How to Have an Open Relationship

My girlfriend wants us to sleep with other people. I’m not so sure.

Three people with their arms around each other
`Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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A few months ago, Abe’s girlfriend, Georgina, proposed an entirely unexpected idea—opening their relationship. Having been with Georgina for the better part of 10 years, Abe feels uncomfortable with the idea of her sleeping with other people, especially when they live together. But at the same time, Abe is curious. What if adopting some polyamorous practices is actually good for their relationship? On a recent episode of How To!, Slate’s “How To Do It” sex advice columnists, Rich Juzwiak and Stoya, help Abe figure out whether an open relationship is right for him. Moreover, they open up about their own experiences, revealing some surprising tips that could help anyone in a relationship avoid a breakup. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Charles: Abe, when Georgina brought up this idea it sounds like you were excited and resistant. Can you tell me more about that?

Abe: She was reading about polyamory and a lot of it resonated with her. She was like, “Hey, I’ve been reading this stuff. What do you think?” On one hand, it seemed appealing, but on the other hand, can I really have an emotional connection and a sexual connection with more than one person at a time? And would I be OK with that? What I immediately said to her was like, “I’m so glad we can have this kind of conversation.” And then I was like, “I have to think about that.”

Also, she was starting her own business and I was taking care of all the other shared bills at home. She worked very hard and was doing her thing, but at the end of the day, I was bringing the bread home so to speak. I was basically acting as the provider.

Rich Juzwiak: Abe, is it possible to tease out more the connection that you’re making between being a provider and having a problem with this? I understand that this sort of power dynamic rules the world in a lot of ways, but I don’t quite get why one follows the other. I don’t see the contradiction there—unless you feel that by the financial support, you’ve bought some sort of ownership of a person or have some idea of how someone should behave as a result of that.

Abe: Dude, you’re so right. You’re so right. Intellectually, I completely agree. But emotionally, there’s this component that comes out as “no way.” I know I’m acting within those norms, and I don’t want to.

Rich: Yeah. But I mean, I think that is true for so many things. I don’t think you should be too hard on yourself for not being able to make that intellectual-emotional bridge. There are a lot of things that you can understand on a very intellectual level, but are not for you.

Stoya: I’m going to do a thing. I’m going to make it all about me—specifically, about my vagina. I’ve been a pornographer since 2006 and man, does it break men. They meet me. They’re like “oh, that’s kinda exotic and hot.” But then then we start hooking up and they start developing feelings. I’m probably also developing feelings. But then they tell their friends. And that’s when the fact that I touch other people on the penis for money becomes a problem. The language they use to describe what I do changes. It’s like internalized societal judgment. They go to meet up over burgers with their boys and then the boys are like, “how can you let her do that?” Then that doubt sets in. Sexual openness is so judged regardless of whether it’s professional or recreational, so I think it’s very difficult to then think logically because we don’t think logically about sex very often.

Abe: Yeah, I totally get what Stoya’s saying. There is a component of truth in that. But I think that I could see myself being in a polyamorous relationship, but then what if my girl is gone on a date for five hours? And then she comes back. How do you handle that? Do I just act like nothing happened?

Rich: For me, it just happened to be really easy with my current boyfriend where we talked about it within the first few weeks. He said, “I’m not monogamous.” And that was that. There’s been drama in the relationship, but basically never attached to that. The time that it did get super dramatic was when there was somebody that we were both sleeping with that I liked too much. There was just too much of an emotional thing that my boyfriend was witnessing. To me, it was just like, well, this is my relationship and everything else is just extra, so I am more than happy to pull back and follow whatever rules—because sometimes the rules change.

Charles: Rich, did you guys sit down and talk about the rules? 

Rich: Yes. Number one is that we never lie to each other. Number two is we can’t have sex with other people separately if we’re in the same town. If one of us goes out of town, you can do whatever you want. Nothing held against you. You don’t have to give me a heads up. But while we are both in town, you have to give me a heads up and you can’t do that at the apartment because I don’t want to come back to find you having sex with somebody else.

Stoya: You know, realistically, there are times when I have to say to people—whether I’m having sex with them or not—“I’m sorry, so-and-so is having a crisis. I need to be with them right now.” But like, yeah, sometimes you’re like, oh, do I want to spend the night with Hot Photographer or do I want to spend the night with Hot Producer? And you have to make a choice. It’s a wonderful problem to have.

Rich: There are definitely people who are poly that believe in no rules or a sort of no-veto rule, which is you can’t tell me I can’t sleep with that person because this is my body. This is my life. And idealistically we’d be able to coexist with all of our inclinations in place. It’s an interesting idea that I don’t personally find to be particularly useful to me. I need structure. I need rules. I need someone telling me “no.”

Charles: What do you think is a good guiding principle for people who want to bring up an open relationship with their partner?

Rich: You always have to lead with compassion. If the idea is “I don’t want to break up with you” say that. Show your priorities up front. If there’s something covered in a book you can share that. Mating in Captivity and The Ethical Slut are good places to start. The fear is always that the other person is going to think that they’re not enough or that something’s wrong with the relationship when in fact, these feelings of wanting to venture out are so common. It’s no real comment on the relationship. Waning desire in a relationship is really common. Something that someone else can give you that your partner can’t is newness, by definition. And while it may be some people’s ideals to just completely renounce that feeling, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to explore. The fact that there are so many people out there that aren’t monogamous or are interested in alternatives to monogamy, I think makes the idea of an open relationship a lot less intimidating or potentially insulting to your partner.

Charles: Rich, I know you said that one rule you have is tell each other everything. What are other ground rules that you think are important?

Rich: Well, it’s not necessarily we tell each other everything, but we never lie. We tell what the other person wants to know. It really depends on people’s comfort level. One example is “you can’t have sex with the same person X amount of times because at a certain point that forms too much of a relationship.” Conversely, someone might say, “I don’t really want you with a bunch of different partners for the sake of disease control so I’d prefer you to have regulars as opposed to a bunch of randoms.”

Stoya: Some people don’t want to see any evidence of a liaison with another person. And other people expressly want to hear about it because it’s erotic to them or makes them feel secure.

Rich: Yeah. This is probably most common with same-sex couples, but there are those who say, “OK, we don’t have sex with anybody separately. We only play together.” That’s sort of non-monogamy lite. I’m sure it leads to drama, but I think it does a lot to assuage people’s anxiety because it’s like I can see everything happening.

In general, the relationship has to defer to the more sensitive person. I think for the person who is not okay with things, opening the relationship is going to be more traumatic and it might cause more problems for them than the person who’s OK with everything, who just wants to go get their dick or vagina wet. I think you really have to protect the most vulnerable person in the configuration. So my boyfriend is definitely that person, which means that when he says, “I don’t want you to do this. I don’t want you to hook up when we’re in the same town at all, even if you give me the heads up,” I’m like, “OK, that’s fine.”

Charles: Abe, after hearing this, do you feel like you and your girlfriend are stable enough that you guys can layer this in? 

Abe: No, we’re definitely still working through our issues. And I still can’t quite accept the idea of sitting at home. There feels like there would be a count—we’re living together and she’s out four times this week to go see somebody else and I’ve only gone out once.

Rich: I think that sort of tit-for-tat approach is really, really common. But I would urge you to do everything you could to not see it that way—well, you’ve hooked up, so now I have to hook up. Then you’re just entering a spiral, and then it becomes almost like a competition as opposed to a way of exploring the world.

Stoya: You know the more you describe your experience of thinking about being in a non-monogamous relationship, it really doesn’t sound like a good fit for you. And one of the best things that I learned about sex is when to not have it. Because it sounds like you’re grasping for ways to maybe be okay with it. Just don’t put yourself through that. Maybe now’s not the right time. Or maybe you’re a genuinely monogamous person, like an orientation. Or maybe the relationship needs to be different.

Rich: But I do think with enough patience and the right sort of motivation, trying an open relationship could absolutely be a possibility. Just keep the relationship a priority and let your relationship evolve. I don’t really think that you can do it wrong as long as you move slow and communicate. You really don’t have to look at it as anything but something extra—just see it as like a hobby or an elective.

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To hear Stoya and Rich help Abe break down some of his misconceptions about open relationships, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.