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Can Anyone Tell Me How To Have A Healthy Open Relationship?

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Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
How the hell do you have an open relationship?

A respectful, loving one, I mean, in which both partners are enthusiastic about the arrangement and committed to each other above all; in which neither wants to escape the relationship or find a better one and openness is actually an avoidance tactic or a lame compromise; and one partner hasn’t agreed to terms she or he doesn’t like to appease the other. A relationship that just so happens to include sex with other people.

My partner and I are sitting on his floor eating Greek takeout off a flipped cardboard box — he’s just moved — discussing this. We’ve flirted with openness before. I don’t like to use the word “heteroflexible” (It sounds so trendy: “I’ll have a double cappuccino, this dress is thrifted, and by the way, I’m heteroflexible!”), but its meaning applies to me. So my partner and I had worked out that I could hook up with women if I told him beforehand. Theoretically, the same went for him and men.

I don’t like the word 'heteroflexible.' It sounds so trendy: 'I’ll have a double cappuccino, this dress is thrifted, and by the way, I’m heteroflexible!'

I'll just say that it seemed like a good idea at the time. My partner’s hetero without the flexible, so our progressive, sex-positive little setup was, of course, inherently unequal, which we felt acutely when we put it into practice. Also, the clause about notifying the other partner before hooking up with someone else? It sort of worked, but if the heads-up doesn’t happen for whatever reason, the sex is a betrayal. And if we were going to expand our arrangement to allow for either of us to get with someone of any gender, we suspected that informing each other in advance could get unbearably awkward. “I just can’t imagine calling you on a Saturday night and saying, ‘Hey babe, I met someone cute at this bar, we’re gonna go to his place,’” I tell my partner. He laughs and agrees.

Our relationship is strong and I have no intention of bowing out anytime soon. But, whether by happenstance, choice, or some combination, I am a serial monogamist. (Acceptance is the first step to recovery, right?) But I’m curious about what I’m missing as a coupled (“married,” I laugh to friends) woman in New York who has hardly been single here and has hardly been single as a young adult on her own anywhere.
And I worry sometimes that I might happily crash through the next few years and then realize one day that I've never had the experiences that will make me satisfied to come home to the same person every night. My partner and I may have a future together (Note to our parents: I truly hope you are not here reading about our sex lives, but if you are, don’t worry, marriage is very far away.), but I haven’t had as many sexual experiences as I’d like to, and I’m with someone who, remarkably, doesn’t take that personally, isn’t shy about telling me that he finds other women attractive (Of course he does!), and is willing to explore DIY relationship terms.

We rule out the “tell the other person first” pledge: We don’t want either of us to end up sitting at home some night watching a graphic mental reel of what the other person might be doing. We know some couples have a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, but decide DADT would create distance between us. “How about a freebie?” my partner says. “If you want to go home with someone, you can, but tell me about it the next day and we’ll both figure out how we feel, then take it from there. Same goes for me.”
We already have celeb freebies (if Anna Kendrick invites my partner home, he has my blessing and I only have one question: Will they invite me, too?). A freebie with a normal could work. We project outcomes: If neither of us takes advantage, it could mean we didn’t really want to in the first place; if one of us does and either of us hates it, we adjust course; and if it works like a sex charm that satisfies our curiosity and makes us even happier to have the other as primary partner, then we are long-term relationship geniuses. As my partner puts it, “This freebie is a research project. It’s feasibility testing to see if A. we like being open, B).how do we like to be open, and C. rule of threes.” (Did I mention that he’s a coder? Does it show?)

Still, I worry that maybe I’m trying to have my sex cake and eat it, too. Maybe we’re inviting disaster. But maybe, this will work. In the meantime, dear future partners, I’ve forgotten how to flirt, so you’ll have to make the first move and also, I might not call you ever again. Interested parties, please submit all inquiries via the Pony Express or whatever it is the kids are using these days. It’s been a while since I was single, okay?
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you. Find all of The Bed Post right here.
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