The Highs and Lows of Open Relationships

Non-monogamous relationships may feel natural for some, but adding additional partners can often make things more complex.

By Sara Afzal

Whether we’re meeting people in real life, or swiping left and right on our screens, it’s clear that when it comes to modern dating, our options are endless. With so many choices, and so many ways to select them, it’s tempting to reject the confines of monogamy to explore an open relationship, which usually includes one primary partner and other casual partners. Three people involved in open relationships told me about their experiences and how they navigate the often tricky landscape of dating multiple people.

*All names have been changed.

Annabel: The Somewhat Reluctant Newbie Non-Monogamist

Annabel, 32, who is heterosexual, had never considered being in an open relationship until she met Liam, 35, in the spring of 2016. They hit it off on their first Tinder date, but he had some news at the end of it: “I’m in an open relationship.” Annabel said she felt a pang of disappointment.

Liam and his girlfriend, who he had been with for nine years, had transitioned into an open relationship in the fall of 2015. They lived together, which made non-monogamy a little more complicated. Liam told Annabel that he had agreed to certain rules that his girlfriend insisted on. For instance, he and his girlfriend did not discuss the details of their casual dating. Liam also had a curfew of 12 a.m. when he went out on dates and would have to call his girlfriend at 11 p.m. to check in. Annabel felt uncomfortable when these calls took place, but he would step away so she wouldn’t overhear the conversation.

Annabel and Liam continued dating in this manner for five months, at which time he broke up with his live-in girlfriend. Annabel then assumed the role of primary partner, and the two have been together for a year.

Annabel says she prefers monogamy, especially since they are in love with each other. “I feel like we are moving forward. We talk about it and we are moving towards monogamy. One of the reasons we are not monogamous is that he just got out of this big nine year relationship so he is scared to throw it all in and go straight to monogamy. So it’s kind of this final stage,” she said.

While they have a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy,” it doesn’t always hold up. Recently, Annabel told me she was staying over at Liam’s place when she found a note from a woman that he had hooked up with, thanking him for helping her with some problems she was having. When Annabel asked about it, he described the woman as “neurotic, only 26, and nothing to worry about.”

“I was really hurt afterwards. I had to go run off to work right after that. I had tears in my eyes, and I was all choked up the whole day,” Annabel said. But the terms of their open arrangement doesn’t give her much leeway to expect him not to leave the clues of others behind. “There’s nothing to talk about. I know that it’s better to deal with it on my own rather than hash it out again with him.”

After this happened, Annabel said Liam was extra attentive about seeing her and told her he was worried he was going to lose her. Usually, Annabel says she strives to not discuss others with him, but discovering the note had opened up feelings of anxiety and jealousy for both of them.

“Neither of us like hearing about the person being with someone else.  So to spare feelings, we don’t talk about it.”

Neither of us like hearing about the person being with someone else.  So to spare feelings, we don’t talk about it. Positive consequences of that are mystery and autonomy because we’re not divulging our every action to the other. It keeps things fresh and interesting and keeps away the temptation of using this as a tool to manipulate or make the other person jealous. Ultimately, I still hate the image of him being intimate with someone else. I get jealous and possessive,” Annabel said.

Annabel prefers to be honest when she feels jealousy. “He assures me that no one is a threat to me, that our relationship is ‘untouchable,’” she said. “However, I also have a tendency to pull away when I get hurt by him being with someone. I create space and do my own thing for a bit, maybe go on a date.” Behaving this way also makes Liam want to spend more time with her, she said. “This helps me reset, gain perspective, remember my power and individuality, and then I come back to him when I’m happy again.”

Annabel and Liam’s open relationship rules include always using condoms and limiting their interactions with others to certain days. “We try to keep our sleepovers to weekends and leave the weekday nights free for what-have-you…so as to create clear boundaries and eliminate any overlap,” Annabel said.

Annabel doesn’t see her open relationship with Liam as a permanent status. She said she has asked for reassurance from him that at some point they will try to be monogamous. He told her that “no one else compares to what we have,” but that he is not ready for full monogamy. For now, she says she is working on living in the moment as she explores the new terrain of being in an open relationship.

“I love that it allows space for a more exploratory, exciting, fun relationship to grow and develop naturally, and I think more deeply, without the pressure of monogamy,” Annabel said. “It creates a healthy boundary and urges you to take it slow and retain your independence.”

Rory: The Open Relationship Pro Who’s All About Group Sex

Rory, 31, is in an open relationship with Emma, 24. They met on Tinder six months ago. Rory and Emma both identify as bisexual and queer. Rory describes being queer as an alternative to living a straight lifestyle by having sex with no hegemonic gender roles. The couple chooses to openly discuss the details of their sexual encounters with others. They also actively participate in group sex together.

“The experience of talking about sex with others is really hot. I get off knowing that my partner is having enjoyable fun sex,” Rory said. “There are certain instances where not talking about it is really important though,” he said, adding that the timing of the conversation is key and if your partner is receptive to hashing out issues that arise.

What he finds most important for successful open relationships is communicating openly and talking about how communication is working—or not working.

When Rory and Emma go out with other people, they still find a way to include each other, sending updates throughout the night. Rory said he likes giving his partner reassurance and affection in these moments of pursuing others; he will tell her he loves her and misses her. He said generally the vibe is, “I’m horny and thinking of you, but we’re not together and that could mean I’m just masturbating or I’m going out tonight with the possibility of hooking up with someone.”

With an active work and sex life, Rory and Emma share a Google calendar so they can plan ahead and share when they are seeing others. “The more people that you are seeing, the more time you have to spend on scheduling. You just have to be really good at that,” Rory said.

Right now, he and Emma are more interested in swinging together. They recently had a four-way with another couple. “I like playing with lots of people at once, watching and being watched. I can’t do these things when in a monogamous relationship.”

“I like playing with lots of people at once, watching and being watched. I can’t do these things when in a monogamous relationship.”

Rory said he and Emma have unprotected sex, but usually use condoms with other people, especially in group sex scenarios. To find partners they rely on Tinder and also Feeld, which is geared towards couples seeking more partners or singles seeking a couple. Rory calls it the “DTF app.”

According to Rory, “non-monogamy is an easy and safe way to explore sexual fantasies. I have learned a lot through group sex about what I like to do and what kinds of things I like to seek out in terms of my queer sexuality.”

Jodi: The Open Relationship Dabbler

Jodi, 30, was in a heterosexual open relationship with Kyle, 33, for five months. They knew each other from work, but didn’t end up going out until they matched on Feeld. Jodi said she wanted to try the app to expand her sexual horizons, so once her and Kyle matched they talked about being non-monogamous. Kyle had a primary partner, Lisa, with whom he has a son.

When Kyle and Jodi first started dating, Lisa was accepting of the arrangement.  They sexted every night and went on dates about once or twice a week. It didn’t bother Jodi that Kyle had a child, she said, it just meant they had to work harder in scheduling dates. She wasn’t interested in dating other people, mostly due to lack of time, she said.

After two months, Jodi and Lisa met to make sure they were all on the same page about the arrangement. “I never felt threatened by her,” Jodi said. “She supported us being together and I knew he cared a lot about me. So jealousy wasn’t an issue with her.”

Jealousy came into play when Kyle and Lisa began thinking of having a threesome with another woman, who was in an open marriage. “I wasn’t thrilled about this, but he wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Jodi said. “He told me ahead of time. But the feelings of jealousy weren’t getting in the way of our relationship, so I dealt with it on my own and let it go. I would have an internal dialogue where I asked myself “why does this bother you?” I would remind myself that there was no need to feel threatened by this. He wasn’t seeking this experience because he wasn’t satisfied with his relationship with me.”

Kyle didn’t want to hear the specifics about Jodi’s sexual experiences outside of their relationship, but since Jodi asked he shared the details about his relationship with Lisa.

Early in the relationship, Jodi was only interested in dating Kyle. “I was busy and didn’t have much of a desire to see other people until about three months in, when I told him I was planning on going on a few dates with other men. I wasn’t asking permission, but checking in to make sure he was comfortable with this. He was,” Jodi said.

After dating for 5 months, Jodi began to feel emotionally disconnected from Kyle. She broke up with him, and shortly after, ended up moving across the country. Kyle suggested being in a long-distance open relationship. “I wanted to at first, but then our relationship started going downhill so I broke things off right before I left,” Jodi said. “He wasn’t providing enough emotional support, and he wasn’t super accessible. He never wanted to talk on the phone and rarely checked in with me about my feelings. Considering how infrequently we saw each other, this made me feel like we weren’t even in a relationship.”

“If there are any reservations or if one of you wants it more than the other, you’re going to run into problems.”

Jodi said she would be interested in pursuing open relationships in the future. “I could see myself being in an open marriage if my future partner was into it and the circumstances were right. Communication is obviously key. And so is trust. I think you need to both be equally invested. If there are any reservations or if one of you wants it more than the other, you’re going to run into problems,” Jodi said.