Open Relationships: What the Real Rules Need to Be

When people consider opening their relationship, they focus more on the benefits than the challenges. They think, "surely we should be able to do this and keep our relationship safe and secure."
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When people consider opening their relationship, they focus more on the benefits than the challenges. They think, "surely we should be able to do this and keep our relationship safe and secure."

No surprise that they have this hope, given the culture we live in -- a culture where we think we can have what we want, easily, without trouble or effort.

By popping a pill or slapping on a patch, we get renewed vigor and strong libido, no matter our age or physical condition. Amazon drones are poised to bring us our hearts' desire in minutes. A few swipes on Grindr can deliver a perfectly-aligned-with-our-fantasies sex partner.

So why shouldn't we be able to have sex with others in order to avoid monotony, and still have a satisfying, emotionally close relationship with one partner?

While people of all sexual orientations and genders consider opening their relationships, a number of factors make this an especially appealing and acceptable choice for gay men.

As a psychologist working with many gay individuals and couples, I get a lot of clients asking:

"Are there rules we can follow to open our relationship and still keep it healthy?"

In an ideal world, this might be easy. But listening to my clients' stories over the last two decades has taught me that everything we do in life has a cost. This includes how we treat our relationships and manage sexual boundaries.

If you choose to be monogamous, you'll have to forego other alluring partners and opportunities, while putting some effort into keeping sex between you two interesting (not necessarily such a dreary challenge).

If you open your relationship sexually, you'll open your relationship to some risks as well. And unfortunately, the rules that many couples establish to try and avoid these risks often lead to other risks.

Here are some of the most common rules -- and their frequent negative consequences:

Don't ask, don't tell. You each make a commitment to keep your head in the sand about what the other is doing, in order to limit getting your face rubbed in your partner's hookups.

As much a charade as the old military policy, this rule creates a relationship where you both give the appearance of not doing something you are doing, and -- icing on the insincerity cake -- pretend that you don't know your partner is fooling around.

You're not going to get much genuineness in such a relationship. Nor will you know each other deeply, which will put a ceiling over how intimate the two of you can be. Instead, you're likely to get a brittle relationship that lacks depth and is all about appearance.

Agreements to limit what each of you does sexually with others. The aim here is avoid feelings of betrayal and keep some things sacred to the couple.

Many of us have a difficult time drawing a line as the temperature rises. When you are naked and hard with a hot guy, will you remember (or want to remember) what you agreed not to do?

Agreements limiting with whom you have sex. One frequent riff on this rule is to restrict how many times you are permitted to have sex with the same outside person. The risk, of course, is that you'll get attached to, perhaps fall in love with someone else through repeated encounters. Mutual friends and former romantic partners are also often off-limits.

If you're having great sex with another guy you're strongly attracted to, are you likely to call it off because it's bad for your primary relationship? Or are you likely to keep going, and keep your rendezvous a secret?

You can easily find yourself in dangerous territory, in terms both of lying to your partner and having a full-blown affair. This combination is often a knockout punch to a committed relationship.

Only having sex with others when you are together. A popular choice for couples who want to open their relationship while avoiding the risks of secret-keeping. The complaint I hear most often from couples who go down this road: one or the other feels neglected -- by the third person, by the partner or by both.

The guy getting less attention may feel bad about himself and jealous of his partner, while the guy getting more attention may feel bad about his partner being neglected and upset. Alas, not a recipe for no-strings fun, this rule is likely to create sour feelings and bitterness.

Much as we might like to believe otherwise, relationships are not unbreakable. They're fragile, easily damaged by jealousy, dishonesty and betrayal. Sometimes the damage can be repaired, but a steady stream of behaviors that erode the warm feelings and connection between two people will take a toll.

This is why I tell couples who are considering opening things up: If you value your relationship, proceed with caution.

As for the rules that work best for a healthy relationship?

My answer is simple.

If you want a strong relationship: respect your partner, and respect your relationship.

Is there a way to do so and still have an open relationship? The challenge is yours.

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