How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every Thursday night, the crew will answer one bonus question in chat form. This week, opening up.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been in a relationship for 25 years and recently decided to “open” our relationship. I have never cheated but, possibly like most people, often wanted to. I don’t know if I have engaged in self-sabotage to avoid it or am just terrible at seduction, or a little of both, but I haven’t. I have long wanted to open our relationship but never brought it up because I thought she wouldn’t go for it, or even want to have the conversation.
Recently a friend of ours, who is in town for a couple of weeks and leaving soon, discussed the possibility of an orgy/four-way with him and his partner during a small house party. It was not a possibility at the moment—our college student daughter was home—but we discussed it for later. Neither of us was interested in an orgy, but my partner and I were interested in private encounters. My rationale was that it would help to open up our sex lives; I liked that after our friend’s declaration, I felt like I had to compete for my wife’s affections. It was something I wanted, so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. We discussed it, and it led me to have a very sweet, hot, and satisfying encounter. I was happy with my decision.
Now it’s my wife’s turn. And bam! I feel like I have had my first emotion this week because all of those things I have been calling emotions till now pale in comparison. I had absolutely no idea that this was coming. I have not been able to eat or sleep. My wife’s “date” is coming up. Is this a common reaction? Will it go away to a manageable level? Will I be able greet my friend again without the desire to throttle him? I trust and love my wife, and I want this for us. Do you think I can work through this?
Stoya: Mostly I’m sitting here going “aww,” because there’s something charming about a man encountering jealousy and wanting to work through it.
Rich: Yes, and I think his drive for self-improvement makes him already ahead of the curve. A lot of people hit jealousy like a wall and stop there. I consulted the section of The Ethical Slut about jealousy, and authors Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton suggest using jealousy as a tool to target the exact feelings behind it. (There are a lot of possibilities—they contend that jealousy itself isn’t an emotion but a manifestation of a wide range of emotions.) And actually, backing it up for a second, reading The Ethical Slut is a good idea for anyone making their foray into ethical non-monogamy. It can be kind of heady and even woo-woo at times, but it’s very specific and detailed.
Stoya: I have a quick qualm with The Ethical Slut, while we’re on the subject: They don’t make it super clear that the authors are (were?) in a relationship at the time of writing until like halfway through the book. It’s a great text on how one pair of people runs their poly life and can be useful, but they get a little dogmatic at times, and readers should remember that they’re being presented with just one way of handling things.
Rich: It’s definitely subjective, but at the same time it’s a product of functional expertise. To that point, it was interesting that the jealousy section includes an anecdote about a struggle Easton had with a partner’s jealousy. The authors wrote they included the anecdote “because we think it’s important that our readers know that even accomplished sluts struggle with pain, miscommunication, mismatched desires, anger, and, yes, jealousy.”
Rich: It’s part of the ongoing process. So, is our letter writer’s jealousy a common reaction? Absolutely.
Stoya: And not necessarily a bad one. Jealousy can be your emotions saying, “We really care about this person.”
Rich: Yeah, it’s natural—or at least so ingrained as to feel natural. Whether an expression of love or insecurity, it’s practically unconscious.
Stoya: Or, continuing with the insecurity, it’s your body freaking out because you have to tolerate uncertainty. Because you don’t get to know for sure that your wife is coming home. But then when she does, of her own volition, you know she really prioritizes you.
Rich: I think for a lot of people, it’s the price that comes with the excitement of ethical non-monogamy. And what matters most for the well-being of the relationship is not how you feel at each moment, but how you handle those feelings.
Stoya: And to answer the writer’s second question, I think it’s not so much the feelings going away to a manageable level as it is developing the skills to cope with whatever feelings are happening.
Rich: Yes—I don’t know if jealousy goes away, but you can certainly get used to it. If you’re looking at it proactively, jealousy is the jumping-off point.
Stoya: Did The Ethical Slut have tips for managing the jealousy? (It’s been probably a decade since my last read-through.)
Rich: Oh yeah. Two things I highlighted: “Use your jealous as a signpost: ‘Work on this feeling here!’ Take a class, join a group, find a good therapist, start practicing meditation—go to work on yourself.” And: “You cannot deal constructively with jealously by making the other guys wrong.”
Stoya: Use that nervous energy to clean the kitchen or something useful that contributes to the home you share.
Rich: I think the main thing is, yeah, be constructive, not destructive. You can’t choose what you feel, but you can choose what you do about it, and part of being in a relationship is striving for a sense of fairness. So instead of blowing up—especially after our writer already got to have his fun—he should approach this carefully and compassionately. It might even involve eating it a little bit and not showing the full extent of the jealousy, so as not to create a double standard. It can feel really frustrating and confusing to abide by the rules that you and your partner set and still end up feeling like you did something wrong. Potential jealousy is what you sign up for when you enter such an arrangement, so you have to do your best to at least try what you set forth if you are, in fact, going to keep things open.
Stoya: I’m stuck on his inability to eat … I know choking down food when you don’t feel like it can really suck, but you have to take care of your organism if you want to be able to think clearly and control your affect.
Rich: It’s a really strong reaction. I think you can interpret that in many ways, one of which is that the writer really loves his wife.
Stoya: Which is really beautiful and gives me hope that he absolutely can work through his feelings. There’s this lovely concept called compersion: It’s a bit like the opposite of schadenfreude. Basically “I’m so happy that you, with nothing to do with me, are so happy.” Kind of the light at the end of the jealousy tunnel.
Rich: It’s funny because opening up a relationship can feel kind of mystical. You’re given this new way of understanding how your partner is simultaneously part of you and their own distinct person with needs and pleasure methods and that these things are not in conflict, but harmonious.
Stoya: I’m wondering if focusing on the private encounter our writer has already had would help him avoid stressing over what his wife is up to? At least as a distraction for an hour.
Rich: At the very least, that could help put things into perspective: Look what happened as a result of their encounter. Satisfaction. The letter writer didn’t leave or stop loving their wife. She won’t, in all likelihood, do that either.
Stoya: Exactly. Ideally, he gives his wife the same warm reception he received when he got home from their rendezvous. I also think he’ll totally be able to greet his friend with gratitude toward them for fulfilling his and his wife’s open relationship desires.
Rich: I think that would be an ideal way of looking at it. I’d urge him to be particularly careful with the friend, who isn’t as emotionally tethered as the wife here and really didn’t do anything wrong. Going there with him could be a recipe for some drama. Also, our writer may never truly be rid of feelings of jealousy. Jealousy can creep in when you least expect. But again, it works as a good gauge there too—if it gets to be too much, then maybe an open relationship simply isn’t for you.
Stoya: Agreed. Sometimes fantasy is better off as only fantasy. Just because something is fun to think about and discuss doesn’t mean you necessarily have to actually do it, or do it multiple times. It’s not like you become poly and are stuck that way forever if you don’t like it. You always have the option to go back to your wife and ask to close things again.
More How to Do It
I have, I guess, a “good” problem: I’ve been having a lot of sex. I was in a long-term relationship for a while, and when it ended, I really wanted to make the most of singledom while I’m young. Now, two years later, I’m dating casually and hooking up with new people once or twice a week. The trouble is that while I previously felt no hesitation at all to enter monogamy for years, I now crave sex with strangers and find myself less satisfied with just one partner. I actively keep distance from the people I date because of this. Am I warping my mind by jumping from stranger to stranger?