Open? Poly? How to NOT Cheat

A number of people have come into my office this past month inquiring about various forms of non-monogamy. Of course there’s the traditional one-sided clandestine affair, in which one person thinks the couple is monogamous while the other person knows that isn’t true (because he or she isn’t).

For people who want a consensual arrangement, two of the more common ones are:

* Open relationship: Each person has one or more sexual partners outside the couple, which they freely acknowledge to each other;
* Polyamory: The couple finds other people (usually one or more couples) with whom to have a non-casual sexual relationship. Tristan Taormino’s book Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships says it’s about “maintaining multiple significant, intimate relationships simultaneously.”

Given all the media attention to various forms of consensual non-monogamy, some of my patients are now considering some kind of arrangement. Unfortunately, many popular misconceptions lead to insufficiently thoughtful decisions. So here are a handful of quick tips about “open” or “poly” relationships. To make things easy, I’ll use the expression open/poly to refer to features the two have in common.

The facts, please:

  1. Poly and Open are different.

Poly couples are typically involved with other people together. Open couples often have relationships or adventures separate from each other. While Open couples may be interested in only sex with others, Poly couples are oriented toward longer-term emotional involvement with others. Clearly the two arrangements require different (if overlapping) sets of emotional skills

  1. Both Poly and Open are about communication as much as they are about sex.

Couples who don’t talk to each other about complicated things save a lot of time—and, some would argue, heartache. Open/Poly couples, however, are committed to processing their feelings about their own and each other’s behavior and experiences. That can be especially complicated if two partners are having very different experiences.

If you don’t like relationship conversations, Open/Poly is NOT for you.

  1. Open/Poly is not for everyone.

Indeed, there’s a long list of reasons people DON’T enjoy Open/Poly: jealousy, anger about other things, concerns about abandonment, difficulty trusting each other, feeling much less attractive than one’s partner, feeling much less comfortable with others than one’s partner, and a rigid sense of how things “should” be.

  1. Open/Poly doesn’t solve all of life’s problems.

Such an arrangement may improve life in a lot of ways, but it won’t lower your cholesterol, reduce chronic pain, make your kids study more, or make your boss less manipulative. It may make some of life’s irritations more tolerable, and your enhanced self-esteem may help you navigate some tricky people problems. But not all. And it certainly can’t fix that ailing shoulder you hurt mountain biking.

  1. One person can’t unilaterally declare that a relationship is Open/Poly.

Depending on your attitude, doing so is either called cheating or jumping the gun. Handing your partner a done deal—“We’re now in an Open/Poly arrangement, I predict you’re gonna love it”—is rude, thoughtless, and simply impractical. How is one person supposed to trust another to do a delicate, collaborative project like Open/Poly when they can’t even begin it as a conscious partnership?

  1. When you’re Open/Poly, your partner’s satisfaction IS your concern.

Ethical, consensual non-monogamy doesn’t mean you stop caring about your partner, nor does it mean your partner’s well-being no longer affects you. To make Open/Poly work, you have to listen to their concerns, help them think through periodic dilemmas or feelings, and genuinely care about how the arrangement is working for him/her. If you don’t, it won’t.

  1. Don’t be surprised if you develop more feelings in Open/Poly than you expected.

There seems to be something about taking off your clothes with someone, and putting a part of their body inside yours (or yours in theirs) that often leads to emotions—whether of vulnerability, bonding, belonging, affection, yearning, or something else.

  1. Don’t rely on gender stereotypes with Open/Poly.

That old idea that men want sex and women want relationships? Hello, it’s 1959 calling—they want their stereotypes back. Both men and women can be dissatisfied with monogamy. Both men and women in Open/Poly can experiment with sexual adventures as well as emotional ones. Both men and women can talk about complex relationship issues. And yes, both men and women can become disenchanted with Open/Poly. Don’t think of the people you meet as “women” or “men”—think of them as unique individuals.

  1. Open/Poly isn’t easier or better than monogamy.

It’s just different. There are NO simple sexual arrangements!

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