Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve questioned the world around me—everything from our car-based culture and corporate food system to my intimate relationships. How can my personal life reflect my political beliefs—autonomy, transparency, respect? How do I work for balanced power dynamics in love, sex, and partnership with other people?
These questions led me to open relationships, or as some people say, “polyamory” or “nonmonogamy.” While a lot of people date multiple people before they decide who they want to be with long-term, being in open relationships means long-term involvement with more than one person at a time. Everyone I know approaches it differently. I’ve gone through periods of living on my own, living with one of my partners, mainly seeing one person and casually dating on the side, or sometimes “partnering” with two people for a period of time. My longest relationship was six years—I lived with my partner, and we both dated other people. Right now I often have one person in my life whom I see several times a week, another whom I see less, maybe once a week. I’m involved in both their lives, they know each other, and usually they’re dating other people, too.
I constantly challenge my own assumptions about sex, intimacy, and commitment. It’s exciting to have the freedom to evaluate each new person who comes into my life and see where that relationship goes on my own terms, terms that I’ve chosen or negotiated with my partners, rather than limits preset by culture.
I believe open relationships are empowering for everyone, especially women. As I became an adult, the freedom and autonomy I felt in my relationships helped me understand my self-worth as an individual, separate from my partners. I learned to speak up for my needs and desires while respecting others’ feelings. I can admit openly that I like sex and that I think it’s fun and interesting to explore that level of intimacy with different people.
To be in healthy, open relationships, I have to understand myself and know what makes me feel loved, valued, and supported. Understanding myself and my needs is key, because when I am getting what I want or need I don’t feel jealous or possessive of my partners’ other relationships.
Every couple goes through a stage of assessment as you figure out if you want to be together: Do you want to live together? Do you want marriage? Children? Many traditional couples feel like they go through this stage at the beginning of their relationship, then settle into a pattern.
In an open relationship, there are additional negotiations: How much do I want to know about what my partners are doing with their other partners? If we live together, how do I feel about those partners hanging out in or having sex in our house? If I were to have children, what relationship would I want my partners and their partners to have with my children?
Each new person who enters or leaves your life requires a new conversation with your partners. Most open couples have clear agreements with each other that help them feel safe and comfortable. They might not be the same agreements that monogamous couples make (“I’m not going to have sex with anyone but you.”), but something like, “I want to know you’re going to sleep with someone before you do it.” Over the years, I’ve settled on just a few things that are important to me. For instance, “If someone is important to you, I hope you talk to me about them, whether or not you’re sleeping together—but I don’t really want to hear details about your sex life. And if we go to a party or event and one of our other partners is going to be there, we all know in advance who is going home with whom.”
Being “open” is not like being single. When you’re single you can choose to sleep with or flirt with whomever you want. In an open relationship you have boundaries and agreements established with your partners, and your choices also should reflect their needs and desires. It certainly is possible to “cheat” in an open relationship—by going back on an agreement or lying.
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As I’ve learned to negotiate, I’ve re-examined and rejected some of the attitudes that I saw around me growing up, like the idea that you possess and control your partner—as if dating someone gives you the right to know what they are doing all the time or to manipulate or coerce them. I believe these behaviors are means of avoiding your own fears and discomfort. When I confront my jealousy, I stop focusing my anger and irritation on, for example, the new person my boyfriend is seeing, and focus on the action causing the problem—maybe we’re not spending enough time together.
Separating commitment from sex opens possibilities for different types of long-term or committed relationships and redefines family. There are many people in open relationships who choose to have children. And I know committed nonmonogamous couples, some of whom are married, who don’t live together. Or there are couples who have been together for decades who don’t have sex with each other any more (and do have sex with others), but still maintain their commitment and intimacy.
Being in open relationships takes a lot of emotional energy. But the self-awareness I bring to each relationship makes me feel authentic. Open relationships are not more politically correct or “hip.” They’re about choosing what’s important to you and working to live, love, process, argue, and be upset in healthy ways that make you feel empowered. Such choices make any relationship—whether open or monogamous—honest and meaningful.
Editor's Note: The images that YES! Magazine originally ran with this essay pictured the author with several other individuals who are not members of communities described in this essay. We apologize for any confusion, and we have removed the photos from our website.
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