Your recent letter from the guys who say they want a monogamous relationship but were upset because they can’t stop cheating on each other made me wonder about my own relationship. I’ve been with Doug for eight years and we’ve had an open relationship from the beginning. Our motto is, “life is short, don’t miss out.”
Things seem fine between us but is it inherently problematic to pursue an open relationship if we’re both OK with it?
If your outside hookups aren’t having a negative impact on your relationship with Doug, you have your answer.
But if you are pursuing sex with others even when it hurts your relationship, impacts your life negatively or feels like a compulsion, then you’ve got a problem.
Keep in mind that open relationships and monogamous relationships both might seem easier than they are. Each has its specific challenges.
In an open relationship, it can be difficult to:
• Stay emotionally connected to your partner. You don’t say whether or not you and Doug tell each other about your hookups. When couples have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, they often become distant because they’re keeping a veil around a pretty central matters in their lives. And when couples do agree to talk about the other men they see, they may still grow distant as a way to avoid being too hurt by their partner‘s sexual adventures. Even if you have an agreement to be open, it can still sting when your partner is having fun with someone else.
• Make sex with your partner a priority. Newness is often an aphrodisiac and familiarity with your partner can lead to sex becoming less interesting. So, if you have an open relationship and are looking for a hot sexual experience, it’s often easier to seek an outside partner than it is to put some erotic effort into creating a sexy rendezvous with your spouse.
• Be honest with each other. Partners may decide not to tell each other about liaisons, either because they worry about hurting their partner’s feelings or because they have violated a rule of the open relationship, like having sex multiple times with the same person or having sex with someone else in the couple’s bed. Lies complicate relationships in many destructive ways.
• Not fall for someone else. When you meet a gorgeous, charming guy and start sleeping with him, it’s easy to develop all sorts of feelings. In the meantime, your partner of eight years may seem pretty stale by comparison.
In a monogamous relationship, it can be difficult to:
• Keep sex interesting. A healthy long-term sex life doesn’t just happen on its own. Sleeping with the same person for years isn’t likely to stay exciting unless you put forth plenty of ongoing effort and imagination.
• Resist outside temptations. When you’re with just one guy long-term, other men can seem increasingly alluring. Your task is to get clear about why you want to have a monogamous relationship and then figure out how to honor your own commitment to this goal.
• Tolerate emotional intensity. A monogamous relationship has an inherent intensity. When your partner is the only person you turn to for sex, romance and closeness, you have the opportunity to get to know each other intimately. You also have the opportunity to more regularly be disappointed, because so much is riding on one relationship. Some people embrace this challenge, but others don’t like the vulnerability and risk that come with intense connection. If you want to be exclusive, you’ll be pushed to develop your ability to tolerate some pretty intense feeling states.
Whether you choose an open relationship or monogamy, you inevitably face great opportunities to figure out what’s most important to you and how you want to behave. I encourage you and Doug to keep your eyes open to potential problems and carefully consider how you will handle the tough parts. As you say, life is short. Don’t miss out on the chances to grow.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D, licensed psychologist, specializes in gay couples counseling and individual therapy in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com