12 Tips To Make An Open Relationship Work, From Someone Who Learned The Hard Way

For a short time in my life, I had a wife and a girlfriend. Well, that's only kind of true. Gay marriage isn't legal in my state, so I didn't technically have a wife. And as for my "girlfriend," labels weren't really her thing. But for the sake of clarity we’ll use those two terms. Long story short: I spent a lot of time learning how to survive an open relationship, and mostly learning the hard way. My wife had been the warm center of my universe for seven years. She was unequivocally my best friend and the love of my life. She was going to be the mother of my children. We had goals. A home. Dogs. A frightening number of joint sweatpants. It was perfect.

Until the day I came home and discovered she was cheating on me. And because I was so blindsided by this eviscerating grief, and because I wasn't not winning any awards for self-esteem at the time, I just couldn’t let her go. I promised her that she could love us both. WTF, right? Why in the world would anyone ever let their person be with other people? I hear you. I felt the same way for a time. The truth is, being non-monogamous isn't necessarily a sign of an unhealthy relationship. It actually takes a great deal of love, trust, mutual respect and communication to make it work. And lots of people happily make it work. I thought, "why not us, right?" Maybe you have had the same thought process with your partner. If that's the case, because you make any decisions, here's what I learned, and what you should know:

1. Compersion: Learn It. Live it. 

Compersion is the hot buzzword in the non-monogamy community. It's the idea that your partner's happiness makes you happy. Think of it as the exact opposite of jealousy. Compersion forced me out of my own head and let me feel grateful for so much new happiness in our lives. On your best days, you'll be able to experience joy in a completely new way. You'll see your partner's happy glow and you'll smile. On a bad day, you'll name all the mixed drinks you invent "compersion."


2. Make sure you're both on the same page. 

If you and your partner aren't both equally interested in opening things up, you're doomed from the start. If you only learn one thing from me, let it be this. You must, must, must be on the same page. If I'm being really honest with myself, I didn't want to be in an open relationship, I just didn't want to lose my person, and if that's you, this will never work. It's natural to have fears and doubts, but you really need to be honest with yourself and your partner about everything you're feeling. Always. And not just going in. You'll need to check in and re-calibrate this thing on a regular basis. 


3. Get your self-esteem and support system in check. 

If you are sometimes a needy, hot mess like me, you might struggle more than the average bear. I needed constant validation from my wife that she loved me. That I had done nothing wrong. That I was enough, all on my own. That her feelings for another person had nothing to do with her feelings for me. This is a self-esteem minefield, especially if you're not in the most trusting place to start with. I recommend a counselor. There were so many things I wanted to hash out, but couldn't talk to anyone in my circles about. This, I found out, is a common experience. 

4. Lay down the rules. 

Open relationships don't work without rules. Ours were pretty standard: No mutual friends or family, not in our home, no leaving, NO DETAILS. The last one was the glue that held the whole thing together. I didn't want to know. As far as dinner table conversation went, we were a monogamous couple. You might have more rules or fewer, and they'll constantly evolve. But a general framework will give you a little piece of mind. 

5. Accept that you can't regulate feelings. 

If any of your rules center on limiting emotions or not falling in love, you're setting yourself up for failure. We tried to do this at first. Our number one rule was "Only love me!" That's just not realistic. The more time I spent with my girlfriend, the harder I fell for her. And I am not a person who can separate sex from love, no matter what rules I tell myself I'm following. Accept that your heart won't always do what you want it to do, 


6. Get ready to have some tough days here and there.

Just because you get to have your cake and eat it to, that doesn't mean the frosting doesn't occasionally taste like resentment. I don't mean to sound negative, but this is a pretty common truth. Jealousy is something you really have to learn to master, and fast, or it will consume you. Those torturous times weren't the norm, but they happen. You're human. My advice? Don't wallow. Focus on the good and do whatever it takes to get out of that headspace, ASAP. 

7. Get a planner.

This might sound like something silly, but the clock is now your nemesis. There will never be enough time. My girlfriend felt slighted because I lived with my wife, so she got much of my time. My wife was used to having me home most nights, and now that I wasn't, she wanted me there more than ever. Both new love and old love require a lot of nurturing and the balancing act takes finesse. The upside? It's pretty flattering to be so in-demand. 

8. Get ready for ALL THE FEELS.

You'll never have a shortage of amazing feels in a healthy, open relationship. First kisses, new relationship butterflies, different kinds of love. You get honeymoon periods, romance, lots of sex, and lots of fun. You feel really wanted and really lucky. In fact, at times, I was so happy that it felt too good to be true that I could love two wonderful women in such intense but different ways. But I also dealt with guilt and shame as I questioned my character and my morals. Sometimes I felt like I was floating and sometimes that I was drowning. I worried that I loved my girlfriend too much because new love is so exciting. Again: So. Many. Feels. 

9. Remove comparison from your life.

Something I had to learn in a deep way was the idea that two people didn't have to be in competition. There wasn't any shortage of love. And both relationships could be different without one having to be better than the other. Let me offer an example. When my wife kissed me, I melted. It was a warm and a gooey oxytocin cocktail that spread warmth and joy and desire through my body. It was stunningly amazing. When my girlfriend kissed me, it was electric. I felt a rush from the top of my head to the bottoms of my feet. My skin tingled. My heart raced. My insides turned to mush. It was stunningly amazing. If you asked me at the time, which kiss was my favorite, I couldn't pick. 

10. Get ready for judgement.

People have really intense, primal reactions to open relationships. No everyone will get it. The first girl I went on a date with called things off because she said I obviously had no self-respect if I let someone share me. We never told our families. We all ran into people we knew while on dates and struggled to find the words to make what we were doing okay. Don't worry about it too much. It's your life. You can't control the way others react, but but it's worth thinking about how you'll handle your reaction. 


In any case, an open relationship is not for everyone. And that's okay. If I can leave you with one final piece of advice, it's this: If you think after this article you have everything figured out, you probably still don't. 

Images: WavebreakmediaMicro/Fotolia; Giphy (10)

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