What Are Open Relationship Rules Like? Negotiating Non-Monogamous Boundaries, In 8 Steps

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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 based in San Francisco, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. Now, onto today’s topic: how to make the rules for an open relationship.

Q: After lots of consideration, my boyfriend and I have decided to open up our 1-year relationship. I feel confident that we both want this for the right reasons — because it fits with our ideologies rather than because we’re horny or bored of having sex with each other. We’ve made a plan to talk about the details of what’s allowed/not allowed, but I’m not sure where to start. It seems like there are so many different options. What specific rules and guidelines of having an open relationship should we be talking about? What if we don’t agree on everything?

A: Congrats on your decision! Open relationships can certainly be more complex than monogamous ones. There are more people involved, and more feelings to consider. The benefits can outweigh the hassles, but there’s no getting around all of the logistics that have to be sorted through! The fact that you guys are taking the time to be thoughtful about it bodes well for you two. Here are eight steps towards setting your guidelines.

1. Make Sure You Have A Solid Foundation

It sounds like you guys are on the right path already, but it’s important to note that your relationship has to be steady before you open it up. You want to clear up all unresolved fights and lingering issues as much as possible before going further. Just as people say that having a baby won’t save a relationship, neither will becoming non-monogamous.

2. Know Your Reasons For Opening It Up

You say that you’re opening up your relationship for ideological reasons, which is great. But what are those specific beliefs? What are you looking to get out of non-monogamy? What purpose will it serve for you? What do you need from your partner(s)? What will make you feel safe? What will excite you? Knowing the answers will work wonders in helping you settle on specific guidelines.

3. Consider Lots Of Possibilities

You’re right that there are tons of different options for non-monogamy. As our society gets more knowledgeable about non-monogamy, we’ll stop thinking in the monogamy/non-monogamy binary and start recognizing that there are so many unique configurations of relationships.

Your challenge right now lies in trying to get a sense of which of those configurations will work best for you and your boyfriend. Here are some important questions that can guide that exploration:

  • Will you both be non-monogamous, or just one of you?
  • Are you talking about being sexual with other people, or having relationships with other people?
  • What types of sexual behaviors would be permissible or not permissible?
  • What kinds of partners, locations, timeframes, or situations would feel good? Which ones should be avoided?
  • Are there certain times when the regular guidelines won’t apply?
  • Will you ever have “veto power” over your partner?
  • Do you want your relationship to remain the primary one, or do you want to have multiple primary relationships?
  • Do you want to open up your relationship slowly, or go all in right away?

Those are just a handful of the possibilities! I’d suggest familiarizing yourself with other people’s open relationship rules. Check out a few articles online, or chat with any friends you may have who are already in open relationships. You’re sure to find plenty of guidelines that you had never thought about before, and these prompts can open up some interesting conversations between you and your boyfriend.

4. Go Through The Hypotheticals

The tricky thing about setting boundaries in an open relationship is that it can be hard to know what your boundaries are beforehand. That’s why I suggest trying to think and talk through as many hypothetical situations as you can. It may be scary to acknowledge the areas that could be challenging for you, but it will get you closer to knowing what may or may not work for you. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What if one of us changes our mind?
  • What if someone doesn’t respect the boundaries?
  • What if we develop intense romantic feelings for another person?
  • What if one of us sees the other one being intimate with a new person?
  • What if one of us gets a sexually transmitted infection?
  • What if it starts feeling like our relationship is being neglected, or we don’t have enough time for each other?

5. If You Can’t Agree On It, Don’t Do It

Since there are so many choices that go into opening up a relationship, it’s likely that you and your boyfriend won’t agree on every single detail. If there’s an aspect of your relationship that you can’t make a decision about, table it for the time being and come back to it at another point. Don’t take any action in that regard until you’re in complete agreement.

For example, your boyfriend might say he’d be open to hooking up with mutual friends, but you might feel hesitant. If he agrees to compromise, try opening your relationship up to non-friends first, then return to the friend issue later. One of you may change your mind once that you’ve had some non-monogamous experience under your belt.

6. Find The Right Words

How are you and your boyfriend going to describe your relationship to others? How will you explain what is and isn’t possible to a potential new lover? You may find it reassuring or helpful to identify with a certain word or type of language in describing your relationship. For example, some people love the word “poly”. Others like describing relationships as primary and secondary. Or you and your boyfriend might want to make up your own phrase, or your own way of describing your relationship. Perhaps you'll prefer that friends and family don't know you're non-monogamous. Either way, it's important to discuss how you'll classify your relationship moving forward.

7. Put It Down In Writing

You may find it useful to write out the guidelines that you and your boyfriend have decided on together. Getting it in writing can minimize the chances of misunderstanding ("wait, you said no blow jobs? I swear you said you were cool with blow jobs!"). Plus, the actual act of putting together a "contract" can feel like a bonding ritual.

8. Make Space For Renegotiation

The guidelines that you and your boyfriend make don’t need to be set in stone! The more experience you have with opening up your relationship, the more likely it is that you’re going to want to alter some aspect of your agreement. Schedule regular times to check in and communicate about how things are going. You may even want to write these check-ins into your "contract". Give each other permission to ask for changes. Make sure to keep taking care of each other as you go through this journey together.

Good luck!

Images: Em Hull/Flickr; Giphy