When to open or close a relationship

My question is how to separate times where we are monogamous and times where we are not? Me and my boyfriend flew right into open relationship, and now I’m have doubts. I think I only want us to be having sexual encounters (no romantic) and I want us to do it together. We were texting women we found attractive and who were open to having sex with us, but I found we were constantly texting them everyday all day. Even when we put away our phones for a meal or a movie, it just felt like we were gonna go right back to talking to them. I’ve heard there are rules like “only on vacation” or something like that. Is it realistic to say we only download dating apps or go to swinging clubs like once a month and then stay monogmish the entire rest of the month? It’s also awkward because I feel like I got my boyfriends hopes up even though this entire new type of relationship was brought up from me. And now I’m changing the “rules”. I know he’ll understand but I have self guilt that I’m disappointing him even if he’s completely okay with it.

It’s not uncommon for people who begin in an open relationship to seek out ways to enact control, mostly because of the fears they have of losing a relationship they already have. While I do think people can absolutely desire to have sexual experiences as a couple (threesomes are fun!) without that being a desire for control, in this specific case, I think it would be helpful for you to explore why it is you desire so much control over the level of “open” your relationship is.

Generally speaking, wanting to restrict partners and yourself to only having sexual encounters and attempting to divorce the sexual from the romantic (rather than this just being a natural way either of you relate to others) comes from fear. The idea behind it is that if you prevent your partner from being romantically involved with others, then you will prevent them from falling in love with someone else and leaving you. But the truth is that people fall in love with others with or without having any sex with them. Monogamy and the rules around it do not stop people from falling in love with people other than their partners and leaving the person they are with.

It becomes especially difficult because the line between a very deep and caring friendship and a relationship is not always that clear and romantic feelings can and do develop over time. And sometimes people develop romantic feelings without even realising it until it’s “too late”. Attempting to control either of your romantic feelings is not going to work out and is only going to cause incredible stress on both of you. Not to mention, if you have had previous experience of neglect from a partner, cheating or being dumped while monogamous, you already know within you that you can’t prevent someone from leaving you.

In response to this, especially if one comes from a background where you were neglected or not given proper attention or support in your childhood, your brain often, to help you survive, convinces you that you can prevent someone from leaving you by acting in certain ways. Now, obviously, we can absolutely treat our partners like trash, disrespect them, and that will mean they may not stick around. But ultimately you can’t completely control whether or not your partner remains in love with you. You cannot believe that you have the power to prevent partners from leaving you without also blaming yourself for all of the times in the past when you may have been rejected or dumped.

If you and your partner naturally just want sexual interactions with others in the form of threesomes together, that’s fine. But it doesn’t sound like this is a natural choice for both of you. It sounds like you’re both attempting to control — or perhaps just you — the circumstances instead of letting go. Talk about what you might do if you notice you’re beginning to catch feelings. It might be helpful for you to explore my 101 article, my 102 article or even my book together to think about what you actually want from non-monogamy outside of your fears. Once you’re able to get that in place, you will be able to let go a little bit. Rules will not be so strict in this sense and you will be able to find and compromise on what works for both of you.

I hope this helps, and good luck!

Comments from the therapist

I agree with the pieces about fear and control. It also sounds like there may be a concern about containment too, like making sure there's breathing space for the existing relationship in and among the sexy new flirting and connections. And I do think it's valid to set functional limits on times when we are fully present with the person we're with, and times when we're interacting with others.

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