There comes a time in the course of many romantic relationships when one party feels strongly compelled to have sex with someone other than their beloved. It is, dare I say, normal. Ideally, all adults have practice controlling their impulses, so it’s not the end of the world to occasionally commit adultery in your heart. There are a lot of sexy human beings in the world, and that’s cause for celebration, not consternation. The occasional private daydream or fantasy certainly won’t destroy a loving union.
But sometimes the “do it” drumbeat is too loud and strong to be placated by mere imagining. If you find yourself in the grips of overwhelming wayward urges, you have several options: suck it up and pretend it doesn’t exist; end the relationship; act on it without telling your partner beforehand (or maybe ever); or discussing it with your partner in the hopes of finding a mutually bearable resolution.
“Open” relationships are increasingly common and making some headway in terms of social acceptance, but they’re mostly still regarded as immature and doomed to fail. This need not be the case. Plenty of committed couples throughout history have managed to accommodate non-monogamous sexual appetites, and you could count yourselves among them if you go about it with kindness and intelligence. This path is superior to one of secrets and lies. And think of it this way: Most romantic relationships are doomed to failure. If you’re going to go out, might as well go out with a …. well, you know.
Do a little self-reflection. It’s useful to know what makes sex with someone else appealing to you. It could be old-fashioned curiosity and wide-ranging horniness, or it could be that your partner and you are having sex too infrequently, or that your partner won’t try the activities you find yourself drawn to. Be clear about what you’re hoping to get out of sex with someone else: pure pleasure and excitement? Self-validation? Escape? Understanding your own motivations will make navigating this a lot easier.
Have The Talk. This is on you to introduce sensitively and responsibly, so you’ve got to bring it up like a big boy—no constant “jokes” to try to provoke your partner to do the heavy lifting. (“Man, those spies on The Americans have to have so much sex with other people! Wouldn’t it be crazy if WE were having sex with other people? Ha ha ... ha.”) A simple, genuinely curious, “Do you ever think about having sex with other people?” should get the ball rolling.
Don’t do this right after you’ve had sex with each other. Don’t do it when you’re about to have sex, either. (Other examples of the worst possible times to bring this up would be at a dinner party, in the car to pick up the kids, or over the phone.) Be somewhere private without distractions. Don’t sit across from each other; it might sound corny, but that’s adversarial. Try side-by-side, maybe even touching at the hip or holding hands. Physical reassurance will help.
It’s okay if you’re nervous. If you care about your partner’s feelings, this will probably be a little scary. But if maintaining your current relationship and having sex with other people are both high priorities for you, addressing this head on shouldn’t be any scarier than the alternative of ruining your relationship through deception while you cheat.
Make your case. Explain why non-monogamy is appealing to you at the moment. Maybe your partner is on medication that’s eradicated his or her sex drive. Maybe you’ve been spending long stints away from home for work. Maybe you were a virgin when you got married and you feel like you missed out on experiencing something important. If your desire isn’t circumstantial, you should say so. Your partner deserves to know this isn’t something that can be “solved” by situational changes. (For instance, if you know you never want to be in a monogamous relationship again, don’t pretend this is something you’re going to “get out of your system.”)
It’s kind to affirm the following, assuming it’s true:
* You’re still extremely attracted to your partner and desire sex with them.
* You very much want your relationship to continue.
* You do not expect the arrangement to only work in your favor.
This last part is important. Only a scumbag thinks they should have carte blanche to fool around with others but their partner shouldn’t.
I’ve found that many if not most men underestimate their wives and girlfriends. They’re convinced the women they’re with don’t want to have sexual adventures together—and aren’t open to experimenting with role-play or fetishes—but they’ve never truly tried to ascertain if that’s true. Sexual proclivities are a sensitive topic, and many of us are extra-sensitive to rejection in this regard. But give your partner a chance to rise to the occasion. Maybe she too would benefit from intimacy with other partners. You’re about to find out!
Your partner can say no. You may have hyped yourself up for this moment so much—and so thoroughly detailed all the benefits and rational arguments in favor of screwing other people—that you can scarcely conceive of hearing a “no.” But your partner has the right to veto this, even for reasons you think are illogical or unfair. If this is non-negotiable for you, you in turn have the right to end the relationship.
What it looks like in action. If your partner is ready to give this a try, it may take some trial and error to figure out what feels best for each of you. I know couples that are open in theory but rarely act on it, just as I know couples for whom finding other people to bang is a huge part of their lives. The most important ground rule is to communicate with each other about what you each expect and want, and then tailor your behavior accordingly.
A good starting point is to figure out when, where, and how you see this taking place. Do you want to go to swingers clubs together? Does this only happen when you’re away on a work trip? Do you use your main phone number and email address to correspond with hookups? Are certain acts not ok? Who is eligible, and who is off-limits? (Mutual friends? Mutual acquaintances?) Maybe articulating this feels insultingly basic to you—“Of course we’re not going to hook up with friends!”—but this is one arena in which extreme clarity will only help. You’re trying to sketch out boundaries that a) maintain the primacy of your relationship and b) minimize whatever makes your partner (or you) feel most threatened and insecure.
Speaking of insecurity, you’ll probably be dealing with a lot of it, both coming from your partner and from you. Speaking from personal experience, I’ll give two pieces of advice. The first is that it will probably make you feel incredibly vulnerable to listen to your partner talk about their hookups, but if they really love you, they will talk about it in a way that ultimately makes you feel closer to one another. The second is that while communication is everything, you don’t have to communicate everything. It’s okay to not want or need to hear dirty details every time, or any time. I think it’s best to take an “always tell if you’re asked” policy. If your partner wants to hear about it, don’t withhold or lie; if they don’t want to hear about it, don’t force them to listen.
The STI angle. I’m going to risk incurring a lot of self-righteous wrath, but this must be said: Straight men and women sometimes fall back on claims of concerns about STIs when they want to give themselves the moral high ground and/or end a conversation about non-monogamy. That’s exploiting stigma, and it’s a nasty tactic. Yes, even safer sex carries risk of transmitting infection and, when applicable, might result in pregnancy. Condoms can break, and some contagions dwell on the skin not covered by condoms. So one member of a relationship having sex with someone outside the relationship could possibly cause some health-related issues. But STIs are not a reflection on someone’s character, nor are they punishment for promiscuity. We’re all vectors of disease just by virtue of being alive. You could get a staph infection from your phone, or bring home Legionnaires’ disease after your trip to New York. But if your partner insists their fear of STIs is too great for non-monogamy to be viable, refer to the earlier point about the veto.
Otherwise, educate yourselves on the best forms of protection and the symptoms of STIs, and agree upon a protocol to use with your other partners and each other. Maybe now you use condoms together when you didn’t before; that’s cool! Condoms are excellent tools, and there’s no shame in using them past the early-courtship stage. Get tested—both of you, not just one. And stick to what you agree upon unless you revise it together. (I know non-monogamous couples who have unprotected sex with their extra-relationship fuck buddies because they trust them. That makes me nervous, but their sexual choices aren’t about me. As long as everyone involved is comfortable, rock on.)
Common sense still applies. If you’re hot for a work colleague or a fellow parent who attends every PTA meeting, and you think you finally have a pass to make a move, you’re looking for trouble. All the normal instincts toward self-preservation in the public realms of career, reputation, family, and community should be respected if you want to protect yourself and your family from a world of hurt.
Exercise caution with online outlets. Even if you’re in a big city, don’t use or send pictures of your face if you know your marriage’s openness would cause a scandal. (I realize that makes meeting up with someone a lot harder, but you don’t want to end up in a Gawker post.) If your circles are progressive enough and/or you’re rich enough that you probably won’t be circumstantially impacted by gossip online or off, lucky you. You can plaster your face all over.
Don’t be insufferable about it. Okay already, we get it, “poly” folks: You’re really into your liberated multi-love lifestyle. That’s wonderful. Go in peace. But it’s tiresome for anyone to make their sexuality the sum of their identity, and to foist constant conversations about those sexual and romantic inclinations on everyone else. I hope you and your partner are blissful with your non-monogamy, and that you enjoy that heady joy for all it’s worth. But don’t turn into the sex equivalent of veganism and proselytize about your superior lifestyle at every opportunity. It’s fine for other people to be happily monogamous, just as it’s fine for you not to be.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
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