Welcome to Ask Anka, a weekly column in which sex therapist Anka Radakovich dives deep into your most intimate issues with advice and tips to help you live your best sex life. Have a question for Anka? Drop us a DM (no fear, we'll keep it anonymous) on Instagram @Brides
I’m not sure how to feel about being in an open relationship with my partner whom I’ve been with for years.
People who practice polyamory say if you or your partner is quiet, shuts down a lot, or isn’t a good communicator, an open relationship will never work. But if you are in a place where you discuss everything with your partner, it could work for you. Many couples who are in long-term relationships find that they want to open up the relationship to other people for various reasons. First, you have to ask yourself why do you want to do this? Do you want more sexual variety? Are you exploring a different sexual orientation? Does your partner leave you unsatisfied, sexually or emotionally? Consensual non-monogamy is just that—it’s agreed upon by the two of you. And it can take on different forms: You have a boyfriend, your partner has a girlfriend or boyfriend, you both share a girlfriend, etc. (In the last case you would move from being a couple to a “throuple.”
For anyone who engages in alternative lifestyles such as polyamory (which means “many loves”) participants need to talk about all the stuff they’re going to do before they even do it, otherwise someone could get hurt. The most sexually adventurous people talk openly about their their desires, fantasies, and fears before they even try them out. An open relationship is not for everyone, but it’s more common than you may think.
Am I Alone Here? How Common Is an Open Marriage?
A recent study found that more Americans are open to non-monogamy than previously thought. It concluded that the younger people are, the more they are open to consensual non-monogamy, which could be a better alternative to cheating, if your relationship is at that point.
"Not only is society significantly more understanding of homosexuality and female sexuality, but monogamy is now optional instead of a lifestyle enforced by law," noted Peter Moore of Yougov, who conducted the study. One of the questions asked of 1,000 people was "on a scale where zero is completely monogamous and six is completely non-monogamous what would your ideal relationship be?" Results were that 69 percent of women said "completely monogamous” while 52 percent of men said the same. But that leaves 31 percent of women and 48 percent of men interested in non-monogamy to varying degrees; while 36 percent of males said that they don't view an ideal relationship as totally monogamous. (The rest weren't sure.) And only 3 percent of people over 65 liked the idea of it.
According to Yougov, "research shows that, overall, the vast majority of Americans (68 percent) would in no circumstances be OK with their romantic partner engaging in sexual activities with someone else." But people 18 to 29 are more open to the idea of open relationships "with the consent or their main romantic partner," which is the basis of polyamory. An average of 20 percent of both men and women—one in five under age 30—see it as a future lifestyle alternative.
Jealousy and Polyamory Don't Mix
The number one issue with sharing your partner with someone else is jealousy. What you can never be sure of is whether adding a new person (or persons) to your current relationship will enhance it or end it. That is the risk you take when you go outside your current relationship, even if it is consensual. Those who are into this lifestyle say managing jealous feelings and seeing their partner with a new partner is the hardest obstacle to get over. They actually have a term for dealing with it, compersion, which means being happy for your partner’s new relationship energy and happiness.
How It Works
I have met many couples over the years who engaged in an open lifestyle. (I even went to a weekend lifestyle convention once with 5,000 swingers!) Every couple has different boundaries and rules they establish for themselves, some relating only to sexual acts and others to full emotional relationships. One of the most common rules is that you and your partner are the primary relationship that is more important than any secondary relationship.
Another common rule established for just sexual open relationships is that if either of you have sex with someone else, you are all in the same room and/or you both participate. A third boundary could be that there can't be any emotional attachment involved—any other partners are only for sexual relationships. (That one often causes problems if/when someone falls in love.)
Other couples, however, may agree to see outside people but decide not to talk about the details of the new relationship with each other. On the other hand, some couples get off by talking about their partner's sexual exploits—every couple is different. Again, communicating throughout the whole process is what makes it work, should you decide to go that route. I have met many happy couples who told me their relationship is as strong as ever now that they have opened it up to other loves. At one point you might want to talk to a marriage counselor or therapist to go over your fears, worries, and expectations, instead of stressing over the whole idea of it.
Bone Up on Some Books
The first thing to do is to bone up on a book about boning people other than your partner. A good how-to guide to start with is Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, by Tristan Taormino or The Smart Girls Guide to Polyamory: Everything You Need to Know About Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Alternative Love, by Dedeker Winston.
Many couples say that that if everyone respects each other's boundaries, an open marriage or relationship can actually work and make for happier and more loving people.
Anka Radakovich is a couple’s counselor, certified sexologist, and sex therapist. Follow her on Twitter @ankarad.