Q: My wife and I practice some ethical non-monogamy here and there. She's insanely gorgeous, fit, hot, and sexy, and I am very turned on not only by having sex with her, but also by her having sex with other people.
There's no shortage of guys who want to sleep with her, and she keeps in contact with several who she's slept with over the past few years. Regularly, she sends very hot photos of herself to these guys as part of their interactions online, which is generally fine. My problem is that when I ask to see similar photos of her, she either claims she doesn't have any or gets annoyed that I'm asking her to see them. This is problematic for me because I love seeing sexy photos of her, and also because it doesn't feel right that she's so much more comfortable sending racy pics to other guys and not me. I get that it can be easier with people who don't have all the dynamics of a marriage and parenting to juggle, and I also get that she's entitled to a reasonable degree of privacy and freedom.
But do I sound like I'm making a reasonable request here? Or is this whole thing too far outside the norm to even give a clear answer?
A: There’s pretty much no such thing as “outside the norm” when it comes to sex and relationships; frankly, most questions boil down to the same few themes, and their details are what makes them personal and consuming and heartbreaking. The thing about ethical non-monogamy is that it requires partners to be extra skilled communicators; it demands of its practitioners excruciating honesty, vulnerable admissions, and painful conversations ad nauseam. It also promises a lot of hot, hot fun, so please understand that by no means am I trying to sway anyone — least of all you or your wife — away from the practice. I’m just contending that consensually non-exclusive relationships are a little like playing a video game on hard mode.
Everyone in every relationship ought to try to communicate openly and honestly with their partner at every opportunity. The rub is, as humans, we frequently suck at it. We all bungle our attempts to convey our feelings from time to time, but the sheer amount of communication, the number of communicative opportunities if you will, rises in a relationship with more open doors. You have to be able to talk about your wants, your needs, and your desires; more specifically, you have to discuss what you want from your partner, but also what you want from other people, what your partner gets from you, and also what they get from other people. You have to lay your sh*t bare! Ideally, you’ve opened these lines of communication and strengthened them well before deciding to explore non-monogamy.
What you and your wife have right now, to steal a line from Cool Hand Luke, is a failure to communicate. Or, maybe not an outright failure as much as an avoidance of communication. I’m thrilled you and your wife were honest enough with each other that you figured out that you’re both turned on by her being with other people. That’s amazing. Some people are 10 years into a relationship, having sex they don’t particularly care one way or another about, because they don’t know how to bring up their kinks or fantasies. So good on you guys for going there!
That said, when you opened up the relationship, what were the boundaries? What were the deal-breakers? What were things you wanted to hear about each other’s outside sex lives, and the things you didn’t want to know? There are a million more questions and of course, they all don’t have to have solid, static, immovable answers, but it seems maybe some of them went undiscussed when you originally decided to incorporate ethical non-monogamy into your lives.
So now you and your wife have some backtracking to do, and it might be kind of painful, and it might change the relationship and what the guidelines are for openness. But guess what? This right here is exactly the kind of excruciating honesty open relationships are all about! Woo! You get to practice!
One of the biggest things that stood out to me is that you know she’s sending hot pics to other people, but she’s telling you that she doesn’t have those photos. How do you know about these photos? Are you snooping? Is she lying? Are these Snapchats that disappear? When you say you like seeing sexy photos of her, does that mean you have seen them before? What the heck is going on here, basically.
As you mentioned, it’s totally fair to not send anyone — even your spouse — photos of yourself. You do not need a reason to keep said photos private, or to not take them, or to take them and not show anyone. It’s good you understand that and also that showing a spouse might feel different than showing a hookup or a stranger for all kinds of reasons. You’ve clearly come at this with empathy, having already thought of some not-crappy reasons why she might not be sharing these photos with you. That said, since you do somehow know about these photos, and since you’re feeling weird and hurt about them, you need to revisit your boundaries. (And, depending on how you found out about the photos, that may lead to establishing new boundaries for both of you.)
In my imagination, it goes something like this: “Babe, I really want to talk to you about our boundaries with non-monogamy. I’m so into you being with other people and them being turned on by you, I’m still interested in this, but I need to discuss something that’s hurting me.” Then explain how you know about the photos and how you feel about them. The more honest you are about how you feel without being blame-y or shame-y, the better.
Maybe your new boundary is that you guys will only share nudes with people outside the relationship if the other partner has seen them first. Maybe it’s a blanket no on sharing nudes with external partners. Maybe after you explain how the situation is making you feel, she’ll explain why she hasn’t been sharing them with you. Perhaps you said something one time that made her think you’re actually not that into nudes, and you don’t remember saying anything of the sort! I don’t know, and right now, you don’t either.
Here comes the hard part (and no, the conversation above was not the hard part, I’m sorry to say). This talk might not go the way you want it to go. It might end up uncovering more hurtful information or elicit a painful response. She may not want to give up sending photos to other people because it gives something to her, and she may also not feel comfortable sending them to you. You cannot, of course, make anyone do anything. All you can do is lay out your own feelings and invite your partner to help you come to a new agreement that works for both of you.
In an ideal world, she’s completely unaware that she’s been hurting you and is gung-ho about addressing it. But if she isn’t, you’ll need to think long and hard about whether your agreement to be non-monogamous still works, because, after all, the idea behind ENM is that it should enrich the lives of both partners (or every partner). It’s not an agreement that one person gets to have whatever “freedoms” they want, with no input or compromise around them.
In your letter, you ask if your request is reasonable, but I don’t know what your actual request is going to be, and maybe you don’t yet either. I will tell you that your pain is reasonable, and very addressable. However, to get there, you have some difficult conversations ahead of you.
It’s A Pleasure appears here every Thursday. If you have a sex, dating, or relationship question, email Sophia at BustleSexAdvice@gmail.com.