Should we have an open relationship?

Originally Published: February 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 5, 2010
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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 will prove helpful if you two have an open relationship. In open relationships, people involved in the relationship agree to be together, and they accept, permit, or tolerate romantic and/or sexual relationships with other people. What open relationships mean may be open to interpretation. For you situation, you may have opened the relationship to another sexual partner, but would like to keep the romantic aspect only to your partner. Some people may enter open relationships because of distance, different needs romantically or sexually, being polyamorous, or many other reasons. As long as the involved people are in a healthy and happy relationship, however the relationship manifests itself may just be differences in details.

To help you flush away some confusion from your situation, it sounds like you pose a few different questions:

  1. How involved is too involved when it comes to negotiating your relationship and an F buddy?
  2. How will geographic distance impact your relationship, especially if you open up the relationship?

As difficult as this may be, each of these questions may require you to answer some additional questions. In looking at the first one, how involved is too involved, consider the following:

  • If I develop strong emotional feelings for someone other than my partner, will I still be interested in and/or have energy for my current relationship? In answering this, consider your past patterns. Do you tend to get swept up in someone or do you tend to approach relationships from a more "objective" place? Do you notice yourself being able to maintain other close relationships (family and friends) when you start dating, or do important people sometimes report feeling neglected? Keep in mind the distance factor with regards to opening up. If you have ever been in a long distance relationship before, have you noticed how the lack of proximity affected your interest level? For some, distance may erode attachment over time while others stick with it long term.
  • How likely is it that I will develop feelings for other people that I choose to sleep with? Like you, some people may prefer not to sleep with someone unless they really like them — that sex and emotions are not all that separate. On the other hand, sex may be purely physical with little or no emotional ties. It's helpful to determine if this is the case for you or not. Please keep in mind that this may change over time and by the partner. An initially no-strings-attached f*** buddy may spark up more feelings over time, or an interesting hook up may become an in-bed work out buddy only. Try to stay cognizant of your emotions towards your partners over time.

Proximity and distance is another concern. Some people choose to open up their relationship in the context of distance. Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Even though the future of our relationship may be uncertain, do I want to attempt to sustain the relationship now? If so, how come? If not, why not?
  • Assuming that my current goal includes maintaining my relationship, will opening up support our relationship, given the distance? 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 personal 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. Open relationships, or even monogamous relationships, are not for everyone in different situations.
  • Is the distance making it hard for me to maintain my interest in my partner? If you think this might be happening and you want to work on it, check out The up side of a long distance relationship.

When you have self-evaluated your situation more, you may want to open up the discussion with your partner. If you two choose to have an open relationship, a few tips to try may include:

  • Trust, nearly as difficult to define as love, is something earned, extended, and built, not something to be proved. You can't demand your partner's trust; however, you can prove yourself to be trustworthy, extend trust, and give your partner the choice to trust you if your partner wants to. This may take time, and open communication serves as a great foundation to any relationship.
  • Clearly define boundaries of the open relationship. For example, some may open a relationship only while they are in a long distance situation, allowing only specific types of sex behaviors, having only couple-approved partners, only emotional but not physical, etc. Each relationship looks different, and like people, it tends to change over time.
  • If the open relationship includes sex with others, define safer sex practices with others and with each other.
  • Have room for changes. 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.
  • Periodically check-in with each other. Some partners may want to hear details about other partners, whereas some may not (the "don't ask, don't tell"). Either way, checking-in with each other's comfort levels may help further open up communication and strengthen trust.

The poet Rainier Marie Rilke said "Live the questions" and this is what you may do. While you can't predict the future of your relationship, continue to ask and live your questions. Follow your instincts and trust that the answers will come to you and your relationships.

Alice