We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. Now, onto this week's question: how to experiment with non-monogamy in your relationship.
Q: My partner and I are really curious about opening up our relationship. We’re into the idea of hooking up with other people, but don’t want to go as far as having separate relationships or anything like that. The thought of it turns me on, but I am still nervous about what it will be like once we actually start doing it. I don’t want to wind up freaking out or ruining our (amazing) relationship. This may sound silly, but are there any baby steps we can take? Any ways of experimenting before we fully commit?
A: Thanks for the question! People tend to lump non-monogamous relationships together, but the truth is that there are an infinite number of ways to explore opening up your relationship. I think you’re smart for wanting to take it slow and feel into it before fully opening things up. Here are eight steps for easing your relationship open.
1. Get Educated
Even though the two of you are just talking about tiptoeing into the non-monogamy waters, I still recommend doing a bit of research. Check out some of our past articles on non-monogamy. Talk to any friends you may have who are in non-monogamous relationships. If you really want a proper education, check out The Ethical Slut or Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. Not all of the information will be applicable to you at this stage, but it’s still good to have a sense of some of the common non-monogamy dynamics, like jealousy, communication, and negotiating boundaries (more on this below!).
2. Think About Boundaries
Again, you’re not fully committing to non-monogamy yet, but you still want to think about your boundaries during this “trial run” stage. In the next few sections, you’ll see some specific ideas for experimenting with non-monogamy. Read over them with your partner, and talk about which ones you would be open to, and which ones are off the table. Here are some other questions to consider at this point:
- Which physical activities (if any) feel OK? (You can also divide this up into “activities that feel OK to start with” and “activities I would consider in the future, if all goes well this time around.”)
- Do you want to hook up with other people together (like in a threesome), or separately?
- Are friends or acquaintances off-limits?
- Do you want to know the details of what your partner did with the other person/people, or do you want a don’t ask, don’t tell policy?
Like I mentioned in the first bullet point, you can talk about the boundaries you’d consider after this initial trial period. That can help give you more clarity on your boundaries for now. For example, you might say that you’d eventually like to watch your partner hook up with another person, but that you’re not ready to at this stage.
3. Set A Timeline
A super simple way to ease into non-monogamy is to set a timeline for your initial explorations. Come up with a set period of time that feels reasonable to you both. It will depend on how easy or difficult it is to find other people in your area, so you might want to go with a couple of months if you live in a small town or rural, area, or a few weeks to a month if you’re in a big city. Agree to have a check-in with each other after the trial period to talk about how things went. You should also make it clear that either one of you can call a time-out if you ever feel uncomfortable or need to stop.
If you’re really nervous about the realities of non-monogamy, try playing around with it in your head first. In vivid detail, imagine yourself flirting with, touching, and kissing another person. Picture your partner doing the same. If you’re interested in a threesome, you and your partner can talk dirty to each other, describing the fantasy in detail. You’ll probably feel a combination of nerves and excitement, which is totally normal. But if the nerves really feel like they’re overpowering the excitement, that may be a sign that you should take more time or have a few more conversations with your partner before proceeding.
When you’re both ready to take things a step further, try flirting with other people. Again, you can do this separately or together, depending on what your end goal is. If you’re shy, start with online dating sites, or even put up an anonymous Craigslist ad. If you’re a bit more bold, go out to bars alone, with friends, or with your partner, and try flirting with people you meet. Notice what it feels like to be taking this first step towards hooking up with another person. For some people, the thrill of flirting and getting numbers may be enough to indulge their non-monogamy fantasies. For others, it may be a sign that you’re ready for more.
6. Watch Porn
Another way to flirt with the idea of non-monogamy without actually doing anything is to watch porn together. Talk to each other about which actors you find attractive, and how you feel about what they’re doing on screen. Hearing your partner compliment and get turned on by other people will give you a sense of the types of feelings that might come up for you in real life.
7. Start Slow
If and when you and your partner decide you’re ready to hook up with other people, I would recommend sticking with the baby steps theme. Try just kissing another person and leaving it at that. It’s a lot easier to reevaluate after a little smooch than after sleeping with someone new. If that feels fine, upgrade to getting handsy with another person, then having another check-in.
8. Keep Communicating
Make sure to keep checking in with each other with each little baby step you take. You should also make sure to honor the original agreement you had to reevaluate after a set period of time. It’s also a good idea to have a support team in place to talk about any feelings that may come up for you. This might include trusted friends or even a therapist. You don’t need to overanalyze every tiny little detail, but you do want to feel supported and heard as you start opening things up.
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