How Not To Do Open Relationships
By Dr. NerdLove
Reddit apparently saw fit to provide me with a story about open relationships and dating that’s so perfectly crafted and ironic that it’s practically an O. Henry story.
In case you missed it, a gentleman posted the (now deleted) story of how he pressured his girlfriend into an open relationship to the site’s Relationship subreddit. This Reddit Romeo expected that life in an open relationship would be hot and cold running blowjobs for him while his girlfriend – a heavier woman, although he rushes to point out “she was like this when we started” – would be getting whatever crumbs of affection she could scrounge.
I’ll give you three guesses as to how that all turned out.
Now as tempting as it is just to sit back and laugh at this guy and how his sense of entitlement backfired on him and appreciate it as a case of “be careful what you wish for” – and I will – this is actually something of a perfect storm of bad decisions. In fact, it went so badly that, to me, it’s a valuable teaching tool. So rather than just poking fun and laughing, let’s take a look at what he did wrong, why it blew up in his face and how he could have done things better.
A Master Class In How NOT to Do Open Relationships
The story begins rather prosaically – while the anonymous poster was theoretically happy in his two+ year relationship, he’d begun to chafe at the restrictions of sexual exclusivity. Via the RedditLog archive:
Around 6-7 months ago give or take, I found myself feeling disconnected from her and the relationship. I was looking at other women quite a bit, and couldn’t seem to stop even though I DID feel guilty. I ended up singing [sic] up to a sex-themed website (fetlife.com). This is NOT a dating website, I wasn’t planning to cheat when I signed up, it’s more a social network and I was mainly interested in looking at pictures posted there.
Of course, it’s kind of hard to buy this when Fetlife is rather explicitly about getting kinky people together. A Sit-On-My-Facebook, if you will. But over the course of joining Fetlife “for the pictures” – which is the Internet equivalent of saying you only read Hustler1 for the articles – Romeo found that there were dozens of hot women all apparently interested in getting to know him better! And more importantly: they were hotter (read: thinner) than his girlfriend.
Not meaning offense to my girlfriend, but she’s a big girl (had been since I dated her though so I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything) and while I enjoyed her body, I can’t deny that the draw of all the hotter women on the website who were seemingly interested in me was too much and I was feeling more and more disconnected from my relationship with this gaping hole in my needs not being met. I still loved my girlfriend and she fulfilled me emotionally, but physically my desires were completely elsewhere. Eventually I realised that the best thing for me to do would be to open up the relationship or break up with my girlfriend.
Instead of breaking up with her, he pushed for an open relationship – much to her dismay.
I spoke to her about this and, well, it broke her heart at the time. She was sobbing on me the whole night of me talking to her about it, saying she wanted to be monogamous and she didn’t like the thought of an open relationship at all. She asked for a couple of weeks to think about it, which happened, but when we spoke about it again she told me she still didn’t want to do it. I had to tell her at this point it was this or break up as I didn’t feel fulfilled. At this, she said okay, she would try the open relationship.
So, in short, she agreed to the open relationship even though she hated the idea as she didn’t want to break up.
So starting from that excellent foundation of trust, consent and communication, he laid down some ground-rules – always use protection, otherwise it’s anyone, any time, so long as they know the situation.
Fast forward to two months later and apparently his girlfriend has come around on the idea; having created her own Fetlife profile, she had immediate and resounding success, with many, many men expressing interest in her and taking her on dates. Our hero on the other hand… not so much:
I’ve not hooked up with anyone, and only had one date. All the women who seemed to be interested in me turned out to only want to flirt online and only wanted attention, and when I brought up meeting up with any of them I got rejected. The only women who wanted to at all meet me or go out with me I wasn’t attracted to.
All this came to a head (as it were) when he accidentally ran into his girlfriend as she was making out with one of her dates – a tall, tattooed, handsome beefcake of a man.
My girlfriend sees me, immediately breaks away from him and comes over smiling all over her face. She hugs me, kisses me, then the guy comes and introduces himself. It was awkward as fuck honestly, but my girlfriend didn’t seem to notice at all.
After some quick introductions and a reminder that the writer and she have a date the following day, his girlfriend darts off to the bathroom, leaving Mr. Reddit Romance alone with the other gentleman. Mr. Romance is less than pleased to be stuck talking to his erstwhile competition, who by all appearances is trying to be friendly and make the best out of an awkward situation. This is too much for Mr. Romance, who slinks off home in a cloud of jealousy and shame. The end result: he wants to close things again because they’re too “unfair”; he can’t stand the fact that she’s so happy – despite the fact that she’s still making him her primary focus – while he’s not reaping the benefits of the open relationship.
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Before we get into how to do open relationships right, we have to look at what this guy did wrong:
OK, more seriously this time. The first mistake is why he decided to push for an open relationship. Couples open up for a number of reasons: because they have needs that their partners can’t fulfill and want to get them met (with permission) outside the relationship, differing libidos, a desire for variety, a way of bringing the spark back to a flagging but loving relationship or even because they know that they’re not good at monogamy. In the case of our anonymous Redditor, however, he was no longer attracted to his girlfriend but wanted to keep her around because he wanted to fuck his cake and eat it too. He’s keeping her around to be his emotional sponge and sexual back-up option. Let’s be honest: he was going to cheat. While there are people on dating sites and Craigslist who are there just to flirt and collect pictures (you’ll hear people complain about this all the time), homeboy was making the first steps into trying to find a new squeeze. He just decided he did’t want to go through the drama of getting caught and/or breaking up with his current girlfriend. While I’ll be the first to admit that my thoughts on monogamy and infidelity are nuanced, it would have been far kinder all around for him to just break up with her and let her go find someone who not only appreciated her but wasn’t going to keep her around just for breakfast and cuddles while getting his rocks off elsewhere. Our Romeo is being unspeakably selfish and inconsiderate of the girlfriend he supposedly cares about.
This is made even more abundantly clear by the way he goes about proposing that they open up their relationship. Telling somebody you’d like to explore an open relationship is something to be handled carefully – you’re telling somebody you want to sleep with other people and that can be incredibly hurtful. Not only do you need to be gentle when broaching the topic, but it should be a long and ongoing conversation, not something you casually toss into the room like an emotional hand grenade. And that’s exactly what he did: throw it out without anyconsideration for his girlfriend or her feelings. After giving her time to think about it, she still wasn’t into it… so he forces her into it instead. By giving her an ultimatum, he has forced her hand: she didn’t want to lose him so she was forced into something she did not want. I’m fairly certain he could’ve found an even more dickish way to get his way, but apparently he wasn’t able to round up a box of kittens to threaten in time.
Now in fairness, he got lucky; despite her initial reticence, despite the shitty, shitty way he forced an open relationship on her, his girlfriend soon found that she liked it. In fact, she was having incredible success with it. And therein lies the biggest thing that Mr. Romance got wrong through this whole endeavor: he went into this assuming that he was going to do whatever he wanted and never have to confront the reality that other people were going to be fucking his girlfriend. In his mind, the plan would be that he’d be able to go bang out with one of these incredibly hot women chatting him up on FetLife and then come back home where his girlfriend would be dutifully waiting for him with dinner and a martini.
Of course, much to his great surprise, getting laid – even on FetLife – isn’t as easy as just presenting yourself like a ham at Christmas and expecting people to dig in. He never stopped to remember that it’s easier for a woman find a casual sex partner because – even among the kinksters – women are socialized against owning their own sexuality. Not to mention, more often than not, the sex just isn’t worth the potential risks. The flirty women on FetLife may have given him the impression that he was going to be balls-deep in strange from the jump, but in the end… not so much. Turns out you need to put in more work than just showing up.
Meanwhile, he assumed that his zaftig girlfriend would never be able to take full advantage of their arrangement like he would because… well, because she was fat. In his own words:
I’m going to be honest and say I have no idea why a guy like that is interested in my girlfriend and not out with a hot girl.
This tells you everything you need to know about his relationship with his girlfriend. He’s contemptuous of her at best. He had absolutely no concept of her real attractiveness or the potential that she could score incredibly hot dudes. It never occurred to him that somebody – especially somebody better looking than him - might value her company and find her desirable. Meanwhile, he’s complaining that the goddesses he was expecting aren’t into himand he’s only half-heartedly going out with girls just to try to even things up between the two of them. He can’t handle the idea the idea that hot guys are all up in his girlfriend’s business and his only recourse is to demand that she cut off the guys she like and to close the relationship back up.
And that leads us to the fatal final mistake: he’s a selfish shitbag. Through this entire process, he’s shown absolutely no consideration for his girlfriend; he was focused entirely on himself. He opened up his relationship because he wanted to bang some strange, and he wants to close it back up because it didn’t work out exactly as he fantasized. He can’t handle the fact that his “unattractive” girlfriend is desired and happy and he… isn’t. And this is somehow “not fair” to him.
What Can We Learn From This?
Now, having talked about all the things that Mr. Romance did wrong, let’s take a look at how he could possibly have made this scenario work. For these purposes, let’s assume that his motivation is at least slightly more positive than “I don’t want to fuck my girlfriend any more.”
The first thing that needs to change is the way he broached the subject. Instead of dropping it on his girlfriend out of the blue with no warning, it should have been brought up as a hypothetical situation as a means of testing the waters. It’s far better to talk about the subject in general instead of being immediately confrontational. “This is going to happen or else,” is possibly the worst way to bring up the subject. Forcing her to make an immediate decision is not only unfair to her, but it’s almost guaranteed to ensure the answer is “no”. It’s much easier to discuss a hypothetical situation when it’s not an immediate threat to the current relationship. Equally importantly is to for Mr. Romance to recognize that this not be a one-time conversation. Monogamous relationships are complicated as it is; open relationships are even more so. You do not want – as Mr. Romance did – to just say “Ok, go away to think about this and give me your answer in two weeks.” That’s not only counterproductive but unbelievably cruel; you’re basically telling your partner that you expect them to stew in their own anxieties and then come back.
If his girlfriend had been at all open to the idea (as opposed to an immediate and unchanging “no”), then he needs to recognize that there’s absolutely no way that you’re going to hash out everything in one evening – certainly not to anyone’s comfort or satisfaction. They’re going to have a lot to discuss, not the least of which is reassuring his girlfriend of how he feels about her. Open relationships require absolute trust and faith in your partner and relationship; trying to go from a monogamous to a non-monogamous relationship without a strong basis of mutual trust and respect will not only destroy the relationship but cause a lot of unnecessary pain in the process.
What would the two of them want to talk about? Well to start with: why he want to open things up and what this would mean for the two of them. How does he view intimacy? What defines a relationship for him? What does fidelity mean to her? How important is this to him? What is he going to do if she just can’t or won’t do an open relationship?
Assuming that she was willing to give it a try, then, then it would be time for the two of them to have another series of conversations as they worked to design a style of open relationship that workes for them. Open relationships need to be customized to the people involved – it’s never a one-size-fits-all situation. What would this relationship look like? How would it work? Would they be equally open? Would they be semi-open, with one partner content to be monogamous while the other isn’t? What restrictions – if any – would there be on potential partners? Would it be only while one or the other partner is out of town? How much detail would they want to share about their activities? Do they have to meet the other’s potential partners, or would they prefer to keep it on a don’t ask, don’t tell basis? Are any acts off the table with anyone other than the two of them, or is it anything goes? Are there any days or events that are reserved specifically for the two of them? How would they handle potential jealousy issues? Under what circumstances would they renegotiate their agreement? Under what circumstances might they close the relationship up again?
They would want to nail all of these issues down and more – preferably in writing – to theirmutual satisfaction before they start actively looking for new partners. There’s no way to anticipate all possible contingencies and eventualities, but negotiating as much as possible as clearly and explicitly as possible helps work through most of them.
Incidentally, I’d recommend that they read Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships during these conversations; it’s an excellent guide to navigating the tricky waters of open relationships.
But what if they couldn’t reach an agreement? In that case, it depends. If Mr. Romance realized that he couldn’t do monogamy or that having a closed relationship was a deal-breaker… better to be up front and end things. Trying to stay in the relationship would only make the two of them miserable; the clean break heals fastest after all. But under no circumstances should this have been used as a negotiating tactic; trying to get your significant other to go along by holding the relationship hostage is a deeply shitty thing to do to someone.
The Myth of Equality
There’s one more issue I want to bring up that this incident highlights nicely: the idea that equality, symmetry and fairness are the same thing. Equality isn’t necessarily fairness, and fairness doesn’t mean that everything is going to be equal or symmetrical. Relationships are built out of individuals and while there will usually be an overlap of interests and attachment styles, they are still individuals. Making things absolutely equal – the rules for the goose are exactly the same as the rules for the gander – doesn’t automatically become fair by definition because they may put greater restrictions on one partner over the other. For example: a person who prefers to get to know somebody well and have at least a friendly relationship with somebody before sleeping with them is going to chafe under rules that specify only one-night stands – even if that rule applies to both partners.
Then there’s the case of Mr. Romance and his girlfriend. He claims that because they’re not getting equal action, it’s not fair. Now, ignoring the fact that he wouldn’t be quite as interested in “fairness” if he was getting the lion’s share of ass, the fact of the matter is, it is absolutely fair; they’re both working under the rules that they mutually agreed to. The fact that it’s not equal isn’t something that can be negotiated; he’s going to have a damned hard time convincing his girlfriend that she’s not allowed to get any more action until he’s managed to get with someone equally as hot as the dudes she’s seeing. His inability to hook up with people (the super, super hotties he was hoping for, that is) is about him as a person, not a referendum on the fairness or unfairness of their arrangement. It’s still fair… this is, after all, what he asked for, under the circumstances that he wanted. If he’s not happy with the arrangement… well, under other circumstances and with other people, closing it up again might be a possibility that they could negotiate.
As it is…
Let’s just say I’m hopping his girlfriend recognized she could do better and left him for the six foot stud with the tattoos.
Originally appeared 5/23 at Paging Dr. NerdLove
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Reposted 5/25 at The Good Men Project
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