How My First Open Relationship Helped Me Figure Out What Counts
Margaret entered an open relationship after a new medication for Crohn’s Disease initially suppressed her libido. It required transparency and communication, but that open relationship provided her with a blueprint of what she wanted from relationships in the future.
In my twenties, sex was about social power and self-validation, though I wasn’t aware of it. Many of the men I slept with took my power from me and tanked my self-worth. It became an exciting yet detrimental game where the participants competed against each other in an attempt to gain power over the other. I thought that once I had the power I would win the meaningful and monogamous relationship I had been promised by Disney. Instead, whether I won or lost, the game would end with me worse-for-wear. It wasn’t until my late twenties, after I experienced a peak in terrible relationships, that I finally exhausted all my romantic energies. I no longer had the wherewithal to continue forming relationships with such a defective method. I had to do something different.
A couple of years ago, I entered my first ever open relationship. This experience helped me realize that in order to have a healthy relationship, the struggle for power must be removed from the equation entirely. My partner and I loved each other very much. He dated and sometimes had sex with other women. I didn’t see other men because at the time I had no interest in sex (I’ll get back to this), and I was focused on my career. We were honest and communicated well; most importantly, we loved each other enough that our priority was to not hurt one another.
It was the first healthy relationship I had since high school. However, since we were not the norm, some of my friends and family accused me of pretending to be happy while secretly suffering. If I were still twenty, this would likely have been the case, but the truth was that I could never be happy trying to fit my desires into the wrong paradigm.
My partner and I knew from the beginning we were not compatible for a long-term monogamous relationship. He wanted children someday and I did not. We never fell in-love with each other either. My definition of in love changed once I hit thirty. What I used to think now sounds exhausting to me. My working definition sounds more like a weather report: to be in love is to feel general contentment with scattered moments of euphoria. Though I felt general contentment with him, there was no euphoria.
We were aware of our incompatibilities and the individual needs we had that couldn’t be met by our relationship. Instead of wasting energy trying to change one another in order to satisfy all of our needs, we sought other people to provide what we desired. And sex isn’t the only need to which I am referring.
A friend had recommended a book called The Ethical Slut which is an educational reference on non-normative relationships. The most important piece of information I extracted from the text was that the script for monogamy has been written and well established for a long time, yet no script exists for open relationships, so each relationship has to write its own. When my partner and I began writing our script, we had a few missteps that had to be worked through. It was hard, but no harder than the challenges of any monogamous relationship.
When we initially started seeing each other, I began a new medication for my Crohn’s disease. During that first year, the drug suppressed my libido. Neither my mind nor my body were interested in sex with my partner, nor anyone else for that matter. Since his sex drive was fully functional we faced sexual incompatibility. I decided early on that if I did not feel the desire to have sex, then I would not perform for him. This created a tension between us. The eventual compromise, after many conversations, allowed him to find sexual satisfaction elsewhere.
The first time he slept with another woman, I did not handle it well and we broke up for a short time. We both knew our relationship had not run its course, though. The breakup lasted only a week or two and we started spending time together again. We had a series of conversations about what had happened. They were stressful at first because we weren’t able to resolve the issue, but eventually we figured it out.
I realized that it wasn’t the other woman that upset me. Rather it was something hurtful he had said to me before the act, about how my lack of sexual desire disqualified me from a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship with him. My part of the conflict was that my ego was easily hurt. My partner admitted that what he said was insensitive. As soon as our conversation arrived at this point, the issue was resolved and we were granted closure.
Our relationship evolved over the course of one year. At first I said I was OK if he dated other women, but as soon as he became physical with them our relationship would have to end. As we grew closer and closer and continued to communicate, I eventually graduated to being OK if he made out with other women. My request was that I needed all of the information. If he told me, broadly, who the woman was, what the status of their relationship was, and whether it affected our status, then I felt content. If he were to keep that information from me, my imagination would go to work, fabricating scenarios that would create tension. Once we became comfortable with that stage of our relationship, it wasn’t long before I felt OK with him having sex with other women.
My partner wasn’t slutting it up. There were two re-occurring women and a couple of ships-in-the-night. I remember when he told me he had sex with the same woman for the second or third time. He was still a little gun-shy because of our first incident. It was important to him that my feelings stayed unhurt. I told him that it didn’t bother me and my reaction was so quick and natural that I took a moment to understand it. I explained that I wasn’t worried about this woman because if their relationship was going to end our relationship it would have happened already, but our relationship was actually getting stronger.
I also became aware of why I didn’t feel jealous. I felt no inclination to make comparisons. If a woman is better than I am at something or has a more appealing quality it doesn’t matter, because she is still not me. After so many years of self-loathing I have become a very self-secure woman. I have accepted myself and my faults, and if I could improve at the price of being someone else I would pass without hesitation because there is no one else I’d rather be. Also, an important lesson I have learned over time is that things are not always about me. My partner’s other relationships had nothing to do with me as a person.
At one point I slept with another man, purely for the novelty, since I still did not have a sex drive. At that time, my partner was unable to find sex elsewhere and resented me for making myself available to someone other than him. We ended up resolving the tension through a two-stage argument. He thought the relationship was unequal because I was getting all of my needs met. What decided the matter was realizing that this was not the case. I have intellectual and emotional needs that he could not satisfy. We determined that we cannot change one another in order to satisfy our needs; rather we have to accept each other for what we are able to provide. This understanding was enough to relieve the pressure, improving our relationship once again.
Eventually, the relationship ran its course, but instead of a dramatic ending it was a peaceful transition into a valuable friendship.
My experience with an open relationship provided me with a blueprint of what I want my relationships to be like and how to navigate those unscripted waters, which does not exclude monogamy. I only want to engage in relationships with people who are excellent, honest communicators, who leave the struggle for power out of the equation, and who are secure in their own identity. I am currently in a wonderful, monogamous relationship with a man just like that, and we have ongoing conversations about opening things up some day. My open relationship experience helped me realize that I do not have to accept anything less.