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My partner and I are in our 30's, have been together for three years and are now considering opening up our relationship. We have a good sex life and love each other a lot, but both of us crave physical contact with other men. What advice do you have to help us do this in a way that sustains our long-term commitment to one another?
First, let me say that having discussions with your partner about an open relationship before either of you act upon your desires to be sexual with other men is the first step in creating a plan that will minimize problems down the road that could lead to the destruction of your relationship. Too many couples, straight and gay, find themselves in an open relationship before they have both considered all the implications and risks and before they have agreed to mutually acceptable terms of the arrangement. So I commend you both for exploring this together openly before moving ahead.
There are many different ways that couples create non-monogamous relationships. This can range from a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy to complete openness, with many variations in between. In my experience, couples that negotiate the terms of the arrangement openly and honestly before having sex with others outside of their primary relationship have the best success in protecting their relationships while meeting their desires to have sexual contact with others.
The first consideration needs to be a rigorously honest self-reflection about whether or not each of you truly want to have an open relationship. Very often, one partner in the relationship agrees to an open arrangement out of fear of losing the other if he doesn't go along with it, which will likely lead to serious conflicts later on.
There are some very important relationship qualities that must exist for an open relationship to be fulfilling to both partners, and to avoid jeopardizing the viability of the primary relationship. These include honesty, trust, respect, and safety. If these qualities exist, the couple can then enter into a negotiation about what the mutually acceptable terms of the open arrangement are. Issues to consider are disclosure, acceptable sexual partners, sexual practices, safer sex, location of sexual encounters, boundaries around sexual and emotional relations with others, and whether or not both need to be present when engaging in sex with others. Most important to include in these negotiations is what the consequences will be if the agreed upon rules are broken.
I also encourage you to consider utilizing the support of a therapist to help facilitate the negotiations. It is important to choose a therapist that has a sex-positive attitude about non-monogamy but also a realistic understanding of the risks of an open relationship and the capacity to engage you both in open conversations about them.
Open relationships can be very gratifying to both partners when created in a way that preserves the dignity of each partner and allows each to express their own integrity. On the other hand, opening up a relationship that doesn't have a solid foundation can be the beginning of a painful ending to a partnership. I wish you both the best in working through this very delicate decision and negotiation process.
Alan Irgang, LCSW is a psychotherapist and “dating coach” in private practice in Chicago. He is also on the faculty of the Loyola University School of Social Work where he teaches graduate level courses in Human Sexuality. Alan has been in private practice since 1998 and has been facilitating groups for singles about dating and relationships for six years. Check out his website www.alanirgang.com for more information about his practice and his upcoming seminars for singles. Questions may be submitted to Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org; all private information will be kept confidential.
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