Should we have an open relationship?

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 romance is only reserved for your partner. Additionally, people open up their relationships for a variety of reasons. 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. Would you potentially develop feelings for someone that you have sex with? In what ways may affect it you or your current relationship? Would it be possible for you to keep the relationship friendly or would stopping romantic feelings from surfacing be difficult if you continued a physical relationship with another person? 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, but these feelings may change over time and depend on your particular partner. While you may enter into a no-strings-attached sexual relationship without feelings, these may develop over time, so it might be beneficial to keep track of your emotions to ensure no unwanted romantic feelings arise. 

The geographic distance between you 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 feel like your relationship can withstand the distance? If so, how come? If not, why not? What would your relationship look like being long-distance for an indefinite amount of time? If staying in your relationship is a priority for you, opening the relationship may help you strengthen 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 you feel that opening up your relationship may be harmful in the long run, it may be worth reconsidering.

When you've evaluated your situation more, it's key to discuss what you're feeling 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, and only emotional but not physical relationships, 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 be on a need-to-know basis. Either way, checking-in with each other's comfort levels may help further your communication and strengthen trust.
  • Get tested regularly. If the open relationship includes sex with others, define safer sex practices with all sexual partners and get tested for STIs regularly to ensure optimal sexual health.
  • Be open to changing needs and desires over time. This agreement isn't set in stone! 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 an unintentional crossing of boundaries. Communication is key! 

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 within 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. Best of luck on your journey to finding out what works best for you and your partner! 

Last updated Dec 17, 2021
Originally published Feb 01, 1994

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