Open Relationship Fails: People Tell Us Where They Went Wrong (and How They’d Go About It Now)
Ethical non-monogamy seems to be everywhere right now. It’s splashed all across dating bios “in a loving, ENM relationship”, “partnered and practising ENM with my partner” etc, and it’s seriously taking over my thoughts as someone who has recently re-entered the dating scene.
I’ve always been intrigued by relationship structures that fit outside the confines of monogamy. On paper, monogamy feels limiting. To get your lover, your best friend, your life partner, your equal, your teamate… all in the one person? It’s a lot. Plus, it seems unrealistic to commit yourself to having sex with one babe for the rest of your life.
And, as someone who finds a new person to have a crush on every day, I just assumed that I’d be in an open relationship one day. I love the idea of having sexual freedom and being allowed to express that side of myself without any shame or barriers. But so far, it hasn’t gone well.
In my last relationship, we spoke about opening it up sexually. As a bisexual person, I was feeling restless to have sex with women again and for some reason, I wanted to do it alone, without him. Although he was understanding and we were able to speak about things openly, he felt hesitant to change the relationship structure, because he didn’t feel that urge for sexual exploration.
Sometimes I wonder if we’re all just socially hardwired to be monogamous. According to evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss, apparently not. He says that humans are actually innately inclined towards non-monogamy. But it’s one of those things that’s hard to know, without actually trying out first hand. I may think that I won’t feel jealous of my partner having sex with other people, but what the reality of that looks like; I can’t actually imagine.
While I love the idea of polyamory and ethical non monogamy, I don’t know much about it. So, I decided to ask some people who have given it a go. Here are stories from two people, who attempted to open up their relationship, where that urge came from, what they learnt through the process and how they feel about it, now.
Tay, 32, she/her
“We got together when I was 21. He was a backpacker from Scotland and I fell in love almost immediately, but he was very emotionally unavailable. The sex was adventurous, and very much directed by me. I was always the initiator.
I went through a personal health issue early in the relationship, while he was overseas. We ended up breaking up for a few months because I felt so angry that I had to got through it alone.
Fast forward three years. We’ve patched things up (somewhat), we’re living in Scotland, and I had this massive crush on someone I worked with. At the time, I actually came across this book called The Ethical Slut (everyone should read it, regardless of whether they’re thinking of opening up) and it inspired me to tart the conversation with Jamie about opening up our relationship.
So, I asked him one night if he ever desired anyone else, if he ever flirted with other people or fantasised about them. He said sometimes, but not really. Then I told him I liked this person at work and that I wanted to look into what a polyamorous relationship would look like for us.
Maybe three months later I had a similar health issue again. It brought up all the feelings of abandonment and loneliness that I’d had during the medical termination of my previous pregnancy. In response to these emotions, I suggested that we get married. When I think about this impulse now, I can see that it was definitely a reaction to feeling isolated by him, during these intense moments of grief. I didn’t want to be left, so I responded by joining us together, somehow.
So, we got married. Then, we moved back to Melbourne. Almost as soon as we arrived, I said that I wanted to pursue being in an open relationship, more seriously. In truth, I think I’d subconsciously realised that getting married was a mistake, and that it had just been an attempt to fix the lack of love I felt from him. But instead of being honest with myself at the time, I had this urge to pursue other relationships instead.
We tried a few different structures, depending on what did and didn’t work. Initially it was just me who was seeing other people, and we’d set ground rules for dates, what he was and wasn’t okay with me doing vs what I wanted to do; and we’d compromise on all of that before I went out. After a while, he decided that he was okay to give me more freedom, but he didn’t want to know any of the details. I think this was I was quite forceful about what I wanted. I was in my mid-twenties and felt like I’d moved to this big city that was exciting and the people weree friendly and adventurous and attractive and I didn’t like feeling limited in what I could do because of this person who was just sitting at home waiting for me to “get it out of my system” so we could eventually settle down.
We actually tried going to couples therapy, I think we had about 10 sessions. We talked about my health struggles and how I felt about then, and he got the opportunity to understand how his actions during those times has affected me. I had agreed that we’d be monogamous during the time we were in therapy, so I could focus on our relationship without maintaining other relationships. But after the last session, I told him that I wanted to keep exploring other people and myself, which he was still fine with.
Then, one day, I realised that I hadn’t been home for like, two weeks. I was just dropping in and out to shower or get clothes or eat. I wasn’t sleeping in our bed, and we hadn’t had sex for a year. So, I told him that I was going to find somewhere else to live, because even if he said he was okay with our relationship, I wasn’t. It wasn’t fair on either of us.
Thinking back now, I wasn’t fair on him or our relationship. I didn’t want to admit to myself or to him that getting married was a mistake, so I ran away from it rather than addressing it. I’d always been the one directing our sex life, so I think I had more authority when it came to sex than he did, which meant that he seemed happy to just go with whatever I wanted, even if he didn’t like it.
Even though I went about being open in a lot of bad ways, I don’t regret it. I’d absolutely advocate for it. I think that being open gives people an opportunity to explore themselves through others. There was this romanticism it gave my life, I saw myself through different peoples eyes and I learnt so much about who I am.
If it’s done with love and respect, then you can offer multiple people a lot more than they would get from just one person, and vice versa.
I’m now in a monogamous relationship with someone. When we got together I was still married to my ex, so our relationship started with the idea that it wasn’t going to be anything more than opening a bottle of wine, dancing, laughing and having sex. But five years later, we’re still extremely communicative about our needs. We don’t expect the other person to meet all of them and we lead two independent lives because of it. I still find myself desiring people, quite regularly actually. But I don’t have the desire to pursue anything outside of what I have with current partner. It feels good knowing that other people find you attractive, and it’s fun flirting and feeling a little bit of tension between you and another person. I think that is completely natural and it’s what makes life interesting and fun.
If I was to do it again, I would want to be led by the other person. I wouldn’t overstep or rush into anything. I’d also be super aware of using it as an opportunity to run away from a problem.
I think there’s a stigma about people in open relationships being swingers, but it’s much more than that. It’s fun and exciting and it’s really hard work. And if you don’t listen to one another, if you don’t take care of your partner then the risk for hurt is huge.
I think that anyone who is dating someone and wants to make it exclusive needs to first understand what that means to them, and then be honest about it. The boundaries around monogamy should be discussed from the very beginning, because addressing assumptions on what a relationship is will mean that both people are respected, no matter if the outcome is complete monogamy or something more open.”
Emm, 23, they/she
“My relationship with my partner is really unique because high school sweethearts; we’ve been together for nine years, and we’ve been through a lot together.
We’ve grown up having sex with each other, which has changed drastically throughout the years. It’s a really beautiful thing actually, because I’ve learnt what I like and so has he. I came out at bisexual when I was 17 and non-binary at the start of last year, which meant we had to have conversations around certain terms I didn’t like anymore, things that made me feel gender dysphoric. This really changed the sexual dynamic.
But before that, about two years ago, I started hanging out with this girl who was the biggest crush of my life. She came into the cafe I owned at the time, and literally took my breath away. To me, she was (still is) this ethereal fairy goddess and I felt a super strong attachment to her, because she validated my queerness. It was the first I’d ever had proper feelings for a girl. I developed lots of feelings for her, I mean — I could not stop thinking about her. I decided to have a conversation with her about it, where she told me that she felt the same way. It was like “what do I do with this feeling?”.
My partner and I have always been really open with how we communicate with each other, so I knew I’d have to tell him. I’m actually from a divorced family — both my parents cheated on each other — so I’m really against that whole thing. I needed to have a conversation about all these huge feelings I was having about someone that wasn’t him and that I wanted to explore having an open relationship.
However, he knew me too well. He picked up that it was about someone in particular and said he didn’t feel comfortable with our relationship entering into this new phase, because it was emotionally charged and someone else is at the source of it.
So then I was left with this debacle of either throwing a bomb into a nine year relationship with someone I love dearly and have a strong connection with, or to put all my eggs into this beautiful girl’s basket. For me, it didn’t make much sense to risk a years-long relationship for something that could simply be a one night stand moment, even though I did have massive feelings for her. So, I let her go.
It was really tough. It took me about six months to get over and everyone could see it, everyone knew what was happening. But that was something beautiful in itself, because I didn’t keep it a secret. Having secrets like that feel really explosive to me and detrimental to my mental health. I do remember bawling my eyes out on the day that she left. It really solidified that we’d been in this situationship for a whole year. When I look back on it, she’s very much the kind of person who doesn’t stay in one place for longer than a year, whereas I’m a very stable, loyal and committed person, who needs reliable and consistent people in my life, so it probably wouldn’t have worked out, in hindsight.
I do feel like she came along to show me two things: 1. I’m definitely bi and 2. that I can love a heap of people at the same time, and that’s okay too.
After she left, I’d write her letters and not send them, which was super cathartic. I didn’t want her to feel bad, or to create even more feelings than were already there. I think I still have a stack of them in my journal. But as the time passed, it started to feel like something that wasn’t serving me anymore. So, while we still talk occasionally and have underlying romantic vibes, there’s none of that heavy-weighted romantic feeling that was once there, which is really nice. It’s so great to be fun and flirty and for it not to be detrimental.
It’s been a year and a half since she left, and my partner and I have just started talking about what an open relationship would look like for us now. I still want to explore my sexuality as a queer person, because I’ve only ever had heterosexual sex and I want to go out and be queer and have fun — not just have a cheeky dance with a hot lass in the club every now and then.
We’re talking about logistics, because living together and having a relationship is a whole other thing in itself. We live regionally, so it will probably look like me going on some cute Tinder dates when I go into the city and see my friends, and just see where that leads. Vice versa for him, as well. I’m not sure where that will take us, but I’m super excited to explore it.”