How to respectfully broach the topic of an open relationship with your partner

The idea of a perfect relationship is different for everyone. It might be monogamous, but open relationships have become more popular in recent times. If opening your relationship has crossed your mind, Shannon Harvey from Relationships Australia NSW has tips for how to have that discussion with your partner.

We’ve hit that time of the year where Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas jingles from supermarket speakers and we’re bombarded with images of photogenic nuclear families laughing and sharing gifts.

When pop culture is saturated with idealised images of one type of relationship, it can be hard to reconcile differences in our own desires and reflect on what we really want. But culture is always changing and the bar for what we think is “normal” is always moving.

LGBTIQ+ people have been pushing the boundaries of what our intimate relationships can look like for decades. Beyond monogamous relationships, it’s more common to see different relationship formations in the queer community, including open relationships and polyamory. And it looks like these more expansive ideas of relationship could be starting to go more mainstream.

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A recent poll found that less than half of US millennials say their ideal relationship would be completely monogamous and nearly a third who are in relationships say that they’re not monogamous. So even if pop culture continues to present exclusive couples as the ideal, it looks like it’s not how many of us are living or wanting to live our lives.

#1. Consent is critical

While cheating and affairs are often associated with relationship breakdown, research now shows that couples in consensual open relationships are just as happy as monogamous couples.

If opening your relationship has crossed your mind, the first step is to talk about it with your partner. But before you do, there are a few things to consider:

#2. Understand your motivations

Before involving your partner, make sure you’re clear about what you want. The term “open relationship” is broad and can cover lots of different arrangements, including other partnerships that involve emotional connection as well as sexual connection.

Be honest with yourself about what positive changes you’re looking for, for you and your current partner. For some people, fantasising about an open relationship may be a symptom that something else is not right in their relationship, so really consider: What is the gap that I’m trying to fill? And is this the best or only way to fill it?

#3. Don’t make the first conversation the decider

You might have been thinking about this for a while, but your partner may never have considered it. Your goal for the first conversation should simply be to share that this is something that’s on your mind.

Open the conversation when you’re both relaxed and have time to talk. Make it clear that you’re only asking them to hear what’s on your mind and you don’t need a response or decision.

An example might be: “There’s something I’ve been thinking about and I want to tell you so that you know it’s on my mind. We haven’t discussed it before so I’m not sure how it will make you feel, but I want you to know that we don’t have to have any answers right now.”

Accept that your partner may react differently to how you want them to. Be prepared to answer questions and to listen with empathy and curiosity, seeking to understand how your sharing is impacting them. Whatever the eventual outcome, remember those good relationships are built on talking things through.

#4. Work for compromises, not ultimatums

If you feel like you’re at the point of either opening your relationship or ending it, you should think carefully about why you think non-monogamy has the power to heal your relationship and if there are other issues to be addressed.

It’s crucial that your partner doesn’t feel like they have to agree to an open relationship or else you’ll leave, that’s not consent. In fact, it could be experienced as controlling and coercive.

Rather than issuing ultimatums, try to focus your conversations on the needs that you each have in the relationship that aren’t currently being satisfied. The bottom line is that consent applies here as with everything else, so if this really is something your partner doesn’t want, you will have to accept that.

#5. Speak to a professional

You may find that the topic of an open relationship brings up underlying negative emotions for one or both of you. A counsellor can help you navigate the conversation respectfully and empathically. If your partner isn’t interested in attending counselling, it’s also something you can do by yourself.

#6. Agree about your ethical approach

If your partner is positive about the idea of an open relationship, you’re going to want to talk a lot more before making it a reality – and then talk some more. There are lots of ways that relationships can be “open” and you need to both decide what will make you feel satisfied and respected. The good news is that there are lots of ideas out there to borrow from.

Head back to the 90s with books like The Ethical Slut, listen to a podcast like The Hook Up, or read up on other people’s experiences of ethical non-monogamy. Remember, don’t just follow other people’s rules. It’s up to you and your partner (and any future partners) to decide what is right for you.

Shannon Harvey is a senior research officer at Relationships Australia NSW.