Is an Open Relationship Right for You?
Welcome to Hump Day, where award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sexiest questions—unjudged and unfiltered. Have a quandary? Email us anonymously at HumpDay@instyle.com.
DEAR DR. JENN,
Should I have an open relationship with my boyfriend? Things are getting a little ... well, boring, and he suggested it. Outside of the bedroom, we have a great bond, and I genuinely can't whether this is a good idea or not. —Swing State
DEAR SWING STATE,
There are couples who rave about the open relationship model and say it works for them. After more than two and a half decades of being a therapist and having seen open relationships in all their permutations, though, there are half a dozen reasons why I do not advise couples to bring a third party (or more) into their bedroom:
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1) Dilution. Getting physical with someone outside of the relationship creates a distraction from the emotional connection between the two of you. It dilutes the intimacy in your relationship. Think about it: In a committed, monogamous relationship, sex is the only thing you do with your partner and no one else—and in addition to being about pleasure and passion, it's about comfort and companionship.
2) Avoidance of issues. For the same reason, the distraction of other partners can serve as a Band-Aid for unresolved issues (intimacy issues or otherwise), preventing the two of you to grow and work through things together. Typically, when someone has intimacy issues—and most people are challenged to have an emotionally and sexually connected relationship on some level—they play out in the bedroom. For example, a man may be used to meaningless sex with women he doesn’t care about; a woman may have undergone a sexual trauma; someone may have had an emotionally unavailable parent. Playing those issues out with other partners means you won't need to face or resolve them together.
3) Jealousy. We are wired to covet what we value, to protect what we care about most.If you do not feel any jealousy when it comes to someone you are truly in love with, often that's because there is some emotional disconnection. The fact is that while excessive jealousy can be a sign of insecurity, a little bit of jealousy is only normal—if you care. In her book Romantic Jealousy: Causes, Symptoms, Cures, psychologist Ayala Malach Pines nails it when she says, “In Freud’s view, if you don’t experience jealousy when an important relationship is threatened, something is not altogether right about you. It is akin to not feeling grief when someone you care deeply about dies.”
4) Detachment. Often, one party develops feelings for someone else. I have seen many emotional bonds form as a result of what was "supposed" to be meaningless sex. Are you okay with him becoming emotionally close with another sex partner? That may very well become the reality of the situation.
5) Lack of sacrifice. Sacrifice creates trust. Relationships aren't about martyrdom, but resisting the normal urge to have sex with other people shows a level of commitment and sacrifice that makes the relationship stronger.
6) Lack of creativity. Bringing a new person into the mix prevents you from putting energy and creativity into your sex life and relationship with your partner. You’re no longer working to up your game and figure out new fantasies to explore, techniques to try, and preferences your partner may have that you haven’t yet probed. While the addition of others in your relationship may be exciting initially, it does not solve the bigger issue of how to keep things fresh in your relationship and how to become a better lover to your partner.
I think my stance is pretty clear. But if you do choose to give an open relationship a try, the key to making it work is to make sure that you and your partner clearly define the rules, limits, and boundaries of your arrangement. Just because a relationship takes an untraditional turn doesn't mean there are no rules.
Communication is of the utmost importance. In situations like this, faithfulness is redefined as honoring those commitments and boundaries. Keep your promises, but also leave room to renegotiate, in case either one of you has different reactions than you expected. Understand that both partners must agree to whatever is agreed upon. Consent under pressure does not count as a collaborative agreement.
Amazing sex requires effort. It doesn’t always just happen. It is the dividend from a great investment that can only occur in a safe environment, one that encourages open communication, continued sexual education, and willingness to both give and take feedback. It requires you to take responsibility for your own pleasure by knowing your mind and body and sharing that information with your lover.
Couples who want long-term passion make the time for sex and seduction and protect their erotic connection by creating boundaries with the outside world. They keep themselves in good health, physically and emotionally, so they can bring their A- game to the bedroom. Doing these things should not be viewed as a chore but as an opportunity to achieve a whole new level of lifelong intimacy.