Although I’m non-monogamous myself, it’s not something I generally advocate. And certainly not when it’s used as a “solution” to problems in a relationship. That’s not to say that it can’t be a solution, only that it rarely is. Usually people have some other, deeper problems in their relationship and so they start seeking distance from their partner. In this case, non-monogamy is a red herring—opening up your relationship should never be used as a way to gain distance, rather it should be something that brings you together.
Starting from this perspective, let’s first look at reasons why opening up is not the solution many think it is. Then I’ll discuss conditions under which opening up should be pursued. And finally, I’ll briefly talk about how to open up and what you should pay attention to in those first stages of the process.
When Opening Up Is Not A Solution
Opening up a relationship introduces a lot of stress; it’s not easy. Even if it might be part of a solution, it’s better to work on the fundamentals of a relationship before you take this last, most impactful step. So, opening up a relationship is not a solution if the foundation of your relationship is not already strong.
If you have any fundamental differences with your partner, then take care of those first. These often take the form of mismatch in dependence/independence, love languages (both giving and receiving), communication styles, sexual compatibility, and values. A relationship (or the skills of the people in that relationship) that doesn’t work monogamously is likely to suffer non-monogamously. Look at these areas first to try to solve your problems. Learn the lessons that you can in this style of a relationship before you move on.
You’re going to have to be open and honest with yourself before you take a step down the path of non-monogamy. Ask yourself, “Is this relationship worth keeping, period?” Sometimes relationships are destined to fail, but perhaps there isn’t enough of a reason to call it off yet. No large disagreements or arguments, no violations of trust. It lingers. We either lack the courage to break up or else have some false idea that a relationship should be maintained only because it’s not going wrong.
I propose an alternative viewpoint: a relationship should be ended if you are not enthusiastic about it and if there is little possibility of regaining a sense of enthusiasm. In this model, you don’t need an argument or a fight or infidelity or any intense state to justify a breakup. You don’t need to add extra stress in some hope that you can prompt a fight. You don’t need to cling to the relationship at all. Rather, if you don’t feel like putting in energy anymore, you simply stop. This is much better than unnecessarily putting yourself through the pain of a transition to non-monogamy that’s doomed from the start.
When Opening Up Is A Solution
There is only one case in which opening up a relationship is the solution to a wavering relationship: when the source of your troubles isn’t the relationship itself (that is, your foundation is strong), but is because one or the both of you naturally trend towards non-monogamy and lack the personal fulfillment that can only be had from exploring parallel relationships1.
As proof of the soundness of your relationship foundation, you should be able to bring up the subject with your partner for discussion. You should both love and feel loved by one another, and understand that non-monogamy is not intended to search for anything that your partner lacks. Rather, it is a search for something that is lacking within the self and within the structure of your life that you should not expect your partner to provide.
1.I should stress that this is not the only route to non-monogamy. Rather, this is one route within the context of a failing relationship in which monogamy itself is a problem.
Doing It Anyway
Before we get to the points about how to open up, I want to talk about a special case: when opening up is not a solution, but you should pursue it anyway.
It may sound like a contradiction to say that opening up is going to add stress to your doomed relationship and that you should still do it, but hear me out. If you have enough of the fundamentals that the relationship is limping along, but you both aren’t quite right for each other, then this is the perfect time to experiment with non-monogamy. You can use this relationship as a testing ground to see how an alternative relationship structure might work, how jealousy manifests, how you can organize your lives.
Just because you feel like the relationship is doomed anyway doesn’t make it any easier. You’re still emotionally invested. You’re trying to make things work with what you have. It’s still difficult to know that your partner is out there with someone else, getting satisfaction in a way that you did not or could not provide. But if you have the bandwidth in your life to deal with this added stress, then you gain lessons you could only learn under these conditions. It’s practice for the later stages of a non-monogamous relationship, when you’re both committed to each other and still feeling your way through the thicket of new emotions.
How To Open Up
When we change the way our relationships operate, there is a temptation to bring our old baggage with us. We carry the burden of our expectations like an old habit that’s hard to kick. Although we’ve agreed to tweak and bend the relationship into new shapes, still we feel the stress of our old ways trying to pull us back. But there is a trick that helps to deal with this effect.
Instead of thinking about our new ways as a change in our current relationship, it can be helpful to think of the process as a breakup. We had an old relationship that worked in a particular way, but that way wasn’t quite suitable. So we’ve broken up. And now we’re getting back together, only this time we have a new way of doing things and new expectations as well. Whatever happened in the old relationship is done. We’re focused on creating something new.
If you are already familiar with non-monogamy, then you’ll roughly know what to expect (subject to some differences depending on your individual personalities). But generally those who are interested in opening up an existing relationship have never been through it before. You’ll be learning new lessons that cut down to the core of who you are: chiefly, emotional awareness. And you’ll be learning new lessons with your partner: how to communicate through your issues, how to be there for each other in these times of added stress.
It helps to think of your relationship as an exploration or an experiment. There are so many things you do not know and cannot predict. The only way to learn is by holding hands and walking together through the paths of life. You may learn that your paths diverge—maybe one of you enjoys non-monogamy and the other doesn’t—but you can only find out by walking together as far as you can.
Note that this advice is purposely abstract. There is no step-by-step guide to opening up a relationship save:
- Discuss with your partner
- Figure it out as you go
There are many ways to approach this process and you cannot predict how you’ll react. You will encounter unique obstacles along the way in different orders and intensities than other relationships, so it’s best to take it slow and repeatedly stop to talk to your partner. Any advice I have on specific obstacles will be saved for more in-depth articles.