You might be here on the Multiamory website for any number of reasons. You might be in a monogamous relationship right now and thinking about opening up, or you might be single and considering entering into a relationship that will be non-monogamous, or you may have been in several non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships that just haven't gone so smoothly. Today we're going to delve into the three main things that need to be talked over in order to lay a solid foundation for a happy, healthy, non-mono or poly relationship.
I have been thinking about, talking about, reading about, writing about polyamory, non-monogamy, and open relationships every single day for years. On top of that, for the past three years, I have been working as a relationship coach, specializing in helping people who are struggling to open up their relationship or who need some guidance in their established poly relationships. And after so many years of that, I start to see recurring patterns. I see what is happening in the relationships that are successful and happy, and I see what is happening over and over in the relationships that are falling apart, struggling, arguing all the time, and generally making everyone in the relationship totally miserable.
Itpains me because I see people making the same mistakes over and over again, and one of the most common is a failure to talk about uncomfortable issues thoroughly and frankly with one’s partners. I understand, talking bluntly about attraction, about sex, about your most vulnerable feelings is not comfortable and often it's very awkward and maybe sometimes embarrassing. But it is absolutely crucial to have these conversations, even if you are blushing the entire time.
Now, as we all know, good relationships require good communication about a variety of topics. But here we are going to cover the top three things that need to be talked about before you dive into an open relationship with anyone, no matter how long you've been with them.
You may be opening up your relationship for sexual reasons -- maybe you are seeking a variety of sexual partners, maybe you are seeking a particular type of kinky play, or maybe you or your partner are asexual. Regardless of your relationship to sex, it definitely needs to be part of the conversation.
The most obvious topic of discussion is sexual health. I know it’s easy to roll your eyes and say, “Yeah, yeah, I remember my high school health class.” However, everyone’s high school sex education was a likely a little bit different. You may have been taught that abstinence is the only way to avoid an STI. Or you may have been subjected to graphic close-up images of genitals that look like a general plague area. Particularly in American school systems, sex education can run the range between non-existent and intentionally terrifying and disturbing.
So, now that you’re an adult, I’d encourage you to do your research on disease transmission. (The CDC and Planned Parenthood websites are great for this.) Then, take some time to actually think about what level of sexual risk is acceptable for you. There is no one single way to define “safe sex,” which is why it’s more important to talk about which kind of risks you are willing to take. You may feel comfortable and safe using barriers for any kind of penetrative sex, but you ay choose to forgo barriers for oral contact, provided that everyone involved is fully up-to-date on their sexual health status. Other people may feel comfortable and safe using barriers for all kinds of contact -- penetrative, oral, digital, etc. Other people may feel comfortable and safe limiting their sexual contact to outercourse alone.
People who are new to non-monogamy often feel unsure about how to talk to their partner about the sex life they have with another partner. How much is too much to share? How much is too little to share? Do I talk about specific positions, acts, fetishes? Should I not talk about it at all if my partner feels weird hearing about it?
It will depend on what feels right for you and your partners, however, I recommend that you share anything connected to your sex life that is an issue related to physical health and safety. Anything outside of that can be kept private, unless you really, really want to share and your partner really, really wants to hear. For example: if you and a partner are planning on having a threesome with someone new, you should disclose your intent to have sexual contact with a new person to everyone else you are in sexual contact with. If you and a partner are planning on experimenting with using a strap-on on each other, that may be something you wish to keep within the realm of privacy. (Sexy, sexy privacy.)
Yes, if you open up your relationship and start connecting with other people, you may fall in love with someone who isn’t your partner. Some people want this to happen. Some people don’t. Some people are enamored with the idea of adding more loving relationships. Some people find the very thought terrifying.
Whether you’re looking for love or not, it’s important to talk to your partner about the existence of new relationship energy, or NRE. NRE is the intense rush of brain chemicals and hormones that smack you upside the head when you really connect to a new person -- either on a romantic level or a sexual one (or both.) We often refer to it as “butterflies” or “being twitterpated.” It can be both uplifting and nauseating; both exciting and de-stabilizing.
It’s important that you and your partner talk about the existence of NRE because one or both of you are most likely going to experience it at some point. It does not mean that your partner is going to leave you or love you any less. It does not mean that you are going to leave your partner or that you will love your partner any less. Talk with your partner about the ways you can care for each other and make each other feel special, even when you’re head over heels for someone new. Most importantly, set the intention to avoid making any major life decisions while in the first 6 months of a relationship with someone new (such as deciding to move across the country to live with a new partner).
Some couples choose to safeguard against NRE by instating a rule: no falling in love. You are free to choose what kind of rules, agreements, or boundaries you want for your open relationship. But bear in mind how effective it was telling Romeo and Juliet to not fall in love and not pursue a relationship with each other. Remember that being legally or socially barred from accessing love and relationships has not stopped countless gay or interracial couples from getting together and developing romantic feelings for each other. It’s cliche to say, but love is a powerful force, and it may not be in your control (or your partner’s control) to stop it from happening.
Everyone knows that communication is key to a healthy relationship. I have read (and typed) that so many times, even I am tired of it. But here I’m not just telling you to communicate with your partners. You need to communicate about your communication, otherwise known as meta-communication.
This means taking a step back and examining your own communication habits. Mind you, often it won’t be pretty. Think about the way that you feel when you’re angry at your partner. What kind of things do you say? Do you go into self-deprecation mode? Do you shut down and stonewall your partner? Do you find something or someone outside of yourself to blame? When you have something uncomfortable or vulnerable to tell your partner, do you approach that conversation with blunt honesty or with hesitancy? There are no right or wrong answers. Just find out what it is you and your partner are bringing to the table.
Have a direct conversation about how much information about other partners or relationships you are willing to share or hear. One of you may want to hear more, one of you may want to hear less, and that’s fine. If it’s working, there’s no need to make it exactly equal. However, I would encourage you to avoid any extremes when it comes to disclosing information about others. The extreme of sharing absolutely every single gritty detail (referred to as “the firehose method” by some) can compromise the privacy of your other partners and yourself, as well as leave you feeling like you need to “report in.” The opposite extreme of sharing absolutely nothing (referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell” by some) can put you in a position of constantly having to tell lies of omission to your partner. It may even be a warning sign that one or both of you aren’t actually on board with opening up your relationship.
Lastly, it is vital to begin researching and implementing specific communication tools. Unless you were raised in a family with parents that communicated perfectly and effectively all the time (unlikely), relying on your default communication habits and go-tos are probably not going to cut it in the long-term. There can be any number of tools in your communication toolbox -- it could be monthly check-in meetings or scrum meetings with each partner, it could be non-violent communication techniques, or incorporating the Triforce of Communication into your everyday conversations. If you are at a loss, it may be helpful to find someone outside of your relationship to talk to, such as a non-monogamy-friendly therapist or counselor, to give some guidance and suggestions for communication.
Remember that changing your communication habits and using tools or outside help does not mean that you have failed. It means that you are smart and intentional in making sure that your communication is as effective and healthy as possible. These three things are not the only things you need to talk about with your partners, but they are a solid starting point for creating a reliable foundation. And with a reliable foundation, it’s that much easier to get adventurous and creative in your love life and sex life.