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What To Do When One Partner Wants An Open Relationship & The Other Doesn't

May 2, 2019

In an ideal world, our desires perfectly line up with our partners. We enjoy the same food, get engrossed in the same movies, and have the same sex drive and social energy. That's not the world we live in. As my meat-loving, endlessly-snacking self sits across the table from my paleo, vegan, intermittent-fasting lover, I am reminded we live in a different kind of ideal world where the choices are endless. From our diets to cellphones to neighborhoods, we get a wide choice of options about pretty much everything.

As the alternatives are becoming more apparent, we are also becoming more aware of our options around our relationship structures. Monogamy is pretty much optional these days. More and more people are not only learning about ethical non-monogamy, but they are considering it for themselves. In the best-case scenario, both parties in the relationship are equally curious about exploring non-monogamy together. But that is not always available. As one partner might rejoice in their newfound freedom, the other partner might find themselves awake in their nightmare.

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Non-monogamy mismatch is a common paradigm—but fear not. Although it can be very disruptive and scary, non-monogamy mismatch does not necessarily signal the end of a relationship. There are healthy ways to approach this dilemma and design a relationship that accommodates the desires of all the parties involved.

Clarify the underlying motivations and resistance.

A good place to start is to understand why people are opting for monogamy or non-monogamy. Often when the topic of non-monogamy is discussed and especially if there is a mismatch, it can feel very personal. Being clear about motivations and openly addressing concerns of all parties over multiple conversations are likely to go toward alleviating feelings of "Am I not enough?" or "Why don't you trust me?" and bring home that it's not personal at all.

For some people monogamy or non-monogamy is an orientation on par with sexual orientation. It's not something that's malleable or by choice. I once heard Eli Sheff, sociologist and author of Polyamorists Next Door and When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous, tell a story of a woman who describes trying to be monogamous as "trying to wear a shoe that was three sizes too small. Maybe she could cram her foot in there, but she couldn't walk very far, and it would be excruciatingly painful."

For others, monogamy or non-monogamy is a choice. There are many reasons people might want to stick to the monogamous structure. It certainly comes with a strong sense of security, safety, simplicity, and stability, as well as social acceptance. Others may choose non-monogamy because they have a desire for multiplicity, sharing erotic energy, or exploring broader sexual orientation.

Similarly, it is worth exploring the resistance to the alternate structure. Someone might prefer a monogamous structure because they have a fear of abandonment, and so the idea of non-monogamy is petrifying to them. Or someone may want to explore non-monogamy because they have a history of cheating, and they don't want to repeat that kind of behavior. Knowing the source of the mismatch often indicates how to deal with it.

Consider a compromise.

The next step is to decide if there is a way to compromise based on the motivation and the resistance for the chosen structure. For example, if a partner wants to be monogamous because they are afraid of being left behind, can the couple explore non-monogamy together by either dating together or attending sex parties? This allows both members of the couple to be involved in the process without leaving anyone out. Or if a partner wants to revel in erotic energy and enjoy flirting, can they satisfy that desire by flirting and long make-out sessions without necessarily having sex or starting a whole other relationship?

Other aspects of compromise can be the degree of emotional entanglement, sexual engagement, or intellectual openness. For example, a couple can agree that their style of non-monogamy consists of casual sex only, strictly with condoms, and they don't share details with one another.

A good rule of thumb is not to seek symmetry but aim for synergy. Not everyone needs the same thing at the same time. Consider a table full of food and people arriving at this table at various degrees of hunger. If everyone felt they had to eat the same amount of food, the chances are nobody will walk away feeling good. But instead, if people ate whatever they needed to satisfy their hunger at the time—which may look like a plate full of food for some people, while others go for a forkful—the chances are everyone will walk away satisfied.

The key here is the table full of food. Make sure as you try to solve any kind of mismatch, you remain connected to everyone's needs: need for attention, need for recognition, need for affection, and whatever else. Making sure these needs are mutually satisfied will enable compromising, creative problem-solving, and agreements to come easier.

If you are not sure where to start or are unclear about what options are available to you, you may want to work with a relationship coach who specializes in non-monogamy. A good coach can support you with both the emotional pain points (such as jealousy) as well as the practical obstacles (like scheduling).

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A word of warning here. All these compromises and agreements require a genuine good faith effort to get to a common place where everyone's needs are met. The idea is not to impose arbitrary rules on one person to curtail their exploration, nor is it to coerce the other party to an extent that they give up and go along with something that makes them feel deeply uncomfortable or hurt. In such cases, ultimately one party will not be a willing participant.

These situations can arise if there is a power imbalance in the relationship, which can be emotional (one person loves the other more), financial (one party relies on the other financially), or social (one person gets more dates than the other). If these dynamics are in play, as sad as it might be, you might want to consider that there might be an incompatibility issue. If that's the case, ending that relationship in a conscious and caring way may not only save you a ton of heartache but also absolve those you get involved with of your relationship dysfunction.

There can also be instances where the mismatch is not resolved, and the relationship continues with the person seeking non-monogamy not fulfilling their desire. This can work in some relationships; in others, it can end up being too much of a sacrifice over the long term and breed resentment. It often depends on how closely the person identifies with non-monogamy. If they feel that it's an orientation, it can feel very stifling and separates them from their sense of self. This can cause internal turmoil and mental and emotional health issues, which will eventually cause disconnection and affect the relationship. But if it's more of a curiosity, the sacrifice may not feel so burdensome. With some resilience, the relationship can thrive.

It's possible to fulfill everyone's needs.

Taking your time is key. It's inevitable there will be tension as you embark on these conversations. Making sure there are some fun date nights and social time planned during these times of discussion will keep the mood up and ease the tension. It's easy to get tunnel vision on the problems you are trying to solve and lose sight on the joys and delights of your relationship. Don't forget to celebrate each other and your relationship as it is today.

If your relationship is healthy, you continuously work on communication and emotional regulation, and there's willingness to explore all around, the chances are you can figure out a way to design a relationship that fulfills everyone's needs.

In my case, mastering a couple of great paleo, vegan recipes for snacks and agreeing Sunday brunch is a great excuse to take a break from fasting has done wonders for my relationship.

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Effy Blue
Effy Blue

Effy Blue is a relationship expert specializing in non-monogamy and other alternative structures. As the founder of Relationship by Design, Blue's coaching philosophy abandons the one-size-fits-all relationship paradigm prescribed by society and advocates instead that relationships be consciously designed to support the needs of those in it.

In addition to working one-on-one with clients, Blue runs a community organization focused on challenging the status quo in love, sex, and relationships. Curious Fox helps people learn, connect, and thrive through events, online community, and the Curious Fox Podcast. Blue is also the creator of Play Party Etiquette, a book and workshop designed to demystify the exciting world of sex parties. Covering everything from what to wear to how to express boundaries and desires, Play Party Etiquette is a practical guide for all those interested in exploring sex parties.