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Three conversations you need to have if you want to try an open relationship

Taking the step from theory to practice can be difficult, and along the way, doubts, insecurities and fears may emerge. Constant communication and negotiation are keys to success

Relacion de pareja abierta
Three people in bed together.Westend61 (Getty Images/Westend61)

Javier and Elena (pseudonyms) are about 40 years old and work in advertising. They live in Madrid, Spain, are married, have a daughter and, some weekends, they like to go to clubs where they have sex with other people. Then they go back to their day-to-day life and continue to be the “normal” couple they’ve always been. But the fact that they don’t want to give their real names means that something is not so “normal.” “There is still a lot of stigma, and we don’t feel like listening to criticism or having to explain ourselves for having an open marriage,” they clarify. Elena says, “I don’t understand how there are so many infidelities, but when people freely agree to relationships like this, there are so many prejudices about it. We’re not hurting anyone, and we don’t love each other less, nor have we stopped liking each other or anything like that.” An open relationship is not better or worse than a closed one; they are simply different ways of building a couple. The most important thing is that everyone feels comfortable with their relationship.

According to a recent survey by the Sociological Research Center, 41.4% of Spaniards agree that a couple can have consensual sex with other people, that is, they support open relationships. But supporting open relationships in theory is one thing and putting it into practice is something else entirely.

In theory, the two people in the relationship can share and enjoy intimacy with other people, which, in turn, can improve their sex life. But in practice it is not always that easy because of jealousy, fears, insecurities, the weight of tradition... “We went to couples therapy to help us go down this road,” Javier explains. “We both started really wanting it, but I experienced a lot of insecurities.”

Javier has just mentioned one of the keys for a successful transition from theory to practice: both people must really want to do it. When only one of the two is clear that they desire an open relationship and wants to convince the other, the latter may feel pressured. As in any other facet of the relationship, if there are disagreements, they must be negotiated. On the one hand, one should not insist on an open relationship or issue an ultimatum (take it or leave it). On the other hand, one should not close oneself off to it because it is seen as a kind of offense or infidelity. It is a matter of nonjudgmentally listening to both parties’ concerns, needs and fears and talking about how to put an open relationship into practice, if that is what both people want. It is not advisable for a couple that is going through a crisis to have an open relationship. It is better to solve the conflict first and then assess opening the relationship to non-monogamy.

Conversations to have about opening a relationship

When you want to open the relationship, you have a lot to discuss. The first conversation should address why you want to include other people in your sex life. Luis and Lydia (also pseudonyms) have been in an open relationship for six years, and they were clear about their reasons for doing it: “We had always been very confident about sex, we liked to try [new] things, we talked about [our] fantasies and we had the idea of opening the relationship at practically the same time. We wanted to keep adding experiences to keep our sex life active.” Other couples establish open relationships because they do not want to limit themselves in any way, they believe that fidelity in a relationship goes beyond sex or they are going to be temporarily separated, among other reasons. Talking about the motivation for opening the relationship is useful to avoid losing sight of why people want to have these new experiences.

It is important to talk about which experiences you feel like sharing. There are people who may not feel comfortable leaving everything wide open from the beginning, while others may prefer setting aside some things that can only be done in the initial couple. One can opt for swapping partners, having threesomes, being together in all sexual situations or allowing each partner to do his or her own thing. There are those who decide not to continue seeing the same person, seeing them a certain number of times or seeing them as many times as they want. In some cases, partners might want to know all the details of what the other person has done (they have a morbid curiosity about the experience), while other people do not want to know. Partners must always talk about disease prevention and agree to use condoms. In short, a second conversation has to discuss the rules and limits that you want to set. Opening a relationship does not mean that “anything goes from now on.” If a partner does not want to set any limits, that is an agreement that must also be made clear.

Javier and Elena skipped this conversation. “We did talk, but we thought that everything was clearer and then we saw that insecurities emerged. Javier was jealous, he didn’t feel comfortable in a libertine environment, and we opted to pull the plug,” she says. They didn’t close the relationship, but they thought they needed professional help to support them in the process. “We agreed on better rules, we started talking more about the emotional part and we went down that path slower,” Javier clarifies. Going slowly is better than going overboard.

A couple in conversation.
A couple in conversation.Mixmike (Getty Images)

Then the day comes to act on the open relationship—one might go to a sex club, find someone through social media (there are specific ones for this purpose) or meet someone the old-fashioned way and feel like sharing something more than just a coffee at a bar. In addition to complying with the previously agreed-upon rules, you will have to keep an eye on your partner. For example, if you have talked about doing your own thing, perhaps sending a message saying “everything is fine” will help the person who is staying at home feel like he or she is remembered. If you are swapping partners or having a threesome, make sure that everyone is comfortable.

The third necessary conversation must happen after the first time the open relationship has been put into practice. How it went, how it felt, what was different, what was the same (by the way, it’s possible there will be more things that are the same than different), whether it was as expected, what one liked, what one didn’t like, what was missing, whether to do it again... and many more aspects that can be discussed. Having this conversation allows couples to assess and make new decisions. For instance, after they spoke about their first experiences, Luis and Lydia decided to gradually expand their horizons. “We saw that we felt comfortable and safe, it did not affect our relationship or, rather, it generated more closeness and good vibes.”

As in Javier and Elena’s case, sometimes couples backtrack, maybe even completely. Going back to a closed relationship does not have to be understood as a failure. It can serve to get to know each other better as individuals and as a couple. Regardless of whether the open relationship sticks or not, it will undoubtedly be a positive step in the relationship, as long as things are done right from the beginning.

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