You might think an agreement to get needs met elsewhere can be the glue that can keep an otherwise great relationship going. You’ve heard stories from couples who’ve done this successfully and you’re wondering if this “lifestyle” is an option for you and your partner.
Get clarity, crystal clarity, before trying this
Think about what’s lacking in your current relationship. Did you really try everything, including therapy, to try to fix that?
First, consider the developmental stage of your relationship: maybe you’ve been with your partner for some years now and you both were so entangled that you lost sense of your separate self. In every relationship transition to the next, more differentiated stage is turbulent. Your transition to increasing emphasis on your self and your own needs may manifest through a strong desire to be with others, especially if you became distant from each other due to daily stress. It makes more sense to try to reconnect first and learn how to hold onto yourself while being together. Progressive levels of self-definition and self-disclosure will stimulate substantial fear and anxiety, but learning to deal with this can be extremely rewarding and is often accompanied with enlivened sexual interest in each other. So, try to explore all other needs you might have before jumping to exploring an open relationship.
For example, take a look at how much you know about your partner’s world. It might be very different from yours, but by cultivating curiosity and allowing differences you might discover the novelty you crave.
Not having much sex – but how do I even bring up the topic?
If you can’t find the words to discuss your problems, it’s likely that these problems will linger, even if you start a new relationship with someone else. Think of it this way: negotiating complex relationships is a necessary skill that helps our connections with others to thrive despite unavoidable life changes. If sex is no longer as good as in the beginning, take a closer look at how you talk about sex in general. This will give you an indication of your current ability to navigate difficult conversations.
The next step is to invest some time exploring why your sex life became stuck in the first place. Which patterns appeared? How long did you play the push-withdraw game? Is there a better way of relating? Have you educated yourself about responsive desire?
After all, great relationships create space for healing our rawest parts. It’s hard to imagine a greater motivation for such healing than the promise of a fulfilling sexual connection. This leads to an increased capacity for intimacy – which results in healthy monogamy, polyamory, or something in-between.
Are there other motives for opening up relationship? Let’s look at an extreme case: sex addiction. Sex addiction stems from a combination of high sex drive and low self-esteem. Ultimately, complete freedom won’t make a sex addict happy. Deep inside they crave closeness and safety just like everyone else. If you think you might be in this group, start by working on your self esteem. You will crave sex with others less and there will likely be far less drama in your life. It will feel more satisfying to not treat others like objects or trophies and you will be able to connect more empathetically with them, especially after the initial affection-bombing you use to lure them in. If you use sex to avoid feeling and thinking about emotions and you feel disconnected from your body, you might consider therapy.
Together, yet so alone
Wanting your needs met by people outside of your primary relationship can be the result of feeling lonely, especially in big cities. Our brains are wired to have close relationships with multiple people. This is because throughout most of human history, people lived in small communities and different needs that we’re born with were met in them. Add today’s sexually-charged culture into the mix and the result is an amplified craving for sex with others. As much as sexual prohibitions created problems in the past, today’s emphasis on superficial enjoyment is making people forget that there is also meaning and happiness outside of such pleasures.
Sometimes people simply want different things in life and they’d like to try to seek out a solution to not break an otherwise happy relationship. Imagine one person wants kids and the other one doesn’t – the first person might fulfill this desire with someone else while still having a relationship with the first partner. Suffice it to say, this can work only if all involved are one the same page. A successful union requires negotiation and clear communication to address a variety of issues, including possessiveness, jealousy, time management, newcomer inequality and power games, coming-out, problems with raising children, legal considerations, just to name a few.
Work on yourself first
Other things to consider: is your need to open up the result of unresolved past issues? If so, it might be wise to work on them first and to increase your capacity for intimacy. One such exercise is to consider how you deal with conflict. Are you hiding/denying differences just to avoid conflict? Or are you engaging in heated, escalating arguments, hoping to convince your partner to agree? Are you able to respond with empathy and curiosity when your partner wants something different than you?
Your goal, like in any relationship, is to cultivate a safe space for exploration within clear boundaries and to create a healthy balance between moments together and moments apart. Do some psychology-education, for example, educate yourself about attachment theory and non-violent communication.
If you are already a well-balanced and securely attached person who has a capacity and desire for multiple relationships, then your partner should take a closer look at why they’re monogamous. Sometimes work on transitioning from an anxious-attached to secure-attached relationship-style can make room for others. However, the majority are and will always be monogamous in their core. If that’s the case with your partner and you still want to stay with them, it means going through grieving stage. After you grieve from your loss and the pain diminishes, you can set the goal of finding a way to sublimate your sexual energy into work, hobbies and art.
If this is not an option for you, do your best to make separation the least painful possible and to try to remain friends. Although this might be the most excruciating experience in your life, it’s essential to always keep this in mind: there’s no bad guy here, just two people with different needs and ways of relating. Wanting or not wanting intimacy with others usually doesn’t involve the intent to hurt a partner.
Counselling can help you with your exploration.