The Dark Side Of Open Relationships No One Tells You About

Photo: Sara Canton

Sara Canton had been with her boyfriend, Tim, for four years when he proposed something she didn't expect. "I want to be in an open relationship," he said timidly. "A lot of our friends are doing it, and I think it could be good for us."

Sara wasn't totally opposed to the idea. It was 2012, and many of her Bay Area-dwelling peers, some of them married, had hopped on the open relationship bandwagon. A kid's yoga teacher, Sara considered herself an open-minded free spirit, so she agreed to give it a try. "Something felt off, but I guess I just decided it was OK. People in our community were doing it, and I really didn't want to lose Tim. When it came down to it, it felt like a no-brainer."

How an open relationship works.

Sara and Tim were considered "primaries." This meant that while they were each other's primary partner, they had full freedom to sleep with other people, and sometimes they engaged in threesomes or went to sex parties. "Part of it was empowering. We would go to a party together, but I also had the freedom to hook up with whomever I wanted. I remember we would talk about it and plot exactly what we were going to do together, and that was kind of exciting."

Another thing that played a huge role in her open relationship? Drugs and alcohol. "Sometimes we’d go hook up with someone together while high, and it just felt gross and unhealthy," she says. "It was like I was using substances to cope with something I didn't really want to do. But it seemed that everyone I knew in the polyamorous community was drunk or high all the time, so I kept telling myself it must be normal."

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When dishonesty and emotional pain play a role.

Sara and Tim had a rule. They could have sex with anyone they wanted, but they had to be honest with each other. It didn't take Sara long to realize that Tim was hiding things from her, and he only confessed to just how many women he was sleeping with when she confronted him. "I have to be honest, I did get an STD from him—that was terrible. There was just so much lying going on all the time."

It got to a point where every time Tim had a relationship with another woman, Sara's emotional pain became physical. "I felt like I was being stabbed in the heart. It felt physically painful. The more drugs I would take, or the more drinking I would do, the better I would be able to deal with the pain."

She knew she was losing more and more of herself as the months and years went on, but she was still deeply in love with Tim and didn't want to lose him. "I kept reminding myself that it was normal and that everyone was doing it. I could do it too. I just kept thinking, 'What's wrong with me?'"

Finding the strength to let go.

Craving solitude and mental clarity, Sara enrolled in a 10-day silent meditation retreat in an effort to separate herself from the situation. The retreat did its job, and by the time she returned, she felt ready to end things with Tim for good.

But Tim quickly pulled her back in, promising things would be different. And then he proposed they hook up with another couple he had met online within a few days. "Again, I kept saying, 'OK, I can do this. I can. So we met up with this couple and it felt fine at first—of course we got high. But within a few minutes I felt that intense stabbing in my heart again.

"And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this Buddhist calendar in the bedroom we were in. It was open to a page with a picture of an egret on it. There was this quote underneath it that said, 'Fly with the wind, but don't fly adrift.' For two years, I had been flying adrift, and I was done. I told him to stop. This was the hardest moment. But ultimately, I was finally speaking up for myself. My intuition was just so strong that I had to let him go. I moved out the next day."

Staying grounded.

Since separating herself from her destructive relationship, Sara has moved up to Portland, Oregon, where she lives by herself in a small studio apartment, takes regular hikes among the tall trees, and teaches kids' yoga. She's still working to fully let go of the alcohol and drug habit she developed while in her relationship with Tim and attends weekly meetings with Refuge Recovery, which takes a Buddhist approach to recovery. She has now been single for nearly three years, which is the longest she's been on her own since she was 14—and she's never been happier.

"I wasn't living my truth, and that's so clear to me now," she says. "I'm sure open relationships can be good for some people, but mine wasn't. I think there's usually one person who really wants that, and the other one doesn't. I'm a monogamist at heart, and that's OK."

Shortly after ending her relationship with Tim, Sara got an egret tattooed on her arm as an important reminder. "I love flying with the flock, and I still consider myself very open-minded. But that's the last time I'll fly so adrift."

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