Could Opening Up Your Relationship Fix It?

Photographed by J Houston.
What does an open relationship have in common with getting married, having a baby and moving in with your partner? That’s right: none of them is a way to fix problems in a relationship. With an increased awareness of non-monogamous relationship structures, the myth that polyamory is a ‘fix’ for a broken relationship is also gaining momentum. 
However, the reality is that non-monogamy isn’t ever easy – and it definitely won’t fix a relationship that’s not working. 
Non-monogamous, polyamorous, open, monogamish – these are all words to describe relationships that fall under the umbrella of non-monogamy, where people date, have sex and have romantic relationships with more than one person. The language people use to describe their relationships, as well as the intricacies of how they work, is different for each person and each relationship. But one thing is generally true across the board: opening up your relationship is unlikely to be the solution to the issues you’re experiencing within it.
That’s not to say that people don’t try. Dr Liz Powell, a licensed psychologist specialising in non-monogamous relationships, explains that they see this a lot. They describe it as the phenomenon of "relationship broken? Add more people!" In Dr Powell’s view, too often people try to apply polyamory like a plaster when they’re struggling with differences in sexual desires or how they want to split their time and priorities. 
An open relationship could, theoretically, help with those issues. In reality, problems often begin when someone is feeling hurt, unheard or unseen by their partner. Without resolving that conflict in the first instance, and instead just opening up the relationship, you allow that pain to fester and resentment to build on top of the struggles you’re already experiencing and, crucially, communication that perhaps isn’t working. 
Dr Powell says: "If you’re already struggling to talk about what you want and need, if you’re already struggling to advocate for your needs or have those needs met, non-monogamy is unlikely to fix those problems – aside from the fact that it’s likely to end your relationship."

If you're already struggling to talk about what you want and need, if you're already struggling to advocate for your needs or have those needs met, non-monogamy is unlikely to fix those problems.

Dr Liz Powell
For Sam, who is 30 years old and non-binary, opening up their relationship did bring it to a very necessary end. After half a decade without sex, and a partner who wouldn’t discuss it, they had given their then-partner an ultimatum: they could open up the relationship so Sam could get their sexual needs met or they could break up. Opening up their relationship "revealed all the weaknesses, all the communication flaws and the fact it was abusive". So they broke up.
Sam realised that while they had initially approached polyamory for the "wrong" reasons, they still wanted it. Their monogamous relationship hadn’t been working and opening it up didn’t fix that – but it did help them understand what they actually want from a relationship. 
Twenty-nine-year-old Ellen and her now-fiancé had discussed ethical non-monogamy for a while before they opened up their relationship, after she confessed that she had a crush on someone in her running group. Her fiancé told her it was totally fine and that he also had crushes on people sometimes. When they initially opened their relationship, they tried to enforce strict boundaries, like 'no one we know' or 'no sleepovers'. "I found myself going back and asking if we could actually modify those rules," says Ellen.
While these rules may seem to make sense, they run up against the fact that people are, well, people. Human hearts are hard to predict and even harder to control. Lots of couples approach non-monogamy like this, thinking that if they create the right rules then they won’t fall in love. The reality is far messier. 
Dr Powell explains that strict rules about how people should and shouldn’t feel usually end up creating more conflict. "All it does is create new ways to have fights about people having feelings that are totally reasonable and normal feelings to have when you’re interacting with other people."

Non-monogamy is not a wand you can wave and magically fix your relationship. It might just put it under a microscope and expose all the cracks in it.

In looking for a quick fix, people can seriously underestimate just how much work goes into opening up a relationship. Despite the tropes we see whenever polyamory gets any visibility, most non-monogamous people are not constantly attending sex parties full of super attractive people. It’s less throuples and threesomes, and much more coordinating calendars and having hard conversations about everyone’s emotions.  
Both Ellen and Sam put in a huge amount of practical work to maintain their relationships. Ellen also has a secondary partner (a secondary relationship is one where, either by intent or by circumstance, the partners have less involvement than their primary relationship) and her open relationship with her fiancé really forces them to communicate. "We check in with each other constantly and plan our own date nights – particularly if we've been busy. And while that could mean with other people, more often it means with work or life stuff that bogs us down."
Dr Powell says that monogamy and non-monogamy take the same skills and require the same things in order to function well – it’s just that in non-monogamy you can’t assume that the normal 'scripts' of a relationship apply. You spend more time communicating out of necessity, because you can’t fall back on society’s defaults about what your relationship 'should' look like. 
Kelvin, who is 23 years old and a trans guy, has had to do a lot of personal growth to make his current non-monogamous relationship work. "I had to learn that it's okay to be insecure and while nobody else owes you comfort about it, you should feel able to communicate and talk about it in your relationships."
For Ellen, opening up her relationship gave her a lens to explore her own vulnerabilities and look at what’s important to her in a relationship. She’s learned how to handle rejection – something you don’t expect to feel the sting of when you’re in a long-term partnership – and the difference between privacy and secrecy. 
While she likes to share her experiences as a way of feeling close to her fiancé, he prefers not to talk about the other people he’s seeing. She knows that this doesn’t mean he’s hiding anything from her: he’s allowed to process his feelings internally and he has different ways of building intimacy with her. "I'm learning to accept that I can't be everything for my partner, just like he's not everything for me. And that's okay! He's still my favourite person, and I'm thrilled to be building a life together with him." 
When non-monogamy works for people, all of this work is worth it, but in the process of normalising non-monogamous relationships, portrayals of polyamory often gloss over all of this work. And as Sam, who currently has two nesting partners and a girlfriend, points out – they miss out the laundry.
Even if you’re prepared to do the work (and the laundry), non-monogamy might not be for you. In certain non-monogamous circles, you find the idea that polyamory is somehow a ‘morally superior’ relationship structure. It’s not; it’s just a different relationship structure, one that may or may not work for you. However, there can be a sense – especially in queer spaces – that polyamory is the ‘right’ thing to do.
This is what Kelvin felt when he and his partner opened up the first relationship he was in. He says that they dove into it without understanding the difficulties that come with navigating non-monogamy. Having been socialised in online queer spaces, polyamory was considered a completely legitimate choice (which is excellent), but as a trans person who wanted to date other trans people, it also felt like the only choice Kelvin was given (which is not). 
Associating non-monogamous relationships with always being the secondary partner and being held at an emotional distance, Kelvin wasn’t sure polyamory was for him. In his current relationship, however, his nesting partner really puts in the work to ensure he doesn't feel replaceable or disposable. This time around, pursuing non-monogamy feels a lot more deliberate for Kelvin. "I'm doing it because I want to date and see all the people I'm dating and seeing, not because it feels like I have to choose between letting my partner date other people and not having a partner." 
It’s easy to hope that opening up a relationship will fix your problems. It’s much harder to look at what might be causing those problems and unpacking the assumptions you hold about relationships and how they’re not serving you. Dr Powell suggests that it’s unhelpful to think of opening up your relationship as adding more people to it. Instead, you should think about it as breaking down everything you know about your relationship and building it up from scratch. 
In fact, whether or not you want a non-monogamous relationship, negotiating exactly what your relationship is going to look like – rather than relying on the scripts we’re sold as to how relationships ‘should’ look – will probably help you. 
Non-monogamy is not a wand you can wave and magically fix your relationship. It might just put it under a microscope and expose all the cracks in it. Polyamory is incredible, sure, but it’s incredible because of the vulnerable and intimate ways we connect to other people. And because we’re human, with hearts that rarely behave exactly as we’d like them to and feelings that won’t always do what they’re told, those connections require as much work and investment as monogamous ones.

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