Q: My boyfriend asked me recently if I would consider the idea of being open in our relationship. It’s not something totally new to us as we have some mutual friends that are in polyamorous relationships and seem to be OK with it all. I’m not quite sure, as it’s new to me, personally. We’ve been together for eight months so we are still new enough, but we have had a great relationship so far. I don’t mind others doing it, but I suppose I hadn’t given much thought to it for me personally. I guess I am a bit worried about what my parents would say if they found out. I’m at college so I do have a bit of space from them, and to be honest I wanted to use my time at college to explore my sexuality too. At home, it’s a small town where everyone talks. But now at college I have so much more freedom. I don’t feel like my boyfriend is pressuring me, and we have had some good chats about it, but I feel nervous about making it a reality. What do I need to look out for if I do decide to take this route in my relationship?
Dr West replies: It’s great that you feel comfortable in yourself and ready to explore your sexuality and relationship style. This is something to do a bit of research on first before jumping in, in order to minimise any chance of heartbreak due to miscommunication, emotions, or assumptions.
Check that you are both on the same page when it comes to opening up your relationship. Similar to monogamy, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to open relationships. Talk with each other and see what you both understand when it comes to this topic. There are open relationships which are very casual, some that have a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, others where all partners date each other, and where there can be a relationship hierarchy or primary and secondary partners. Others prefer a relationship anarchy approach which rejects rules and what we ‘should’ do, as dictated by society. There are dozens of other ways to have relationships as well as these, so communicating what you want and are willing to try is essential. Of course, sexual health must be taken seriously if you are interacting with others.
Talk to your friends and see what they say about the realities of their relationships. It’s great to have some education from sex educators and poly advocates, but it’s also good to know about the on-the-ground details. What do your friends do if one of them has a break-up with a partner? How do they make space to process this while maintaining their other relationships? How do they manage family events and questions from family? There are great online workshops and books from poly educators such as Dr Liz Powell (drlizpowell.com), and Kevin and Antoinette Patterson from Poly Role Models, who were on episode nine of my podcast. There’s also the Instagram account @polyamoryireland that connects people interested in this lifestyle.
Jealousy is one of the main reasons why attempts at open/poly relationships can fall at the first hurdle. It can feel natural to be jealous — we are told by society that we should be in monogamous relationships and to immediately break up with someone who steps outside of the relationship, so it’s no wonder we can feel conflicted about how we really feel and how we think we should feel. Jealousy isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it can be a warning sign that there is something going on that needs to be talked about.
Combining honest communication with boundaries will be your roadmap for working towards a relationship that nourishes you. Boundaries can look like setting expectations about where you hook up with others. Is it your shared bed, or hotels? If you are using pet names, are you comfortable if he calls someone else the same pet name as you? How much do you need to know about each other’s extra relationships? What happens if you get sick — who looks after you or helps you out, and how is this communicated? These and other questions are important in any relationship, but especially so in a poly/open relationship.
The ‘shoulds’ of relationships can be very limiting. Living our life by what others think we ‘should’ do means that we often miss out on what is really right for us, especially when it comes to relationships. People often think that there is one way we ‘should’ do relationships and judge others if they step outside of those boundaries. They may make comments that can be intrusive or unkind, sometimes coming from a place of lack of knowledge, sometimes jealousy, or sometimes they are projecting their own feelings onto your situation.
None of this you can control, but it is worth bearing in mind that being public with a non-monogamous relationship can mean dealing with people’s comments. Talking to your friends about how they manage this will be helpful, as well as information from sex educators.
In saying this, you also don’t have to be poly just because your partner wants to be, or because your friends are doing it. I know you said you wanted to explore but do it on your own terms — if it doesn’t feel right to you, you can still explore in different ways. Trust your gut, educate yourself as much as possible, work on your communication skills, and you will be much more likely to find the kind of relationship that works for you.
Dr West is a sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, which focuses on sex. Send your questions to email@example.com. Dr West regrets she cannot answer questions privately