The decision to open up a relationship or live a more polyamorous lifestyle is never a decision that should be taken lightly especially for a couple who have been monogamous for the entirety of their relationship. Broaching this topic with a romantic partner can be delicate and oftentimes can disrupt a relationship if not handled correctly –especially if one partner feels strongly about keeping the status quo. Some on the receiving end of this conversation might see it as a personal affront or negative reflection of the relationship as a whole. Since advice on how to initiate this discussion isn’t always readily available through friends and family, we sat down with sex and relationship expert Dr. Tammy Nelson to get her take on this topic. She shares some helpful tips on opening up a dialogue about consensual non-monogamy, along with some best practices on beginning to introduce outside partners into the marriage.
How would you define consensual non-monogamy? Do you think it’s still taboo? If so, why?
Consensual non-monogamy is a relationship agreement where partners agree to have more than one sexual, emotional or romantic partner. This might look like swinging, or an open relationship, or polyamory, or what I call open monogamy, where the primary relationship is central but the agreement is fluid and can include a variety of outside arrangements.
How would you recommend initiating a conversation around consensual non-monogamy with a spouse or long-term partner for the first time? Are there any specific do’s and don’ts?
To begin the conversation about open or consensual non-monogamy, ask your partner if it might be time to reexamine your monogamy agreement. Start with, I have been thinking about the whole idea of marriage and monogamy and wondering, “What does monogamy mean to you?”
Another way to begin the conversation is to ask your partner, “I’m curious what your implicit assumptions were about monogamy when we first met and how they’ve changed?” Or, if you want to be more direct, you could ask, “have you ever thought that about whether our relationship could withstand exploring outside relationships?” If you start a broader conversation about the concept of monogamy, instead of focusing on your relationship in particular, it’s easier to talk about.
To keep the topic less threatening, be indirect at first and then bring it into more specific areas about your own lives. What you may want to avoid is asking your partner right away if you can open your relationship, without preamble or explanation. Going from totally closed to moving into a fully open relationship might feel like you are moving too fast if your partner has never considered a flexible monogamy agreement. One way to calm your partner’s anxiety is to reassure them by saying, “Right now, my thoughts about an open relationship are still in a fantasy place.”
What are some of the benefits of consensual non-monogamy that one might highlight when broaching the topic?
Integrating a more open agreement into your monogamy does not have to mean you are breaking up, or that your relationship is in trouble. In fact, it should be a sign that you are on solid ground and you want to bring more excitement and energy into the partnership, not that you want to separate.
Just talking about your fantasy of being with other people can be quite sexy. If your partner finds it upsetting, however, reassure them. For now, this is only in play, and you want to both agree that you will talk about your fantasies in a way that is respectful.
If one partner is initially opposed to opening up the marriage, is there any sense trying to convince them? Is there value in revisiting again or having the conversation in the presence of a therapist?
An open relationship should not be pushed, nor should a partner feel that they have to enter into it under duress. They will not find benefit from a relationship that causes them to stretch their values to the point of breaking their own rules.
But if they are open to discussion and just need time to adjust to the idea, seeing a therapist who specializes in this area can be helpful. A counselor can help a couple explore the conversation in a safe way, while helping avoid conflict or unnecessary hurt.
If both partners have agreed to open up the relationship, what do they need to do before moving forward?
It’s important to have an open discussion about the parameters of the relationship agreement going forward, and to have it often. Everything that has been implicit must now be explicit. Conversations about everything that once felt implied now must be discussed out loud and nothing can be taken for granted.
For instance, do you each want to know when and if you are attracted to someone else, and when you have fantasies about another person? Are there rules about who you will talk to or will you discuss? Who is off limits? Are you going to see other people together or only when you are apart? What are the boundaries? The redlines?
Starting this conversation as soon as possible and having it as often as necessary will help both partners feel safe and trust the process of an ongoing monogamy agreement conversation.
How can couples ensure that safe sex practices are upheld when opening up their marriage? How often would you recommend a couple get checked for STIs? What about outside partners?
When you open a monogamy agreement, part of the discussion should be about safe sex practices. Using self-monitored safe sex practices includes using condoms, but even before that it includes kissing, oral sex, and anything that involves the exchange of fluid between two or more people. They may choose to be strict about ‘no fluids’ exchanged or that after a relationship with an outside partner has been established they can choose to be ‘fluid bonded,’ Being fluid bonded means that all partners agree that whomever they have sex with, all of their partners (and their partners) will have had recent STI checks and will continue to be tested, particularly if they choose to go without condoms. This must be agreed upon by all partners and if there is a risk of any outside partner having contact with anyone else, all partners should have a new updated conversation about the safety of the whole group.
How does one protect themselves emotionally when opening up their marriage? How can they mitigate jealousy and other negative emotions that may arise for them or their spouse?
Jealousy is a human emotion and just because a couple is choosing to be non-monogamous doesn’t mean that they won’t be jealous, at times. Jealousy is not a mysterious feeling that only some people feel and others miraculously avoid. It is an emotion that is triggered when one person feels that the resources in the relationship are not evenly divided, and they feel threatened by the outside person who has come in to usurp something that they need. They are afraid to lose something they have or that they won’t get enough of something that they need.
Most relationships need four things; time, attention, affection and sex. If the couple can have an open conversation about these four areas, they can be clear about what they feel they are not getting enough of, and what they are lacking in their primary relationship. In this way, all partners can have clarity about what they feel is missing and how they might work on improving the balance between them.
How does one ensure they don’t become emotionally attached to outside partners and vice versa?
There is no way to ensure that once the relationship has opened to other people that partners won’t get attached to someone else. If you are sleeping with another person, repetitively, it is most likely that you will become attached, eventually. How that outside attachment affects your love for your primary partner is up to you. For some people, the ability to feel more affection and love for more people only enhances all of their relationships. They learn to grow as loving partners and can share what they’ve learned with all of their lovers. For others, they feel so compartmentalized that they can only concentrate their attention on to one person at a time. These differences should be taken into account and if the couple needs to seek extra help, they should seek counseling from a therapist that can help.
Tammy Nelson, Ph.D. is a Certified Sex and Relationship Therapist and Licensed Counselor seeing couples and individuals for 30 years, a TEDx speaker (“The New Monogamy”), and host of the podcast “The Trouble with Sex.”
She is the author of five books including, “Integrative Sex and Couples Therapy” (2020) “When You’re the One Who Cheats; Ten Things You Need to Know” (2019) “The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity” (2013) “Getting the Sex You Want” (2008) and “What’s Eating You?” (2005). Her new book “Open Monogamy; A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement” is due out in 2021 with Sounds True Publishing.
For another article on communication within a relationship check out our article on how to approach political incompatibility.