How to ‘Make’ An Open Relationship Work

The jury is most firmly ‘in’ when it comes to open marriages; 92% of them fail. I’m a card carrying part of this statistic. But contrary to many who have experienced this ‘failure’, I am still in an open relationship. Because somewhere along the way, I fell in love. With myself.

Loving yourself has a bad rap. Love is supposed to be sacrificial, unselfish and above self-interest. And whilst our proverbial landscape is littered with platitudes like

You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love & affection ~ Buddha

Rarely do we explore how this translates into action. But as it turns out, it is one of the essential ingredients that makes a relationship, any relationship, work.

Absolute Honesty & Compassion

I have vile thoughts. I judge in ways that are surprising, even to myself. I have done shameful and abhorrent things. Really, really painful and hurtful things. I am no saint.

They wonder then, how I can love myself.

I don’t write these things off as mistakes, or lessons or reframed failures, even though they are all of that and more. I do not write them off at all. Instead I’ve achieved what once seemed impossible. I look clearly and without shame at the person who has performed these things and the person who holds these thoughts. It’s me, not a version of me in the past that I deny, but me. Instead of shunning her, or ‘moving on’, I try my hardest to love her for everything she is. I focus a lot of energy on this. To hold that same mirror of acceptance up to myself (all my selves). To not judge, she who judges.

If you aren’t good at loving yourself, you will have a difficult time loving anyone, since you’ll resent the time and energy you give another person that you aren’t even giving to yourself.

– Barbara De Angelis

It can be a huge struggle. You have to admit the vile nature of those thoughts to yourself before you can love the person who thinks them. This in itself is one of the hardest things. Loving yourself takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. But I keep trying. Why? Because the better I am at doing this, the better I am at loving everyone else and creating hugely abundant relationships which foster respect and communication.

Respect and Communication

One of the difficulties about espousing this philosophy is that many individuals who desire open relationships will use it as justification to act on impulse without the necessary respect and communication that makes an open relationship so nurturing.

‘While I was away, I had a short affair’ [he said] […] I crumpled.  This was followed by hopelessness, anger and rejection so visceral it was like a white hot knife tearing through my torso.  He apologised for not having told me before it happened but he didn’t feel any guilt.  We didn’t have any hold on each other after all.  We were free.

Awfully Big Adventure

Of course you are free to do this. But you will also drive nails into the coffin of your open relationship. An open relationship that works on all levels is not carte blanche to go off and have affairs as and when *you* see fit regardless of the consequences of all involved. It is not an excuse to be an asshole. It may be that you all reach a stage where it is possible even desirable to do this; but not without the building blocks that come first through painstakingly compassionate communication.

Mistakes happen of course. If you do go through this, then self-love is key. Compassion is key. Communication is key. Responsibility for your mistakes is key.

Most of what people call communication, isn’t. We have been taught not to communicate effectively; to hide our feelings in order to achieve a ‘manipulated’ end. With true communication you let go of the desired outcome and surrender to the power of communication itself. Communication between two people therefore means utter vulnerability. Because you cannot tell what the outcome will be. Tell your darkest secrets. Share your real motivations. Even if ~ especially if ~ you think they will not be accepted. Maybe you will be rejected. Spurned. And your relationship might end.

Because lack of communication means you are not loved for who you truly are (and worse you allow yourself not to be loved for who you truly are).

You might have a convenient relationship. But it is probably not a productive relationship. Often your relationship will start a chain reaction that will end in self-loathing. When we truly communicate it feels strange and often highly uncomfortable (that by the way, is one way of telling whether or not you have really communicated).  If you are able to love yourself enough, you will most likely not spurn, reject or end the relationship after a bout of true communication. Instead you will achieve connection and the by-product of connection is love.

A Better Understanding of what a Successful Relationship is (and is not)

50% of all monogamous marriages end in divorce. They are considered failures. 95% of high school relationships do not result in marriage. They are considered ‘not the real thing’. There is a high probability that first time open relationships won’t last. Therefore open relationships fail.

We forget that every relationship is supposed to enhance us as individuals, not just be the goal in and of themselves. It may sound like a cop out, but successful romantic relationships are not necessarily those which last until our 90s or those where sex is on the menu every week.

If you have any idea of what the relationship will look like, you can ~ with 99.9% probability ~ be sure that it will not look like this. Life is made up of relationships long and short. Fleeting and long lasting. Can you tell the future? No. Not even if you are monogamous.

Open relationships that work, take the ingredients above and keep re-investing. Nevertheless, we are still all human. We are all flawed and we all have free will. One person in the relationship may say,

‘Look you know what? All this communication and honesty is exhausting. It creates too much pain in my life. I thought I was committed to it, but right now I prefer to dedicate my time to furthering my career as a rock climber. It’s what I think will make me truly happy.’

Don’t try and convince them of what you think would be good for them. Don’t try and change the outcome. You do not have this power. You are not responsible for their choices or their journey through life. Yes, if their choice is to stop the communication this will eventually diminish the connection. And the love. There’s nothing you can do about this.

Those in ‘successful’ open relationships i.e. those that commit to nurturing themselves as individuals and investing in the relationship through communication commit to extensive personal growth. Others may choose to experience this growth through the challenge of parenthood. Or career. Some do all or none. That’s our prerogative. It’s our life.

And so when my monogamous friends ask me about my open relationship, they ask ~

Do you think you can make it work?

They judge me by what they think it should look like in the future (just how long is necessary before we can say it works? 6 months? 5 years? 20 years?). Their benchmark for me is two equally loving, equally long lasting, equally invested relationships. But they give me a power which is not mine. I cannot ‘make’ anything work, nor do I want to. I could ask them the same question. They will say ‘I hope so’ …as if they have the power to ‘keep’ people in a relationship and will judge it a failure unless the relationship lasts until they both die. But my answer will be

It already does work. Really well. But no one knows what happens tomorrow (not even monogamous people).