Navigating open relationships

As a sex and couples coach, I’ve assisted clients in exploring the intricacies of open relationships. I delved into Jennifer Fern’s “Polysecure” some time ago—a book often hailed as a Bible in the polyamorous world. While some aspects proved intriguing, my critical review aims to shed light on why the content may not seamlessly translate into real-life success. Fern emphasizes understanding one’s attachment style, but I argue that this knowledge alone doesn’t eliminate fears or ensure smooth navigation of open relationships. Recognizing attachment styles offers limited impact. My overarching concern lies in poly literature often diagnosing those who may not desire or be suited for polyamory. True polyamorous connections remain exceptions, requiring compatibility in both inclination and lifestyle.

In my coaching sessions, I prioritize exploring the motivations behind opening a relationship. Rather than accepting surface-level reasons like adventure, I dig deeper, often uncovering hidden motives rooted in past experiences, such as healing wounds from a lack of confidence or validation in youth. It’s crucial to illuminate these concealed motivations. Not only does it allow for a more informed evaluation of whether polyamory is the sole solution, but it also helps the partner understand that the desire for openness doesn’t necessarily reflect inadequacy within the relationship. Honest self-reflection is paramount. Without acknowledging the deeper reasons beyond mere adventure, partners may inadvertently transmit pressure and trigger heightened fears. Addressing only the symptoms of anxiety isn’t enough; understanding the underlying motivations is essential. In my work with male clients, a predominant (often unconscious) motivation revolves around a desire to make up for the lack of success in connecting or flirting with others during their youth. Today, being growm-up and armed with sufficient self-confidence, they seek to fulfill these unmet desires. Another common motive across genders is breaking free from existing relationship patterns, sometimes so entrenched that individuals perceive opening the relationship as the only means of escape. This often manifests as significant distress for the person seeking openness. Perhaps they’ve struggled for years to communicate their needs, facing obstacles either in a partner unwilling or unable to respond or due to not having clearly articulated those needs. Standing up for one’s needs requires a high level of integrity and a willingness to take the risk that the partner might choose to end the relationship under these conditions. However, if needs haven’t been asserted for years, seeking an open relationship becomes a way to break free towards a more self-determined space. It’s understandable that the pressure feels intense, as the desire for autonomy inevitably becomes urgent. As my training mentor eloquently summarized, “Most people who want to live multiple relationships can’t even handle one.”.

I want to emphasize that I am by no means against opening relationships! However, it is crucial to examine the motives because otherwise, I miss the opportunity to achieve genuine integrity. So, if you’re thinking, “I’ll stand up for myself now and insist on opening the relationship as soon as possible,” you might misunderstand me. Instead, consider probing where the high distress comes from. Understanding the roots of the pressure allows for a more thoughtful and comprehensive approach to navigating the complexities of open relationships. Central to my approach is steering away from inflexibility. When one perceives no alternative to opening up the relationship, trust and mutual growth become challenging. It’s vital to avoid an all-or-nothing mindset, fostering an environment conducive to shared exploration. Adding to this, inflexibility can also manifest in the belief that the only way to have an open relationship is if both parties go on solo dates. From my experience, this poses a significant challenge for many anxious partners. Not being present at a solo date can cause their imagination to run wild, often conjuring up scenarios that fuel their deepest fears. Therefore, steering away from inflexibility also means considering the option of dating other people together. Many couples seem to completely overlook this possibility. By embracing honesty, understanding hidden motives, and fostering compromise, couples can embark on a journey of exploration that minimizes potential pitfalls.

Reflecting on my experiences, I’ve compiled a list of learnings on how to navigate open relationships without stumbling or disregarding the needs of oneself, their partner, or other people involved:

  1. Addressing Needs within the Relationship: Many polyamorous individuals seek open relationships because they feel something is lacking within their current relationship. If your current relationship, for example, doesn’t allow for enough autonomy, it makes total sense that the urge to look for spaces in life where you get this is intensified. Instead of seeking fulfillment solely outside the relationship, it’s crucial to openly communicate desires for what is lacking with your partner. By discussing ways to incorporate more freedom within the relationship, you can strengthen satisfaction and intimacy. This principle applies not only to autonomy but to any other area such as sexual satisfaction and commitment.
  2. Respecting the Pace of the Slower Partner: If one partner needs to move slowly when opening the relationship, it’s essential to listen and respect their pace to avoid causing unnecessary pain. However, this doesn’t imply being passive or that the person with the need for slowness should simply relax and enjoy not having to push forward. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of taking the needs of all individuals involved seriously and actively collaborating to find a common pace.
  3. Taking Baby Steps: Even though you might imagine a polyamorous relationship in which you have all the freedom to have love relationships with whomever you desire, consider your partner’s fears and take baby steps in the beginning. Instead of diving into an open relationship with full force and pressure, consider taking small, incremental steps. This could involve starting with simple actions like flirting or kissing someone else before gradually progressing to more intimate interactions.
  4. Exploring Swinging Together: An often-overlooked alternative to solo dating is the option of exploring swinging together, which can be particularly suitable for partners prone to anxiety as it minimizes the space for frightening fantasies. Swinging allows both partners to be present and fostering a shared sense of adventure.
  5. Negotiating Rules and Boundaries: Each individual may have different comfort levels and boundaries, so it’s essential to discuss and agree upon specific rules that work for everyone involved. For example, you may feel comfortable with a rule of “only kisses” for now, while your partner may prefer to start with “no physical intimacy at all” until they feel more secure. Once you’ve agreed upon rules and boundaries, it’s crucial to stick to them 100% when on a date. Any deviation from the agreed-upon rules without prior agreement can cause tremendous pain and mistrust. If you’re unsure whether your actions would violate a rule, it’s best to err on the side of caution and discuss it with your partner before proceeding. Here are some examples of rules that couples might negotiate:
    • Level of Intimacy: Determine what level of physical and emotional intimacy is acceptable with other partners. This could range from kissing and cuddling to engaging in sexual activities.
    • Communication: Agree on how and when to communicate with each other about dates and interactions with other partners. This might include sharing details about dates or checking in at specific times. Some may prefer not to know anything about their partner’s date, while others may wish to receive information only after the date is completed, as being aware during the date can create heightened anxiety. Conversely, some individuals may feel more secure when informed about a date beforehand, as it allows them to mentally prepare and adjust accordingly.
    • Frequency of Encounters: Set boundaries around how often you’ll see other partners and how much time you’ll spend together.
    • Safe Sex Practices: Discuss expectations for practicing safe sex with other partners and whether or not you’ll require regular testing for sexually transmitted infections.
    • Privacy: Determine how much information you’ll share about your other relationships with friends, family, and other partners.
  6. Analyzing Pressure: If you or your partner feel pressured to open the relationship, take time to understand the underlying reasons for this pressure. Consider the best and worst-case scenarios envisioned and address any fears or insecurities driving the pressure. For example, one partner may feel pressured to open the relationship because they fear missing out on opportunities for connection or exploration. They may worry that if they don’t push their partner to open the relationship now, they won’t have the same chances in the future, especially as they age or their circumstances change. On the other hand, the other partner may feel pressured to allow their partner all the freedom they desire because they fear that if they don’t, their partner will ultimately leave them for someone who will.
  7. Reducing External Pressure: If you feel a lack of satisfaction in other parts of your life like job or friendships, it is more likely that you feel a lot of pressure of at least finding satisfaction by having the freedom of an open relationship. Therefore, seek more satisfaction also in these other areas. This broader approach to satisfaction can help alleviate the intensity of the pressure to open the relationship and create a more balanced and fulfilling life overall.
  8. Reflecting on Past Experiences: Examine past experiences with autonomy-commitment dynamics, including relationships with parents or previous partners. For example, if you grew up in a restrictive environment or experienced jealousy issues in a previous relationship, you may feel a heightened desire for autonomy and freedom in your current relationship (check out my post on jealousy). Understanding how past experiences shape current relationship dynamics can provide valuable insight into individual needs and behaviors.
  9. Considering the Needs of Others: Remember to consider the needs and feelings of individuals outside of the primary relationship. Dating partners also have their own desires and boundaries that deserve recognition and respect. Avoid becoming so absorbed in the dynamics within the primary relationship that you neglect the needs of external partners. For instance, if your date sends you a nude photo, it doesn’t grant you the freedom to share it with your primary partner. Another common concern for dating partners in polyamorous dynamics could be that they feel like an outsider in this relationship.

In essence, “Polysecure” served as a valuable starting point, but my critical review emphasizes the need for a nuanced and individualized approach to open relationships—one that goes beyond attachment styles and delves into the core motivations and dynamics unique to each couple. I suggest that these books illuminate both sides, not just focusing on helping individuals with fears and anxieties about opening the relationship. It’s equally crucial to scrutinize the motivations of the partner advocating for openness, especially if they exert significant pressure. A comprehensive approach that addresses both perspectives ensures a more balanced and constructive exploration of polyamorous dynamics. I look forward to exploring whether these considerations have been addressed in “Polywise” and how the updated perspective enriches the discourse on navigating the complexities of open relationships.

Do you want to open your relationship or struggle doing so without hurting each other? Do you find yourself grappling with feelings of jealousy? Book a free “get to know me” call to dicuss your unique challenges and goals.