Do open relationships work?

Question Submitted:

My partner and I have been together for two years and now, suddenly, he wants to have an open relationship. I don't like the idea of him being with other guys, but I love him and I want to make this work. He says I'm being stubborn and possessive. Maybe I am. What should I do? Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. It sounds kind of hot. Should I agree to it?

Nathan’s Response:

Let's start with an analysis of what open relationships are really intended to be, and then come back around to the specific situation at hand. The short answer is yes, open relationships can work. But the problem is they often don't work.

The technical definition of an open relationship is when two people who are already in a relationship agree that they can participate in sexual encounters with other people without guilt, shame, jealousy, or resentment. In order for this to truly work, both partners must fully and completely accept that their partner will be intimate with someone else.

The trouble with this is that most humans just don't have that capacity. Some couples are able to pull it off and live very happily together. They even claim that having an open relationship is what keeps them going so strong through the years.

But here's what happens with most couples who fail with their open relationship. It usually starts when a couple isn't doing so well in the bedroom. One or both of them is bored, dissatisfied, or something along those lines. So they discuss having an open relationship, thinking that sex with someone else will liven their relationship and fix the cracks in the foundation. The problem is that one partner is usually really excited about this new adventure, while the other one really doesn't want it. He's just going along with it because he's scared he'll lose the whole relationship if he doesn't agree to things.

That's when things get really rocky. There is fighting, jealousy, hurt feelings... all the things that make us feel angry or sad inside. The problems that already existed in the relationship are magnified due to the intense emotions, and the new feelings of resentment toward the open relationship completely take over. In short, the relationship comes to a dramatic ending.

So once again, an open relationship can work. But it is a very delicate thing and most couples don't grasp the responsibility that goes along with it. An open relationship should never be used as a bandage to hold together a crumbling relationship. It's just the wrong approach because you're coming at it from a negative angle and trying to weave it into something positive. Instead, an open relationship is something that should be agreed upon under positive terms from an already happy couple.

If you're already having problems in the relationship, fix them. Deal with them. You can't take two unhappy people and expect things to get better when you add a third, fourth or fifth person. It only gets messier.

Back to your situation...

Should YOU agree to an open relationship? I'm sorry, but no, you shouldn't. You are clearly not okay with this, and you're falling into the same trap I described above. Your partner is not satisfied with things in the bedroom. This is something that you and he need to work out. If you decide you can't work it out, it would be healthier for you to part ways.

But under no circumstances should you add more people to a relationship that already seems to be having trouble.

I know it's a tough spot to be in, but you both have to decide what is going to work for you. It would be unfair for either of you to settle for what someone else wants if you won't truly be happy. Best of luck to you both.

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