On “Downgrading” Your Relationship

LouisaRelationship Fluidity & Beyond, Tips & Tools

Justin Trudeau's dad Pierre once said, the essential ingredient in politics is timing. Whilst it may be true, it reminds me of those cheat sheet headline hacks--as wise as they are trite. The essential ingredient in [insert weighty concept here] is timing. The business world has many similar ones which are as widely applicable--Begin with the end in mind [Stephen Covey], or Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless [Thomas Edison]. Timing, incorporating unexpected but still useful changes and planning ahead are as crucial in personal relationships as they are in professional ones. Yet how we all applaud the gurus of the world when they declare truisms little thinking to apply them to where we need them most.

The Arrangement

We examine how the space in our house accomodates to our individual needs and how our household duties or work schedules are divided to support our joint finances, the growth of our children and our own needs.
Many of my monogamous friends' relationships are breaking down. Most of them involve children and it's heartbreaking to see the fall out. The majority of those splitting up look at my own open relationship, and say 'I wish we could do something like you've done'--to which I reply, 'I think it's too late for that.' But they don't refer to the fact that my partner and I have an open relationship per se, because contrary to common slippery-slope beliefs open relationships are not contagious. They refer to the fact that one partner and I have never split up, but that we stopped having sex three years ago, maintain separate bedrooms and have other romantic partners. We have so far achieved that most elusive of all states--good friends, and co-parents--we still live together, still love each other and for the foreseeable future will be partners, in all but one sense of the word. As we also have children, I can think of no better arrangement.

Yet to call it an 'arrangement' diminishes the magnificence of what we've achieved, the pride I feel everytime we embrace one another and the love for one another that still beats in our hearts. I sincerely believe we've achieved what we've achieved because our relationship was already open and has been since its inception. Our relationship was open and sexual. It is still open but non-sexual. Timing in our case, was everything. Because if it wasn't obvious, open relationships require a lot of work. They require working on your self-esteem, shifting perspective on jealousy, fear and insecurity to view them as starting points instead of relationship destroyers. And this can only be done when you are not in a time of crisis i.e. when your relationship is not already falling apart. But if you've done the work already, you are far less likely to split acrimoniously. It's more likely that you'll be able to keep the good stuff and ditch the stuff that isn't working.

Whilst I don't suggest that everyone open their relationship in order to safeguard against a statistically likely but undesirable split, I would suggest that because we already knew more than most that relationships change as the people in them change, we were more realistic than most couples who start out believing that their relationship will always be sexual and end only by death. We have worked hard on recognising, accepting and adjusting to change. We have a rolling mortgage which we choose to recommit to when it comes up. We examine how the space in our house accomodates to our individual needs and how our household duties or work schedules are divided to support our joint finances, the growth of our children and our own needs. But there was one thing we had which we couldn't get with a monogamous relationship. We had already worked through all the demons you have to wade through when your partner falls in love with someone else, whilst keeping our own intact.

Like other parents, we prioritize our children which also means that I honour his role as father as he honours my role as a mother. But we also value each other as people. That means we are still family, and supportive of one another's romantic relationships. Our romantic partners are deserving of respect and worthy of care, whether or not we get along with them as individuals. We've both been in a situation before where we haven't been able--for various reasons--to get along with our other partners. Those are treacherous waters indeed. And nigh impossible to navigate if you don't first allow for the fact that your partner's choice of partner has very little to do with you. If my partner has needs and desires which are differently met by different people, this doesn't make me or him any less worthy.

In those times perhaps more so than others, boundaries are ultra important - both in their definition and mutual respect of them. They must be carefully drawn so that they do not amount to a tacit veto--it's counterproductive to say that other romantic relationships are valid without actively supporting or accomodating their evolution. If your partner has nowhere to entertain, or to indulge their intimate inclinations because you cannot abide romantic encounters in your mutual home, then this limits a relationship.

It hurts. Of course it does.

Other solutions may require using your joint finances for their hotel bills or travel costs.

It may require that you redefine your idea of how you use your space, or you may simply need to work out your territorial issues.

It may require that you juggle childcare, taking on more or less household work and being highly flexible whilst dismantling any resentment that may arise.

It may require unpicking the boundary to examine the root cause and finding another way to satisfy those requirements. It may also require your absence. In short it is work. It is the pragmatic work of the rational mind acknowledging, accomodating and examining the reality of emotional reactions and the reptilian instincts.

So it is all those things and more. We did it, but we did it before it was really tested. And when the time came we grieved. But less than we would have, because we knew that we had the tools to support us through the transition and beyond, to this brave new stage in our relationship.

[Update: That transition has lasted 6 years now, and it's still going strong.]