One of the biggest misconceptions I hear shared a lot in the gay community is that non-monogamous relationships don’t work. Now I know that everyone has their own personal beliefs about what relationship structure (monogamous, non-monogamous, and everything in between) works for them. What I’m going to encourage you to do today is to keep an open mind about non-monogamy while we explore whether there may be something else at the core of relationships that don’t work.
Negotiating Your Monogamy or Non-Monogamy
Joe Kort, a well-regarded sex and relationship therapist in the community, often encourages all couples to negotiate their monogamy. What I like about this approach is that he’s setting a level playing field and encouraging all couples to talk more directly about their wants, needs and desires. For example, some monogamous couples have issues if their partner watches porn, and others are fine with that. Some monogamous couples have issues if their partner sends pictures to another guy online or flirts with someone outside the relationship. We think we know what monogamy looks like, but in fact it’s different for every unique couple. What I’m going to suggest is that it’s not the relationship structure that’s the problem, it’s a couples’ level of differentiation.
What is Differentiation?
One of my teachers, Ellyn Bader, has built an entire framework for working with couples around the idea of differentiation. What is differentiation? In a nutshell it’s a process that allows space within a relationship to explore both partner’s different wants, needs and desires more openly. Let’s use the example of monogamy versus non-monogamy to illustrate this concept.
Differentiation in Monogamy vs. Non-Monogamy
Take a couple, Rob and Steve, let’s say Rob wants monogamy and Steve wants an open relationship. On the surface it may seem like this is an impossible situation. But if you think about most relationships, there are impossible situations that come up all the time. Getting married, not getting married. Moving, not moving. The skill is learning how to talk about these differences in a way that doesn’t turn into an all-out screaming fight where nobody is listening and respecting the other person’s perspective. And the solution is not avoiding the topic all together.
Learning About Yourself First
One of the teachings that resonates with me in Ellyn Bader’s work is that before we can make space for our partner’s different perspectives, we first must fully understand our own. We must do the internal work of exploring our wants, needs and desires before we can even begin the process of sharing those with others.
Going to Problem Solving too Soon
Think about a couple that has been together for a really long time and they make the choice to open their relationship without really talking about why it’s important to either of them. Let’s assume they move to solving the problem too quickly, and the problem being their sex life. They are both horny and want sex, but they don’t know how to talk about this topic together and so they haven’t had sex together in months. So, they decide to open the relationship without understanding why the each want this more fully and it backfires. In our culture, many of us who were socialized as men were taught to solve problems quickly and move onto the next issue. Unfortunately, that’s not always what’s called for in a given situation and moving to problem solving without fully understanding the complexity of the situation can have very painful results.
There’s a Better Way
There are ways to learn to have difficult conversations with your partner. Below I offer some suggestions on how to begin to have these tough talks together. It may sound simple when I describe it, but know that these are challenging skills for anyone to learn and remember there’s no shame in getting support from a trained relationship professional.
1. Go Inside
As I described above, the first step in differentiation is going inside. Again, using the example of opening up your relationship, the first step would be exploring what you want sexually and otherwise from your current relationship. Are there things you are missing? Are there sexual parts of yourself that have been neglected? This is hard work, but the self-exploration sets the stage for having the more in-depth conversation in the future. And it’s not really fair to go into a tough conversation without doing the personal prep yourself first. It would be like showing up for a work presentation without having done any work on the slide deck. It probably won’t go very well.
2. Find a Good Time to Talk
Whenever you’re planning to have a tough conversation with your partner, I encourage you to be intentional about it. Don’t bring up the idea of opening up your relationship when you’re out at a bar with a bunch of other friends or right before you’re both about to fall asleep. Let your partner know you have something important to talk about and ask them when they have time to speak. It may seem obvious, but this is a step many couples tend to overlook.
3. It Probably Won’t be One and Done
It’s important to be realistic about your expectations for a given conversation. If you’re planning to talk about opening up your relationship, it probably won’t be a one and done conversation. Plan to have a series of talks about an important topic like this. Most couples will not be able to have a tough conversation like this in one sitting and then be searching for new partners online by the next day. When opening up a relationship, it’s important to go as slow as the most reserved person so that both people feel safe.
4. This Tough Talk May Bring up Lots of Feelings
It’s perfectly natural for a person to have all sorts of feelings after a tough conversation. With opening up a relationship there may be jealousy, excitement, relief, fear. All of these are valid and tough feelings don’t necessarily mean that the conversation is over, and the outcome will be bad. The more space and curiosity you can have for your partner’s feelings, the better.
5. Go Slow
The last tip I want to share about this topic is take your time. Like I said above, this will probably be a series of conversations. Give yourself plenty of time and space to find the best option for both of you. If you’re feeling pressured or impatient, be curious about that. There’s probably more to explore there.
As you can probably tell, from my perspective it’s not about the relationship structure you choose as a couple, it’s about the communication. These are skills many of us were not taught growing up, but it’s never too late to grow and evolve. And get support! There’s no shame in that.