Can Open Relationships Help or Harm Couples in Trouble?
Monogamy is not for everyone. That’s a fact. Yet, we live in a society where our grandparents, the media, our friends, and colleagues expect us to buy into a shared experience. You have one partner, and you stay with them… until you don’t. While you’re together, your eyes, thoughts, and hands cannot veer—no matter how rocky your relationship might be at the moment.
In this kind of relationship, you’re monogamous. You can only have one partner at a time. And if you stray, it’s bad. It could ruin your marriage, relationship with your children, place in the community, and friendships!
In sex therapy work, now more than ever, we see individuals reflect on their relationships, past and present—only to discover that maybe the “old” way doesn’t work. Maybe what’s “natural” or “right” for most people, isn’t the best choice for them?
Relationships are hard. They ebb and flow, change with time, kids, work, success, failure, sickness, and health. In recent years, the perspective of non-monogamous relationships has started to shift. More and more couples are embracing non-monogamy as an alternative to traditional closed relationships. However, just like any other romantic or sexual relationship, non-monogamous relationships can have pitfalls and trials. As therapists and counselors, we have to help our clients and patients decide whether considering an open relationship would help or harm their situation.
While the idea of an option relationship isn't radical to us therapists, the idea can still be a fringe subject in many settings. There are endless examples of open relationships across media today, specifically on Youtube, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for every couple. Open relationships can absolutely work, but only if all parties practice proper communication and learn to manage jealousy and other potentially relationship-damaging emotions/reactions. In that way, it's exactly like any other relationship!
Let’s take a look at a few different scenarios and the challenges that those in open relationships might face. But before we dive in, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. When talking about monogamy in this post, we’re referencing CNM, a consensually non-monogamous relationship. This type of partnership might not be for everyone, but it is a legitimate choice that can be the foundation of wonderful, healthy, and fulfilling relationships!
One or both partners are non-consensually non-monogamous. What we often refer to as “cheating.”
When working with couples who are dealing with infidelity, you have to figure out if they knew being in a CNM relationship was ever possible. If this couple had been educated on how to nurture a healthy CNM relationship, would they need help? Sometimes, we have to guide them in changing their narrative and unlearning what society tells them is “right.”
Why are they “cheating?” Is it lack of excitement? Could knowing their partner is being honest and spending time with another person bring zest back to their relationship?
It has to start with both partners defining their boundaries. If “cheating” is absolutely unacceptable in their world, maybe flipping the script will help them see their relationship in a new light.
Jealousy, insecurities, and resentment seem to stifle a couple’s growth.
No matter what agreement is made beforehand, no matter how vigorously each partner claims they’re ready (or willing) to try an open relationship, that doesn’t mean control will be maintained.
If there’s a foundation built on jealousy and insecurities, an open relationship could blow the doors off the whole thing! There’s no guarantee partners can keep each aspect of their new partnerships compartmentalized. And there’s certainly no promise that possessiveness and attachment issues won’t exacerbate. In short: Things could get even messier.
The couple is not communicative or psychologically secure.
Individuals who suffer from depression, narcissism, addiction, trauma, abuse, and other mental health challenges may be structurally incapable of having a healthy open relationship.
Couples have to be ok with disappointment and frustration. And they must know that jealousy comes with the program. One partner might feel secure in the open relationship, while the other is left miserable. That’s a reality they both have to be crystal clear about—because no amount of transparency can combat pain.
In just a few examples, it’s quite easy to see how complicated navigating an open relationship can be for both partners. It’s our job to create a safe, nurturing space for the discussion. Nothing more. Like most aspects of this line of work, it’s all about communication!
It isn’t just about what our clients and patients think, but how they think about sex that can make the difference between enjoying themselves or being upset. Sign up for the AASECT-Approved Blended Learning Program, and let’s focus on the automatic negative thoughts and sexual schemas that are held by people about their sexuality—including helping them navigate the potential challenges of CNM relationships.
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