How To Have an Open Relationship

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S1: I mean, listen, I’d love to go out and like be able to sleep with whoever I want, read the part that I’m struggling with, it’s like being OK with my partner doing the same thing.

S2: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles De. This week, we’re tackling a question that can be somewhat hard to ask out loud how to have a relationship where everyone can sleep with whoever they want. And fair warning. This is kind of an R rated episode. So if you have kids listening with you, let me suggest you turn it off and listen to a different episode first titled How to Talk to Your Son About Sex. You can find that in all of our episodes in our podcast feed. OK, so if the kids are out of the room, here’s our listener. My name is Dave. I’m a software engineer. Abe is 41 years old and he’s been seeing his girlfriend, whom we’re going to call Georgina off and on for about ten years. They moved in together last year. And then a few months ago, Georgina brought up something unexpected.

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S1: She was reading about polyamory and a lot of it resonated with her. And she was like, you know, I’ve been reading this stuff like, what do you think? And it took me a back because on one hand, it seemed appealing. And on the other hand, you know, can I have an emotional connection and a sexual connection with more than one person at a time? And would I be OK with that?

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S3: Polyamory is engaging in multiple romantic and sexual relationships at the same time. And sometimes polyamory describes an open relationship where a couple is having sex separately or together with other people. Or it can mean a couple is having physical and emotional connections with people outside of their immediate relationship. Abe, let me ask when when Georgina brought up this idea to you, it sounds like you were excited, but also resistant. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Like what what did you say to her?

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S1: What I immediately said to her was like, I’m so glad we can have this kind of conversation. And then I was like, OK, well, I. I have to think about that. There’s things about that. They’re alluring and appeal to me. But I still struggle with that question.

S2: Like, how do you even begin to do that on today’s episode? How to have an open relationship? Our experts this week are the writers of Slate’s popular sex advice column, How to do it.

S4: So stay with us. And only us. Well, I guess you can listen to the podcast, too.

S3: So how exactly did you start giving sex advice, like did friends come to you and and ask for pointers?

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S5: I feel like I started to write about sex, specifically my sex life, which was a tumultuous experience, but then it resulted in this column. So I’m sorry. I’m not sorry about that.

S3: That’s Rich Chuseok. And this is Stoya.

S6: I am a career pornographer and sometimes I write about sex and pornography more as the writers of Slate’s Advice column, How to Do It.

S2: Rich and Stoya have fielded a lot of questions about sex. You might have seen some of their articles on Slate’s website. There were headlines like We had to cancel our summer sex fest this year and my husband is furious and my friend thinks she’s having sex with a ghost, which spoiler alert she wasn’t. So how to have an open relationship? That’s actually a pretty tame question for Rejean Stoya, but Abe situation is more complicated than it seems.

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S3: So what happened next with Georgina?

S1: There were definitely other things that weren’t working in the relationship and they just kind of took their course and we ended up splitting up.

S3: That was a few months ago. And afterwards, Abe got on Tinder, the dating app, and he went on some dates and he started seeing someone new and it started to get a little bit serious.

S2: But at the same time, he started wondering, what would it be like to keep seeing other people just like Georgina? He was becoming interested in having an open relationship.

S1: You know, I’m newly single and I’m like, OK, well, I get to redefine what my future looks like, OK? I don’t want to jump back into another monogamous relationship. So I was really curious about, OK, how can I meet people and how can I develop connections with people, possibly more than one within an ethical framework.

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S2: But before I could broach that idea with a woman, he was saying Georgina sent him an email saying she wanted to get back together. So they did. And this is great news. According to Abe, he he loves Georgina. He loves being with her.

S3: But the question of an open relationship is still hanging over them. So now Abe is wondering, could he be OK with his girlfriend sleeping with other men? Part of the reason Abe has some issues with that is because of these other dynamics in their relationship.

S1: You know, just she was starting her own business and I was taking care of all the other bills or share bills at home. You know, she worked very hard and do her thing. But at the end of the day, I was I was bringing the bread home. So, yeah, I was basically acting as the provider.

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S5: 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, why they couldn’t just be two separate entities.

S1: Yeah, I mean, you used two great works there. You know, the power dynamic. And I know, OK, I’m acting within those norms. And I don’t I don’t want to.

S6: OK, I’m going to do a thing. I’m going to make it all about me specifically, all about my vagina. So I’ve been a pornographer since 2006. And man, does it break men. They meet me. They’re like, oh, that’s kind of weird and exotic and hot. But then we start hooking up and then they start developing feelings. And I’m probably also developing feelings. Not necessarily, but and then they tell their friends. And that’s when the fact that I touch other people on the penis for money becomes a problem. Huh. And it’s literally like the language they use to describe what I do. Changes how so? Like, what do they how does it change? It’s this like internalized societal judgment they go to like. Meet up over burgers with their boys and then the boys are like, how can you let her do that? And then the doubts sets in. And I mean, sexual 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.

S3: So, Abe, do you think that’s what’s going on with you? Like when your girlfriend brought up, like, I’d like to have an open relationship. I’d like to be polyamorous. And you have that both positive and negative reaction. Is the negative reaction you think really coming from within you or is it you hearing your friend’s voices in your head or society’s voices in your head that I totally get?

S1: What way of saying there is a component of truth to that? But I think that, like, OK, my girl is going out on a date today and she’s gone for five hours and then she comes back. How do you handle that? What’s the procedure there like? Do I just act like nothing just happened?

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S5: I’m still sort of not satisfied that the connection between the financial and the amorous, because to me, 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 or have some idea of how someone should behave as a result of that.

S1: Dude, you’re you’re so right. You’re so right. Intellectually, I completely agree with. Yeah, emotionally, this is a component that comes out as like, no, no way. You can’t accept that.

S5: Yeah, I think that is true for so many things. And I don’t think you should be too hard on yourself for not being able to make that intellectual, emotional bridge. You know, I think that there are so many children who don’t have parents that need homes, but I’m not going to adopt one. So I think that there’s a lot of things that, you know, you can understand on a very intellectual level that just are not for you.

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S7: So here’s our first rule. If you think you want to have an open relationship, the first thing you should do is really look at why you want this. And then you have to talk with your partner and figure out whether you’re on the same page and and more important, whether your relationship is solid enough to try something new.

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S6: Sometimes we come at sexuality with this fantasy that it’s going to be Disneyland, as though letting someone you barely know tie you to a large piece of furniture is not very risky, as though introducing other sexual relationships isn’t risky like it. It is risky.

S2: You’re taking a gamble, but how do you decide to take that gamble? And Georgina have been together for the better part of ten years. How do they make sure experimenting doesn’t break them up? When we come back, Rich and stoya open up about their own open relationships and why some succeed and others fail.

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S8: Don’t leave us.

S3: We’re back with our listener Abe and Slate’s sex advice columnist, Stoya and Rich, we who himself is no stranger to open relationships, just happened to be really easy with my current boyfriend, where, like we talked about it within the first few weeks, he said, I’m not monogamous.

S5: And that was that. And there’s been drama in the relationship, but basically never attached to that. The time that it did get super dramatic is when there was somebody that we were both sleeping with that I liked too much. And there was just too much of an emotional thing there for my boyfriend that he was witnessing. And, you know, 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, you know, follow whatever rules and, you know, not see that guy or only see that guy together, whatever, because sometimes the rules change.

S3: Rich, can I ask you, did you guys sit down and talk about the rules? Like, did you have a formal conversation where you said, like, these are the rules and we’re going to change them as time goes along and we want to. But like, this is how it works.

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S5: A number one is that we never lie to each other. And number two, 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 could do whatever you want, no questions asked or, you know, maybe questions asked, but but no, nothing held against you, whatever. You don’t have to give me a heads up. But you can’t do that at the apartment because I don’t want to come back to find you having sex with somebody else. Yeah.

S1: I mean, it makes sense, right? You have to have some sort of framework that will make you comfortable with it. And I want to hear more about the logistics.

S6: 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 and I have to handle that. But like, 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.

S5: There are definitely people that believe in no rules or sort of no vido rule, which is like you can’t tell me you can’t sleep with that person, you can’t do that thing because this is my body. This is my life. And idealistically we be able to coexist with all of our inclinations in place.

S9: 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.

S7: Rich says that one of his past relationships went downhill because he and his partner weren’t on the same page about the rules, or more specifically, they weren’t completely honest with themselves and with each other about what they expected the rules to accomplish.

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S10: He’s about 10 years younger than me. He was in his late 20s. I led with the fact that, like, I wanted to be open basically before we had spent a lot of time in that grey area that we’ve been talking about during that time. I talked about that sort of thing, and he seemed fine with it always. And, you know, we were supposedly open and supposed to be able to do whatever we wanted to do. But then every time it would come out for a variety of reasons, it would just be like I would get hell for that. And I’d be like, but wait, I’m following the guidelines. Unfortunately, he was also not amenable to closing the relationship when it became very clear after a certain point that we shouldn’t be open. And I was like, let’s close it, let’s try to preserve this. And at that point, I guess Pandora’s Box had been opened and we just couldn’t close it. So that relationship ended up ending.

S7: And so this is the second big lesson you need to come up with rules for your open relationship and you and your partner have to be honest with each other about whether those rules are enough or whether they make sense for you. And Rich says that there’s one basic idea that should guide you.

S5: You always have to lead with compassion if if the idea is, I don’t want to break up with you, but say that, you know, show your priorities way up front, if there’s, like, something covered in a book, you can share that. I think the fear is always like the person’s going to think that they’re not enough or that something’s wrong with their relationship when in fact, these feelings of wanting to venture out are so common. And it’s no real comment on the relationship, you know, and something that’s also really common is waning desire in a relationship, you know, something that someone else can give you that your partner can’t. Is that newness, you know, by design, by definition. And I just don’t think, you know, while it may be some people’s ideals to just completely renounce that feeling, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want it.

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S1: I thought the way Georgina approached the subject was pretty slick and it kind of helped me, which is basically a very noncommittal approach to it. Like, Hey, I’ve been reading about this and it seems really interesting. You know, I don’t know. What are you what do you think?

S5: Yeah, it makes it just feel like less of an attack if you can sort of, you know, contextualize it and there’s stuff to read about this.

S3: People feel this way, you know, to Origin Story. His favorite books on this subject are The Ethical Slut and another book named Mating in Captivity. And it can be really helpful to do some research, to put polyamorous relationships into context and to figure out what you actually want. Are you looking to just sleep with other people or do you want to have other relationships?

S5: There’s a spectrum of possibility, and so many people think that they are living this rarefied, completely individual existence where I no longer feel sexual attraction with my partner. What am I going to do? The fact that there are so many people out there that aren’t monogamous or aren’t interested in monogamy, are interested in alternatives to monogamy, I think makes it a lot less intimidating or potentially insulting to your partner.

S3: So let’s say you’re on the same page and let’s say you’ve started talking about the rules. What exactly should those rules be? Rich, I’ve heard you say that you guys have rules that you tell each other everything. Complete honesty.

S5: Yeah, well, it’s not necessarily we tell each other everything, but we never lie and we tell what the other person wants to know, basically.

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S3: Yeah. What are other ground rules that you think are important?

S5: I mean, it really depends on people’s comfort level one one example that sort of almost a cliche is like, oh, 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, too much of a connection that I’m comfortable with. Conversely, someone might say, well, 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.

S6: Some people don’t want to see any evidence of or hint 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.

S5: Yeah, this is probably most common with same sex couples. But, you know, there are ones who say, OK, we don’t have sex with anybody separately, we only play together. That to me, you know, that’s sort of like 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, you know.

S3: Yeah. So it sounds like what you’re saying is that, like, the specific rules aren’t really where the magic is. It’s having this complete openness to say, here’s what’s important to me, here’s what isn’t important to me, and just making sure that what is important to your partner and they know what’s important to you and that you’re abiding by the agreements you guys have, the relationship has to sort of defer to the more sensitive person.

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S5: I think the person who’s not OK with things. Is it’s 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 a vagina wet. I think you really have to, like, 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 see that person, you know, now, I don’t want you to hook up when we’re in the same town at all.

S3: Even if you give me a heads up, it’s like, OK, fine, here’s our next tip. Allow space for the rules to change, especially to accommodate the partner who has more hesitations about an open relationship. An open relationship may seem like it’s about other people, but really it’s also about learning more about your own relationship with your partner. Abe, let me ask, do you feel like you and your girlfriend are stable enough that that you guys can layer this in, or are you still still working through your own issues?

S1: No, no, we’re definitely still working through our issues. And the that the separate aspect of like having that end up affecting someone else. Right. Or bringing our own drama into someone else’s life, that sounds kind of shitty and terrible to.

S3: Yeah. And let’s say eventually you guys get to a place where you are stable enough and you feel like we can introduce this element because we’re both curious about it. And you sit down and have that conversation about the rules, what are the rules that you think would be important to you?

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S1: For me would be complete equal independence, meaning like we live separately if we decide that we love each other. But this is also an important aspect of our sexuality or our individuality, then I wouldn’t be able to cohabitate. I just don’t think I would.

S6: Well, I’m wondering, how is your fear of missing out? Because it seems like the idea of sitting at home waiting is in your head in a way that you’re responding negatively to.

S1: It’s the idea of sitting at home, there’s kind of like a count, right? So we’re living together. I’m like, oh, you know, she’s been out four times this week to go see somebody else. And I’ve only gone out once.

S5: Yeah. And I think that sort of tit for tat approach is really, really common. But, you know, I would urge you to do everything you could to not see it. Well, you’ve hooked up. So now I have to hook up because then you’re just like entering a spiral and almost like a competition as opposed to a way of exploring the world.

S6: You know, the more you describe your experience of thinking about being in a non monogamous relationship, like when you talk about being in a nominal 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. Hmm. When to go. Like, I actually know, like, we don’t need to do this.

S3: I guess the thing that I’m hearing, Abe, is, is you’re saying that if you were in a polyamorous relationship with your girlfriend, with Georgina, that you wouldn’t want to live in the same house as her, which doesn’t sound like much of a relationship. To be honest, I mean, I think a lot of relationships are built on this idea that, like, I want to share my life with you. I want to I want to live together. We might have sex with other people. That’s OK. But if you’re in a relationship with Georgina, you should want to spend more time and to combine your lives more, shouldn’t you?

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S1: Yeah, you’re right, and I find myself being defensive about that, I’m sorry if I came off that way.

S3: What do you mean you’re feeling defensive?

S1: Tell me which I’m feeling defensive of my posture, I guess of that in this relationship, I can’t see myself being comfortable in a polyamorous relationship, but I could maybe genuinely fall in love with someone else within a polyamorous context like where that has been a thing since the beginning and developed feelings for that person over time that are genuine, just a different way.

S6: It sounds like he’s like grasping for ways to maybe be OK with it. And I’m like, maybe you just don’t put yourself through that. Like, maybe now’s not the right time. Or maybe he’s like a genuinely monogamous person, like an orientation, or maybe the relationship needs to be different.

S3: Let me ask something on that. Based on your experience, people in open relationships, if it starts going south, can they save the relationship?

S5: I think theoretically, yes. I’m trying to think of examples in my life. And no, I think the vast majority of relationships that are open and then start having problems, I think drama has a way of sort of eating everything up, you know, and it makes it harder to get back to that place where you always intended to be, which is the preservation and and nourishment of the relationship. But I think with enough patience and the right sort of motivation, that is absolutely a possibility. And I think that you have to let your relationship evolve.

S3: And this is our last rule, recognize when it’s not the right time or the right relationship to try out polyamory. Sometimes, Historia said the best move is not to have sex, at least not with people outside of your relationship. And the ongoing pandemic has definitely complicated all of this, and so perhaps for now the best move is to talk about what you want and figure out how to strengthen what you already have.

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S5: Just keep the relationship a priority. I don’t really think that you can do it wrong. As long as you move slow and you communicate, you really don’t have to look at it as anything. But, you know, something extra, a hobby. Just see it as like an elective.

S3: So, Abe, you had approached us to sort of say, like you wanted to understand some of the mechanics of being in an open relationship. And what I hear coming from this is is kind of this realization that that a polyamorous relationship might not be the right thing for you and your girlfriend and that that’s OK. Am I getting that right?

S1: Yeah, yeah, I think so.

S3: Are you disappointed by that or are you happy to hear that?

S1: No, I mean, this has been like a super challenging conversation around this. And and I’m so grateful that that you guys were we’re willing to have this because it’s it’s kind of brought some clarity around the fact that maybe it’s not. And that’s OK.

S3: You know, Abe, let me ask one more question of you. Have you and Georgina talked about getting married?

S1: We have. Yeah, we have. And that’s that’s in the cards.

S3: And so let’s say let’s see you guys get married in five years from now and you still feel the same way you do today where you’re curious about being an open relationship. She’s curious about being an open relationship, but you have real qualms about it. Are you going to be OK with that, marrying someone and and just being with her for the rest of your life?

S1: That’s the big question, right? Yeah, yeah, I think I would be. I would be.

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S10: Well, we’ll check in in five years and we’ll see how you feel. Yeah.

S11: Thank you to Abe for opening up to us and to stoya enrich as we act for all of their fantastic advice. You should definitely check out their column, how to do it on Slate Dotcom. Do you need some relationship advice? If so, you should send us a note of how to add Slate dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. We might have you on the show. And if you think this advice was helpful, please tell a friend and let them know that they can subscribe to the show. How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produce the show and Marc Jacobs, our engineer, our theme music is by Hannas Brown. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of Audio. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.