If you search the Internet, you'll find countless articles on the ways in which millennials are creating a “new” monogamy that is characterized by, ironically, injecting non-monogamy into otherwise traditional-looking relationships and marriages. Recent studies show that as many as 1 in 5 Americans have engaged in a consensually non-monogamous relationship at some point, running the range from “monogamish” to non-hierarchal polyamory to full-blown relationship anarchy. It's a brave new world (even if non-monogamy is really nothing new) .
If you are currently in a monogamous relationship, you may find yourself interested in switching it up. There are good and bad reasons for wanting an open relationship, but regardless of what yours may be, it's best to watch out for these common mistakes made by many people first venturing into non-monogamy.
I asked a number of people who have been in open relationships for years to share their early mistakes, so that you can learn from them without making them on your own. And if you make them anyway, at least you know you're in good company.
1. Trying To Keep Everything The Same
Opening a previously closed relationship introduces major change — and there is little else that makes human beings break into a cold sweat like the looming prospect of change. This fear of change pushes many recently-open couples to immediately take steps to ensure that their relationship will look as similar as possible to the way it did before opening up.
This shows up in many different ways. The couple’s first act in their newly non-monogamous relationship may be to lay down a list of rules, all designed to minimize change and discomfort: No falling in love with anyone else. No spending the night away with another person. Only one-night stands allowed, no extended relationships. This is not to say you shouldn't think about your boundaries; simply that you should realize there will be some things you can't foresee or control.
“I'm not fond of rules because if they get broken, it becomes more about a breach of trust and a failure on the other person's part,” Austin, 28, tells Bustle. “I prefer ‘guidelines’ where we discuss the things that make us feel most comfortable in a relationship. If things happen outside those guidelines then it's an opportunity to check-in and communicate to come to a better place.”
If you and your partner have chosen to open your relationship, ideally it's because of the potential benefits and positive growth that you see it bringing to both of your lives. But growth is not always comfortable or easy to swallow. Stepping outside of your comfort zone will be frightening, but it's best to stay motivated by what may be on the other side: freedom to engage in sexual and romantic exploration, an opportunity to build communication skills, and a strengthening of the bond between yourself and your partner. Research shows that people in non-monogamous relationships experience just as much relationship satisfaction as those practicing monogamy, sometimes even more so. So don't try to keep everything the same; you may be surprised by how much you enjoy it when things are different.
2. Attempting To Avoid Jealousy By Dating The Same Person At The Same Time
The thought of your boyfriend dressing up and heading out the door to a date with someone else may make your stomach turn into a pretzel. But what if the two of you were heading to that date ... together? What if he has sex with a new person, but you were there too, getting some of that action at the same time? Provided at least one of you is bisexual, you get to do something (or someone) together as a fun, couple-y activity. No one gets left out; no jealous feelings. On paper, it makes total sense.
In reality, many couples get a rude awakening when they realize that jealousy, like much of human emotion, is not always rational. If deep down you still can't stand the thought of your boyfriend having sex with another person, that may not automatically go away just because you are free to witness it and join in the fun.
"My longtime monogamish partner and I have absolutely tried to date the same person in order to avoid jealousy. The thing is, jealousy can arrive when you least expect it to," Emily, 28, says. "The important thing to do in those painful scenarios is to look inward at your own insecurities and learn how to ask for what you need in your relationship."
Some couples do go the extra step and realize that dating the same person at the same time may still cause jealousy. They may choose to move forward with the plan, but with a number of caveats and limitations placed on the third person. These provisos, at their worst, can dehumanize the person you are both dating, relegating them to the role of sex toy with a pulse. Whether you are seeking a fun group sex experience, or a long-lasting triad relationship, it is paramount for that third person to have their individual needs, desires, and autonomy respected.
As a counselor, when I have clients who want to try adding a third, I always have them ask themselves one question: how would I feel about my partner going on a solo date with this third person, just the two of them? What about my partner having sex with this third person, just the two of them? If the thought of this is deeply upsetting to you, you and your partner may not be ready to add a third person to your relationship.
3. Not Talking Enough
Communication is the key to a good relationship. This piece of advice has been repeated ad nauseum by countless couples’ counselors, relationship experts, and dating gurus. As far as relationship advice goes, open or closed, this one is low-hanging fruit.
When approaching my very first open relationship when I was in my early twenties, I awkwardly stumbled through the conversation with my boyfriend. “Let's open our relationship? Like, let's try sleeping with other people?” To which he reluctantly responded, “Uh, yeah, sure.” That was the extent of our initial negotiation. It shouldn't be surprising that the relationship went on to crash and burn spectacularly.
To be fair, I had no idea how to handle a conversation like that. We have yet to create a social script for talking about non-monogamy to our partners, or to anyone else for that matter. We don't stride into our first adult relationships knowing how to share intimate vulnerabilities, talk frankly about sexual health, listen to your partner share details of their first date with someone else, or answer your parent's probing and critical questions about your relationship. Many open relationships fail right out the gate, not because of bad intentions, but because the couple has no idea how to even communicate about these things in the first place.
Yes, it can be hard. Yes, it can be awkward. Yes, it's going to feel weird when you first start talking about it. But with time and practice, that discomfort will subside. And you will get plenty of opportunities to practice, between expressing your boundaries, negotiating agreements, and navigating each other's schedules.
“I always over-communicate,” says Celeste, 30. “Brutal honesty can be perceived as cold hearted, but it generally seems to benefit everyone in the long run.” The good thing is that studies show that people in long-term non-monogamous relationships experience greater satisfaction in the amount of communication and openness they receive from their partner.
4. Avoiding Your Partner’s Other Partner’s Like The Plague
In the same way that we don’t have any social script for easily talking about non-monogamy, we also don’t have any kind of established etiquette for crossing paths with your partner’s other partners. The best we get is the stuff we see in soap operas: the wife walks in on her husband with his mistress, cue the shouting, accusations, verbal attacks, and even physical violence. Not exactly something to aspire to.
This is what leads some people to treat their partner's other partner as though he or she has leprosy. They avoid any contact whatsoever, except for maybe some furtive stalking on social media. Some people, usually the half of the couple that is the least gung-ho about non-monogamy, may go so far as to never even want to know the names of the other people their partner is seeing. If it feels more comfortable to pretend that your partner's other partners don't exist, it may be time to re-think whether an open relationship is right for you.
“My wife met my girlfriend three times in about a year. Each time, she gave her the cold shoulder to the point that we gave up. Now, I require that my serious partners are able to have dinner with each other, or I'm just not interested,” says D, 44.
In the polyamorous community, your partner's partners are referred to as your “metamours.” It is not necessary to have a deeply intimate relationship with your metamour. You shouldn't feel pressure to be your metamour's best friend or to begin a sexual or romantic relationship with him or her (unless that's what you want). However, it is important to feel comfortable having some kind of connection to your metamour, especially if your partner is developing an ongoing relationship with this person. This connection doesn't have to be big; it could be as simple as exchanging messages over social media or grabbing a quick coffee together.
The benefit of making this connection is twofold. First, it really demonstrates your support of your partner, both of your own relationships, and of your partner's other relationships. (If you don't want to show this support, again, maybe an open relationship is not your cup of tea.) Second, it's a great opportunity to get to see and know your metamour as a human being with unique interests, flaws, aspirations, and quirks, rather than see them as a scary, abstract concept who is probably hotter and better in bed than you are. The idea of meeting a metamour may be daunting, but you could also be surprised by how much the two of you have in common!
5. Thinking It Will Solve Your Problems
No relationship is perfect. Even extremely happy long-term couples have arguments and experience the regular ups and downs of life. But there is a difference between having occasional hiccups and misunderstandings and having deeply-rooted problems with communication or overall compatibility. If your relationship is already hurting, opening it up will not fix it, and may even exacerbate any fundamental problems you already have.
That isn't to say that opening your relationship won't make it into a better relationship. Non-monogamy may relieve the pressure of being anything and everything to your partner, it may give you a renewed sense of freedom, and it may deepen the intimacy, communication, and closeness you have with your partner. Think of it like exercise — going for a run, or hopping into yoga class, or cycling to work may help you get stronger, more flexible, and more mindful of your body and health. But if you're bedridden with a bad case of pneumonia, jumping into intense exercise is a bad idea.
Before considering non-monogamy, take stock of your relationship and of yourself. Do you and your partner share similar values? Do you have visions for the future that complement each other? How good are you at handling conflict and collaborative problem-solving? What kind of attachment styles do the two of you exhibit? Do you have any bad communication habits?
You don't need to score 100 percent here. But your connection to your partner should be stable enough that you feel confident you can handle it if you hit some unexpected bumps in the road. If your connection doesn't feel this way, but you still value the relationship, all is not lost. Set an intention to work on your weak points — get counseling together or individually, educate yourself on communication techniques, or focus on generating more positivity and bonding between the two of you. It will be better in the long-run to put in the work now, rather than rush into an open relationship that may fall apart as soon as it's tested.
Ultimately, your relationship will change, for better or worse. Michael, 30, offered this observation: “The scariest part about opening up a relationship for the first time is, even though you intend to put your relationship first and your individual needs second, the opposite often ends up being the case. My friends, partners, and I have found that as we explore romantic and sexual niches we didn't even know existed, we can no longer promise that a primary relationship is worth defending at all costs. While this can confuse some of the people in our lives, it's what makes polyamory worth it: you get to learn more about yourself than you thought possible.”
Images: Bustle; Giphy (5)