What if one partner wants an open relationship, and the other isn’t so sure?

When couples are considering opening up their relationship, very often one partner is more enthusiastic about the idea than the other. I often work with couples who are working through this kind of dilemma.

My goal, while I work with a couple that is trying to decide if and how to transition to a non-monogamous relationship, is to help both partners

  • listen to one another with curiosity and empathy
  • share their feelings and desires honestly
  • explore more deeply what it is they actually want

To this end, I very often ask the more reluctant partner, “Can you think of any way that opening up your relationship would benefit you? Not your partner, not some other person, but you?” The response I usually get is, “No way, are you crazy?”

It can be hard to imagine what you could get out of an open relationship if the idea feels threatening, or if it’s something your partner is pushing for despite your lack of enthusiasm. Interestingly enough, however, I often hear things from these reluctant partners that imply that there might indeed be a way they would benefit from an open relationship. For example:

  • “I just don’t have that high a sex drive, and I wish he would stop pestering me.”
  • “I don’t like the things she’s into, and I don’t think I’ll ever be interested in trying, so I wish she would leave me alone about it.”
  • “I don’t want to spend every second together–I want to go out with my friends, do the things I want to do some of time, but I can’t because we’re together all the time.”

In each of those cases, there’s some pressure on the relationship–pressure to have sex more often, to have sex in a particular way, to spend all your time together–that having a non-monogamous structure could potentially relieve.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Often the idea of a non-monogamous relationship brings up fear, insecurity, and jealousy. Those feelings are perfectly understandable, and it’s imperative that the reluctant partner is able to fully express and explore them, and that the enthusiastic partner is able to listen empathetically and hold steady as they hear about their partner’s fears.

If they are able to feel heard and supported, and get some basic hard-to-find information about open relationships, they may find some of their fears calming, and curiosity blooming.

Here are the facts most people are missing: open relationships of all varieties actually exist. Many function well for all involved, some last a very long time, and many include deeply intimate connections. Often open relationships benefit all involved.

Good Sex Over A Lifetime

Our bodies are diverse in shape, size, color, and ability, among other things. Every body is unique. One thing, however, binds us all together. We all age, and as we age, our bodies change.

One of the things that is likely to change over the lifespan is sexual function. Over a lifespan, hormone levels shift, as well as muscle tone and flexibility, and vascular function. Bodies experience illnesses, pregnancies, and health/lifestyle shifts for the better and worse. All these things have an effect on how the body responds to arousal and how pleasure is experienced.

Many people have the best sex of their lives later in life. However, if body changes in midlife make it more difficult to have familiar and well-practiced kinds of sex, the changes can be painful and distressing particularly when negative meanings are made of the changes.

Lifestyle choices, like eating a healthy diet, reducing and managing stress, and incorporating regular exercise into your routine, can make a big difference, so consult with your doctor. However, one of the most productive changes is to think about change differently, and respond more skillfully.

A sexual repertoire for a lifetime must include multiple activities that do not depend on any particular body part, function, or experience. If we define sex as “penis-in-vagina penetration”, or “orgasm,” or any other particular experience, I can guarantee at some point things won’t go as planned. However if we define sex as “activities that are pleasurable,” or “anything sexy,” or “connection plus pleasure,” the likelihood of creating a satisfying sexual encounter skyrockets.

I’m a strong advocate for making this shift in thinking early. When a young couple comes to me to work with a particular sexual challenge, they often feel quite broken, because everything is “supposed to be easy” sexually. But I always feel very optimistic about their long-term sexual connection. This is because we can learn this shift of perspective early in life, later in life, or never. The earlier we get good at this, the more good sex we have. Simple as that.

What are we learning in order to support a lifetime of good sex?

  • Improvisation. There is no script, and the more you follow a script, the more things go “wrong”. The more improvisation, the more fun you discover.
  • Encourage your sexy, creative brain. That’s the part of you that comes up with ideas, tries them out, shares curiosity with a partner, and makes sex playful.
  • Control your naughty brain. I’m referring to your meaning-making brain. The part of your brain that says: “I’m not sexy because I…..”. “This wouldn’t be going like this if my partner were still into me”. Any thought that makes you feel bad about yourself or your partner during a sexual interaction is not helpful if pleasure OR connection are your goals.
  • Recognize that things not going as planned is just part of the landscape. Everyone experiences it and HOW you respond is the key to good sex.

Here’s an example: If your partner loses his erection, will it be more fun and productive to
a) begin to make meaning about not being attractive, or even comfort your partner with “nobody’s perfect” messages, or
b) tell him how hot he is, that you love his erection but don’t need it, and initiate an activity that you both enjoy and that doesn’t require an erection?

What Makes Good Sex Good?

What makes a sexual encounter good? It’s all in the meaning we make of it.

Good sex isn’t the result of a particular sequence of events. Good sex is all about how the participants interpret that sequence of events. What might be a distressing and bad encounter for one person could be perfectly enjoyable for another, depending on how they attach meaning to the experience.

Imagine a sexual encounter in which neither partner achieves orgasm, but rather just wind down as they get tired. For one person, this might be seen as a failure. What’s wrong with us? Am I bad at sex? Does my partner not care about my pleasure?  For another, this might be a perfectly satisfactory and enjoyable experience. They could enjoy the sensation of being close to their partner, physically and emotionally, enjoying the shared intimacy of the moment.

Or imagine a very short sexual encounter. One person might think, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I last longer? That was so embarrassing, while another might think, What a fun quickie. There are infinite possible variations of this idea. Think of anything that could “go wrong” in a sexual encounter, and you’ll see how much depends on how the participants interpret it.

Being attached to an overly rigid model of how a sexual interaction should unfold almost always becomes a problem sooner or later in a relationship, because our bodies are complicated and don’t always behave in the way we want. For that reason, if your measure of success for a sexual encounter is some particular activity, like penis-in-vagina (PIV) penetration to orgasm, at some point you will probably be disappointed. What meaning will you make out of that moment? If you’ve had this experience before, what meaning did you make then?

Consider this: what do you really want to get out of sex? Is it a particular kind of activity? Or is that activity a symbol for something more important–intimacy with your partner, trust, love, pleasure? How can you get what you REALLY want out of the interaction, and release attachment to a particular sequence of events?