‘Can I save my marriage if I open it?’
I replied uneasily, ‘The odds aren’t good.’
‘Well the odds of us staying together as we are, are practically zero anyway,’ my friend said, sniffing her dismissal of my pessimistic prediction. As her marriage has already floundered on the unforgiving seas of an affair, I could see her about to throw caution to the wind.
I wanted to tell her: Don’t do it… because damn, opening your relationship when it’s working is one of the most difficult things, let alone when it’s in trouble. But her life is hers, not mine and so I was left with a dilemma. To watch as she repeated all the crucifying mistakes that most of us who enter open relationship territory have made, or try to help. She’s not alone. I think one of the biggest reasons that people open their relationship is unresolved conflict and dissatisfaction in an existing relationship.
My own experience – and the experience of many others I’ve talked to – tells me it’s unlikely that opening a relationship will ‘fix it’ (unless the ONLY problem really is an incompatible predilection for non-monogamy and trust me, most people have more than just one thread to their issues). It’s kind of like having a baby for the same reason. You have to relearn everything you thought you knew about what you thought you knew. It is a mind-blowing journey and doing it for the first time, means mistakes. Tons of mistakes. Those mistakes will stress the existing problems in a relationship – you know – those which prompted you to open your relationship (or have a baby) in the first place. Add to the mix insecurity, anxiety, jealousy, possession, entitlement, bake in an atmosphere where you suffer an inability to communicate constructively about potentially explosive emotions and you have a recipe which is likely to fail. And yet…
Whether I want it to happen or not, it does. All the time. I don’t judge. How can I judge when I did it too? It didn’t ‘fix’ the relationship, but it did save us both from a life in denial, taught us amazing lessons and prolonged our marriage for another two years. That’s not a bad outcome. So here’s the advice I gave her.
- Relearn what is required to be absolutely honest
Everyone lies. But lies are usually not told to betray you personally. Lies are used to protect ourselves against the repercussions of making ourselves vulnerable. Lying is a survival mechanism, a product of the evolution that has brought us this far. Going against such a powerful human trait and developing the ability to communicate honestly is difficult. Few will risk being vulnerable if they fear blame, judgement and anger.
Successfully opening up your relationship will require everyone involved to learn to communicate honestly. Just the act of opening the relationship is a first step towards honesty: “I am interested in other people than you…”. This newfound honesty will risk both partners’ safety, and navigating the complicated terrain of open relationships will require sensitivity to the roots and causes of our lies, and how we react to honesty. In my experience, fear, blame, judgement and anger are human reactions to – perceived or real – attack, threat and accusation.
The knack to two-way honesty is to resist the temptation to blame someone else for your emotional upset whilst trying to achieve a state of no judgement on what they’re saying, whilst the other party resists the temptation to feel accused or attacked, also in a state of no judgement. This will be doubly difficult if you’re already in a catch-22 victim-persecutor paradigm.
Wiser folk than I, have named it ‘owning your shit’… and it’s difficult. Remember that honest conversations don’t need a resolution per se. The objective is only to be able to express honestly in a safe space. Be kind and compassionate. You need to feel safe being honest with each other if you are to create a flexible – and sustainable – relationship. That means listening without judgement to what the other has to say. It’s far easier said than done and it takes time to learn. Luckily, there are some other skills that will help you achieve it…
2. Lose Expectations of what ‘should be’
Much of what makes us angry, afraid and insecure is when people and things don’t match up to the way we expect they should be, or the way we want them to be or – perhaps closer to the truth – the way you have been taught they ‘should’ be.
Looking bravely at what you have, and accepting that you can’t change who people are, is tough. So your partner isn’t what you expected, or wanted? Blaming or judging them for being themselves will only feed into our natural tendency to confirmation bias, and soon you will only see them as a bundle of disappointments. Not a great way to pursue any kind of relationship, let alone an open one where there is temptation to compare greener grass.
Have you ever ended a relationship only to find that you suddenly have fun again together, perhaps even have great sex again? Suddenly, all expectations are gone and you are curious about who your ex- really is and what their future holds–and the experience is mutual. By challenging our own notions of “what should be” we can strive for this joyous feeling within an existing relationship.
What do you expect yours to look like when you open it? Try, try and try again to let go of every “should” you discover in your thoughts. Take it day by day. It won’t look like what you want it to, but it might be even better.
3. Embrace Negative Emotions
You will feel them… all that stuff we’re taught is vile. Don’t be ashamed! No emotion is vile, they are part of your humanity. Emotions stem from your subconscious limbic system and this system acts powerfully on our stress systems for what it ‘feels’ is your best interest. It speaks only in terms of pain and pleasure. Avoid pain, seek pleasure! Resisting the impulses of fight or flight when you’re scared is really hard.
So, embrace your darkest emotions, but try not to let them guide your knee jerk responses. Despite the common Hollywood narrative, your emotions are not the master of you. Humans have a pre-frontal cortex which–through practice–can learn to understand these impulses. We can learn that our so called negative emotions are only signals which require further investigation and communication.
With consistent practice we can learn to master our experience of these signals and our responses to them. Your emotions are valid, so be honest about what you feel–to yourself and to your partner(s). Get used to the idea that your emotions do not require accusation and blame, and you will find that honest communication is possible with your partner about even your ‘vilest’ baggage. There is no need to ‘fix’ your emotions, because feeling them does not mean you are broken. Be compassionate with yourself and brace yourself for a wild ride of ‘the feels’.
4. Disassociate yourself from your former relationship identity
It’s a disempowering thought to imagine that we’re incomplete without a partner, and yet it’s what we’re taught. The ‘Bennifer’ fallacy destroys many relationships, even more so when your relationship transitions to include more than two. It is also the reason why it hurts like death when relationships end.
You are not your relationship. You are not two halves which make a whole. Personally, disassociating myself from my former relationship identity is the single most effective tool I have found to diminish expectation, combat jealousy and eradicate fear. You are two or more individuals, who are developing a new way of relating to each other. You cannot afford to allow what your partner does (or does not do) to affect your sense of self worth or your identity.
Since perceived loss of identity drives insecurity which feeds jealousy and fear, taking steps to protect or build up your individual self esteem will always help. Take the time to grieve the loss of your former ‘couple’ identity and the relationship you had which has now ended, whilst the new relationship dynamic begins.
5. Treat each other with respect
I’ve found that sometimes it’s easier to treat each other better when you open a relationship. Many relationships–especially live-in ones–can deteriorate into a steady sense of mutual annoyance which eats away at the fabric of love. We allow ourselves to treat each other badly because there are outside structures holding us together, such as a joint mortgage or children. Quite simply, we can get away with it. In an open relationship, there may be none of those things.
Yet when you open a relationship, there are massive fears and insecurities which will try to make you act out of survival in an effort to preserve what you have. Demands and actions derived from fear and pain will drive your partner away more quickly. Even so, it’s counter intuitive for many to let go. But your best path is to live your life out of love instead of fear. Treating your partner with respect may do wonders to stem the bleeding from a damaged relationship. If you don’t respect your partner, ask yourself why, trying not to accuse or blame and looking carefully at your own triggers as you do so. Communicate.
You may not end up together. You may simply want different lives. And you should acknowledge that possibility (no expectations, remember?) But the skills above that you learn just from trying, are worth their weight in gold. And those skills will help you in this relationship or future relationships, whether they’re open or not.