Dear Alice,

I have been involved in a monogamous relationship for seven years. My partner and I lived together until last August when he went to Europe to study for a year, and I came to NYC. I had not fooled around with anyone else until recently when I went out with some friends and at the end of the evening, ended up at the apartment of a guy I've known for years. He'd been hitting on me since I moved here last August, so I went for it. It was fun (and safe) and we'd like to make it at least a semi-regular activity. I'm afraid that I'll get too emotionally involved with my "f*** buddy." I find it difficult to separate the physical and the emotional; I won't go to bed with someone unless I really like them.

Also, when my partner finishes up in Europe, he'll be going back to his job in Boston, but I'll still be in NYC. I don't know how often we'll get to see each other. We have had such a great seven years together, but I'm worried about our future, and I've told him as much. I really like being in a relationship, but I'm afraid that as a result of this separation, I'm going to establish some pattern of infidelity or something.

Another question. After my “indiscretion,” I talked to my partner and told him I thought it more sensible if we entered into a "don't ask, don't tell" agreement (before, we'd both assumed that we'd be celibate, although he'd told me it was OK if I had an affair, as long as I was safe). What can you make of all my garbled thoughts?

Thank you,
Lustful and Confused

Dear Lustful and Confused,

It sounds like you and your partner are excellent communicators, which may prove helpful both for a long-distance and an open relationship. In open relationships, people involved typically agree to be together, but they also accept, permit, or tolerate romantic or sexual relationships with other people. However, what an open relationship means is defined by you and your partner and can vary between couples. For example, in your situation, it sounds like an open relationship may include having sexual relationships with others, but you would like to keep the romance between you and your partner. Additionally, why people enter into open relationships also vary. Folks may enter open relationships because of distance, different needs romantically or sexually, or the desire to be polyamorous (having multiple relationships with multiple consenting people). As long as the involved individuals are in a healthy and consensual relationship, an open relationship may work. How might you make this work? Read on to learn more!

Like you, some people may prefer not to sleep with someone unless there's an emotional connection. It might help to ask yourself a few questions. Might you develop feelings for someone with whom you have sex? In what ways may this present concerns for you or your current relationship? Could you keep the feelings friendly or do you feel it would be challenging to stop romantic feelings from developing due to the presence of a physical relationship? If you did develop feelings for your sex partner, how would that affect your current relationship? On the other hand, sex may be purely physical with little or no emotional ties. It might help to keep in mind that this may change over time and by the partner. An initially no-strings-attached sex partner may spark more feelings over time. Try to stay cognizant of your emotions towards the folks you choose to have a sexual relationship with as this may help you avoid unwanted romantic feelings.

The geographic distance between your and your partner may be another concern. Some questions to consider include: Even though the future of your long-distance relationship may be uncertain right now, do you want to attempt to sustain the relationship? If so, how come? If not, why not? If staying in your relationship is a priority for you, opening the relationship may help support your relationship (e.g., by staying satisfied with your physical and emotional needs even while your partner's away, being honest about other partners, etc.). If opening up may be harmful to the relationship, it may be worth reconsidering.

When you've evaluated your situation more, it's key to discuss this with your partner. If you two choose to have an open relationship, a few tips to try might include:

  • Clearly define the boundaries of the open relationship. For example, some may open a relationship only while they're in a long-distance situation, allowing only specific types of sexual behaviors, having only couple-approved partners, only emotional but not physical relationship, etc. This is also an opportunity to define was constitutes infidelity in your relationship. Each relationship looks different and can be decided upon by you and your partner.
  • Periodically check-in with each other. Some partners may want to hear details about other partners, whereas some may prefer to know nothing. Either way, checking-in with each other's comfort levels may help further your communication and strengthen trust.
  • If the open relationship includes sex with others, define safer sex practices with all sexual partners.
  • Be open to changing needs and desires over time. For example, your partner may be cool with you having sex with someone else, but later feel strong discomfort knowing that you're performing a special sexual act on the other partner. Amendments to the agreements may prevent unintentional crossing of boundaries.

If you and your partner decide that an open relationship isn't the most appropriate situation for you both, you may want to consider whether this long-distance setup can provide for your needs, while still remaining in the boundaries you both have set for your relationship. If it can't provide for your needs, you may want to think about whether you want to remain in the relationship.

While you may have more questions to answer, hopefully these can help you sort through your immediate concerns. You may also find it helpful to sort through your feelings with a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional. For more information on how to navigate long-distance relationships, consider taking a look at the Long-Distance & On-Line Relationships category in the Go Ask Alice! Relationships archives.

Alice!

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