior in the open relationship, his preference was monogamy, but he went along because, on some level, both he and I knew that I could never be happy in a life-long, monogamous relationship. 

We stayed together for six more years, and during that time I had several lovers while he only had one brief dalliance.  We had what some call a mono-poly relationship.  He was monogamous, and I was polyamorous.  During those six years, I had two lovers with whom I “fell in love”.  Jason was friends with one of them-they became golfing buddies and the three of us would sometimes go see music together, while Jason and the other lover had less in common and so didn’t really spend time together.  I can’t speak for Jason, but it seemed to work, and though mono-poly relationships pose their own set of challenges, they are possible.

Jason and I split up after being together for almost twelve years, not because of the mono-poly arrangement but because we grew in different directions, and our paths were no longer compatible.  In the end, I feel comfortable saying that, though he never would have suggested or initiated opening our relationship, and he did so because he and I both knew that it was the only way I could be myself, it was the right decision for us at the time and it made the relationship work for a very long time. 

Having said that, I firmly believe that a reluctant or monogamous partner is very different from an unwilling one. 

I don’t know anyone who isn’t reluctant when first opening a relationship.  It’s scary for most, if not all.  Currently, Scott and I are negotiating an open relationship.  He has never been anything but happy in monogamy, and as he tells it, he never would have considered an open relationship if he hadn’t known Marc and me. He has expressed a lot of trepidation but also some excitement and enthusiasm about the prospect of having other lovers and developing relationships with my future lovers.  After over two years together, Scott knows me, and he has known from the start that long-term monogamy is not an option.  He is, in many ways, reluctant but not unwilling. For this reason, we are taking things very, very slowly.  

In our case, we have decided to get our feet wet, so to speak, by starting off with threesomes.  Others start by going to erotic parties or clubs to just watch or have sex with each other without having contact with other people. I have found that telling each other dirty stories about what we each might do with other people not only makes for some really hot throw-downs, but also can alleviate some of the anxiety.  In other words, some reluctance is par for the course, and differences in enthusiasm or desire for opening the relationship is not the same thing as a fundamental incompatibility.  From my experience, the key is a lot of communication, taking things slowly, and often and consistently checking in to see how everybody is doing. 

As I’ve said before on this blog, the last thing I would do is open a relationship to solve conflict or to “save” an already problem relationship.  Unless the relationship is otherwise solid, communication is good, and one or both partners is unsatisfied with being monogamous, opening a relationship will only exacerbate the already existing problems. Further, if one partner is monogamous and does not want to be in a mono-poly relationship, I can’t see how an open relationship could work. If one partner can only be happy with a monogamous partner and the other can only be happy with being open, I would suggest that those partners are incompatible.  As is the case with any other fundamental incompatibility, the likelihood of all involved having their needs met while sustaining the relationship is low, if not impossible.  Just as monogamy is not for everyone, neither are open relationships.  Partners need to dig deep and be honest with themselves and each other about what each wants and needs and where they are willing to compromise and still be who they want to be. 

In that vein, I commend the reader’s girlfriend for being open and honest about how she feels. It can be terrifying to tell a partner that monogamy is an “itchy sweater”.  That she was willing to take that risk rather than cheat, repress her needs, or end the relationship takes a lot of courage and trust. And I admire the reader for being open to trying.  That, too, takes courage and trust.  I wish the best for both of you. 

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