Opening Relationships- Therapist’s… | Counseling | Therapy

Opening Relationships- Therapist’s Guide

Samantha Eisenberg , MSW, LCSW, MED, LMT — Therapist

Opening Relationships- Therapist’s Guide image

Are you and your partner thinking about opening up your relationship but aren’t sure where to start? Jumping in head first without discussing boundaries, needs, expectations, and logistics might sound fun and exciting, or terrifying, but could get messy pretty quickly. Sometimes you truly don’t know how you’re going to feel about something until you’re faced with that situation, but it can still be a good idea to brainstorm as best as you can to get on the same page before jumping in. This therapist’s guide to opening relationships can help you get started. The prompts below highlight important aspects to consider and conversations to have with your partner and can facilitate discussions that will lay the foundation for a healthy and fulfilling open relationship.

Opening Relationships- Defining Terms

There are several ways to have an open relationship, and what you do depends on you and your partner’s unique life circumstances, needs, and desires. All open relationships include some agreed up arrangement for sex, romance, or intimacy outside of their primary relationship. Some common types of relationship structures include:

Open Relationship: Partners agree that they can have sexual and/or romantic relationships with other people while maintaining their primary partnership.

Polyamory: This involves having multiple romantic relationships with the consent of all involved parties. Polyamorous relationships can consist of triads (three people), quads (four people), or more complex constellations. Sometimes only one partner in the primary relationship engages in other relationships while the other prefers to just date their one primary partner.

Swinging: Couples engage in sexual activities with other couples or individuals, often in a social and recreational context. Swinging typically focuses on sexual encounters rather than emotional connections.

Monogamish: This term is used to describe relationships that are mostly monogamous but allow for occasional non-monogamous experiences, such as one-off encounters.

Relationship Anarchy: In this approach, there are no predefined rules or hierarchy among relationships. Each connection is valued based on the individuals involved, and there is an emphasis on personal autonomy and freedom.

Polyfidelity: A closed group of three or more people who are committed to each other exclusively, resembling a monogamous relationship within the group but may be open to other potential partners joining the group.

Solo Polyamory: Individuals practice polyamory without seeking or forming a primary partnership. They may have multiple romantic relationships, but their focus is on maintaining their autonomy and individuality.

Hierarchical Polyamory: This type of polyamory involves a primary partnership that holds a central role in a person's life. Secondary relationships are allowed, but they come after the primary partnership in terms of commitment and priority.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT): In this arrangement, partners agree to seeing other people in a sexual or romantic capacity, but agree not to share details about their outside relationships with each other. This can be an alternative for those who prefer not to know the specifics of their partner's encounters.

Kitchen Table Polyamory: The idea that all members of a polyamorous network should be able to come together and sit around the kitchen table, metaphorically speaking, to communicate and have a sense of community with one another.

You can create your own arrangement, but the key to having a successful open relationship is that all parties are aware, consent, and communicate throughout the process.

Opening Relationships- What Do You Want? And What Is Possible?

Before talking to your partner it will be useful to engage in self reflection. Journaling can help you identify and process feelings, as could talking to a trusted friend or sex and relationship therapist. Begin by individually thinking about your motivations, desires, and insecurities about opening the relationship. Ask yourself why you want to explore an open relationship and what you hope to gain from it. Do any of the arrangements stated above seem appealing? Why or why not? This process will be smoother if you can identify and understand your own emotional needs, as well as your capacity for jealousy, communication, and compersion (finding joy in your partner's happiness with others). You may use the attached worksheet to begin reflecting on your desires, preferences, and motivation.

Additionally, opening a relationship in a proactive way that increases the likelihood of a successful open relationship takes a lot of resources. Think through if you truly have the time and mental and physical energy needed to have a successful open relationship, as well as asking yourself if you are willing to take the risk of accidental pregnancy with someone else, sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), or people such as your boss, neighbors, or children finding out. Also, there are situations in which it might not be the best timing for opening the relationship: when you are thinking of ending your relationship or are having a ton of conflict; when you are going through major life transitions like pregnancy or raising a newborn; or when you or a loved one is experiencing hospitalization or illness, for example. It also usually isn't a good idea to try to open a relationship on the heels of infidelity because the conversation becomes tainted with the stain of the betrayal.

Another thing to consider is that if you both aren't getting something good out of opening the relationship, then it decreases your odds of having a happy open relationship. In other words, don't open your relationship just to make your partner happy because that can breed resentment. If you decide that now isn’t the right time to open your relationship but are both still interested in the future, the prompts below can still be used to lay the groundwork for opening up at a later time.

Opening Relationships- Requires Good Communication

Once you have a good sense of what you want, it’s time to share with your partner. Establish a culture of honest and open communication by sharing your thoughts, concerns, and fears without judgment. You may want the help of a therapist or mediator at this point if the conversations feel challenging or bring up intense emotions. A therapist can also help you implement healthy communication tools that will be critical for successful communication whether or not you open the relationship. You will want to show care and respect as you navigate common feelings like jealousy, and communicate kindly and clearly when creating boundaries and negotiating expectations as they morph throughout your journey.

It might be good to consider whether you and your partner have these skills right now.

  • How comfortable are you with having difficult conversations?
  • How many "white lies" do you tell your partner?
  • How honest do you feel you can be with your partner in situations in which you might hurt your partner's feelings?
  • How well do you as a couple discuss sensitive topics or potential challenges?
  • Are there certain topics that you tend to avoid discussing?
  • How well do you or your partner handle disagreements or conflicts when they arise?
  • How do you both react to hearing something you don’t like?
  • How often do you or your partner become defensive, stonewall, or shut down?
  • How often do you engage in open and honest conversations about your relationship dynamics?
  • Do you and your partner actively seek outside help (such as therapy or mediation) when communication becomes difficult?

You can always start practicing being more honest and transparent now so that you can set the stage for having better conversations if and when you decide to open the relationship. For a rapid evaluation of your communication quality with your partner, please refer to the attached worksheet, which includes bonus content like a communication assessment tool.

If you’ve assessed that you’re ready to move forward, the phrases below could help you get the conversation started.

  • I’m realizing that I’m interested in having an open relationship, and this idea scares/excites me. Are you available to talk about this with me?

  • I know when we met that you expressed to me that you wanted to be in a monogamous relationship and at the time that felt good to me too, but recently I have started to wonder what it would be like to open up our relationship and wanted to explore this idea with you.

  • Would you ever consider having an open relationship?

  • I am interested in opening the relationship because…

  • What scares/excites me about opening the relationship is…

Opening Relationships- Defining Boundaries, Rules, and Agreements

Next, you and your partner will want to discuss boundaries and establish rules and agreements that both partners feel comfortable with. Rules are often more concrete and prescriptive. They outline specific behaviors or actions that are either permitted or prohibited within the relationship. Rules are typically set by one or both partners and may be intended to provide a sense of security or maintain a certain level of control. Agreements, on the other hand, are more flexible and based on mutual understanding and consent. They are collaborative decisions that reflect the desires, needs, and boundaries of both partners. Agreements are focused on maintaining open communication, trust, and respect within the relationship. Both rules and agreements are valid and important to discuss.

It is important that all rules and agreements are mutually agreed upon and not coerced or imposed by one partner onto the other. They also should be reviewed regularly as feelings, needs, and preferences can change over time. It could be helpful to set a timeframe for regularly reviewing and reassessing the agreements to make sure they continue to make sense and meet your needs. Regular check-ins allow both partners to express their feelings, reassess boundaries, and make adjustments as needed. Remember, the purpose of agreements is to create a framework that respects the autonomy, desires, and emotional well-being of all individuals involved. By prioritizing open communication, mutual consent, and adaptability, you can establish agreements that promote a healthy and fulfilling open relationship.

The rules and agreements you choose should tie back to the reflection work you did earlier. For example, if you identified that one of your needs is to come first in the relationship, you could make a rule that you can use veto power if feelings of jealousy, insecurity or unhappiness become overwhelming. Alternatively, you could make an agreement that you will openly discuss feelings of jealousy as they arise and make adjustments to your schedules to make sure you get quality time with your primary partner that week, or whatever other adjustment will make you feel adequately prioritized and cared for.

Opening Relationships- Types of Boundaries To Negotiate Before Opening Up

As you read through the various types of boundaries below, think about the rules and agreements you might want to establish with your partner. Use the attached worksheet to organize your thoughts.

Emotional Boundaries: Explore how emotional connections will be navigated within the open relationship. Discuss what level of emotional involvement with other partners is acceptable, as well as the expectations around disclosure of feelings and the development of deep emotional connections. Ensure that everyone's emotional well-being is considered and respected. Discuss how you will provide emotional support for each other and establish boundaries on discussing other relationships within your primary partnership. Be mindful of hierarchies within your relationship structure. Understand that primary and secondary relationships may differ in terms of time commitments and emotional connections. Openly communicate expectations around hierarchy and be aware of the potential impact on other relationships.

Prompts to Consider

  • If I feel uncomfortable with someone you’re seeing, I will…
  • I can use veto power (the ability to stop my partner from pursuing someone) when…
  • How I feel about us dating our mutual friends is…
  • How I feel about you having feelings for someone else is…
  • When I’m feeling insecure, I need you to…
  • I anticipate experiencing jealousy or insecurity when…
  • I will need you to cancel a date if/when…
  • The way I feel most supported is…
  • I am ok with another partner/relationship taking precedence over me/ours in the event that…

Communication Boundaries: Set guidelines for communication within the open relationship. Discuss the level of detail desired when sharing experiences with other partners and determine what should be disclosed and when. Establish boundaries around discussing other relationships within the primary partnership. Consider any sensitive topics that should be handled with care to maintain open and respectful communication.

Prompts to Consider

  • I want/don’t want to hear about your date/sexual experiences/emotional connection…
  • The level of detail I want about these things is…
  • I never want to hear about…
  • I need to know when….
  • I am willing to respect your or your other partner's privacy regarding...

Time and Availability Boundaries: Manage time and availability by establishing boundaries between the primary partnership and other relationships. Discuss and agree upon how much time and energy can be allocated to outside relationships. Consider scheduling regular quality time with the primary partner to maintain connection and prevent neglect. Ensure that all parties' needs are considered and balanced.

Prompts to Consider

  • The amount of time I am comfortable with you spending with another person is…
  • In order for me to feel comfortable with an open relationship, the amount/type of quality time I need us to spend is…
  • I will want to renegotiate our boundaries around dating others if/when…

Boundaries around Existing Commitments: Consider existing commitments, such as children, shared finances, or living arrangements. Discuss how these commitments will be respected within the open relationship. Establish boundaries to ensure that outside relationships do not jeopardize or neglect these existing commitments. Openly communicate and find ways to integrate the open relationship with existing responsibilities.

Prompts to Consider

  • In order for me to feel comfortable with an open relationship, what I need to make sure is taken care of at home is…
  • The amount of money I am comfortable with you spending on another person is…
  • I will want to renegotiate our arrangement if you…

Public vs. Private Boundaries: Discuss and determine the level of privacy desired for the open relationship. Consider if you are comfortable with others knowing about the open relationship or if you prefer to keep it private. Set boundaries on sharing information with friends, family, or social networks. Respect each other's preferences and find a balance that aligns with both partners' comfort levels.

Prompts to Consider

  • The people that should know we are in an open relationship are…
  • Our children should know when they are…
  • The people that I prefer to never know about our arrangement are…
  • The level of information that we share with people who know about our open relationship is…

Boundaries with Ex-partners: Address how to navigate relationships with ex-partners within the context of the open relationship. Establish boundaries for maintaining appropriate communication and interaction. Ensure that past relationships do not interfere with current commitments. Communicate openly and set clear expectations for respectful engagement with ex-partners.

Prompts to Consider

  • The way I feel about you contacting an ex are…
  • I am comfortable/uncomfortable with you remaining friends with your exes
  • I will want to know if an ex reaches out to you if/when...

Physical Boundaries: this includes the physical actions that are within the boundaries of the open relationship. Consider setting expectations for the level of sexual intimacy allowed between new partners, the use of protection and other safer sex practices, expectations for regular testing and disclosure of any potential risks, and identifying actions that require explicit consent. Establish guidelines on what actions may be appropriate or require communication beforehand.

Prompts To Consider

  • I am comfortable/uncomfortable with my partner…
    • Having intercourse with someone else
    • Having anal sex
    • Having oral sex
    • Using digital penetration
    • Using sex toys
    • Engaging in other kinks (please specify)
    • Fooling around with someone of the same gender/different gender
  • I need my partner to use protection when…
  • I need to talk to my partner before they engage in…
  • I need my partner to get tested…(at all? How often?)
  • Sleepovers at the other person’s house can/can’t happen if…
  • Sleepovers at our house can/can’t occur if…

Establishing boundaries is a vital aspect of opening up a relationship and maintaining a healthy dynamic. By addressing physical, emotional, time, communication, existing commitment, public/private, and ex-partner boundaries, you create a framework that respects everyone's needs and desires. Remember, open and ongoing communication, active listening, and a willingness to adapt are key to successfully navigating and honoring these boundaries within an open relationship.

Conclusion- Building a Strong Foundation for Your Open Relationship

Embarking on the journey of opening a relationship requires careful consideration, open dialogue, and a shared commitment to growth. By defining terms, exploring desires, establishing boundaries, and nurturing effective communication, you are laying a strong foundation for a healthy and fulfilling open relationship. Remember, this process is not about following a set formula, but about creating a unique path that aligns with your individual needs and values.

As you navigate this exciting and transformative journey, keep in mind that both partners' feelings, autonomy, and well-being deserve respect. Continuously reassess your boundaries and agreements, adapting them as your relationship evolves. Seek support from therapists, relationship experts, and trusted friends when needed, recognizing that open and honest communication is key to success.

The path you take as you open your relationship will be filled with self-discovery, challenges, and moments of growth. Embrace this journey with patience, curiosity, and a willingness to learn from one another. By fostering deep connection, trust, and a commitment to shared growth, you pave the way for a relationship that not only thrives but also allows both partners to flourish as individuals.

As you embark on this new chapter, remember that there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach. The beauty of opening a relationship lies in its uniqueness, shaped by your desires, values, and evolving dynamics. With clear communication, mutual understanding, and a foundation of trust, you are well-equipped to navigate the complexities of an open relationship, fostering love, growth, and connection in ways that are meaningful to both of you.

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