What I Learned From One Year In An Open Relationship

by Mel Ciavucco

I once went on five dates in a week and my long-term boyfriend knew about all of them.

When I first heard about open relationships, I’d picture either middle-aged couples in swingers’ clubs or teenagers wanting to sleep around. Yet now there are lots of people trying out non-monogamy in their own way, it’s just that nobody’s talking about it much. It’s still just too taboo to chat about over a chocolate Hobnob at work with Sandra.

Fairy tales have a lot to answer for. The expectation to find “the one” and stay together forever is so ingrained in our lives.”‘Forever” can be a long time — people often live into their nineties, even past a hundred sometimes. We praise our grandparents’ generation for staying together no matter what, but we forget the lack of equality and opportunities in those times. Women simply had no option to leave; they were dependent on men. They had to stay together even if they didn’t even like each other. Sometimes, it seems like people would rather tolerate loveless marriages and have affairs rather than consider non-monogamy. The increasing divorce rates and popularity of dating sites that facilitate affairs proves that monogamy just isn’t working for some people.

Just over a year ago, my boyfriend and I decided to open our relationship. We’d been together seven years and we felt comfortable, but I was craving more excitement, so I was the one to initially suggest it. I work for a relationship counseling organization, so maybe seeing so many unhappy relationships made me want to see how I could strengthen my own. I often came across articles about polyamory and was intrigued. I started to consider how people have different friends for different things – some for watching movies, some for eating pizza with, some for glittery nights out dancing. I don’t expect to get everything from one friend, so how can I expect to get everything from one partner? In a similar way, I love pizza but I also love pasta. I have enough love for both, because as humans we’re capable of loving more than one thing simultaneously. Being polyamorous just means the same thing (but it takes a tad more effort than eating pizza). Despite the possible pre-conception that non-monogamy is all about casual encounters and free love, it does in fact involve a lot of commitment and dedication to your partner(s).

It was both scary and liberating when we first talked about having an open relationship. We discussed everything that could go wrong, that could go right, and recognized that open, honest communication was going to be the most important part. Continued open, honest communication. There didn’t seem to be one set way of doing an open relationship, so we made our own rules. For me, it felt like we were challenging societal norms and smashing the patriarchy together, and growing our relationship on our own terms.

It’s important to know what you want to get out of your open relationship. I wanted to have fun with other people. I later realised that could mean interesting chats and nothing more, or it could involve sex. So we made a few ground rules, just the obvious stuff – don’t shag close mutual friends, don’t bring anyone back to our place, always use condoms, but also know when to use discretion and leave out the nitty-gritty-sexy details!

I was eager to give Tinder a go, and I set up a few dates. My first date was a man in a long-term open marriage. Nothing happened sexually, but it was incredibly interesting to hear his experiences. On my next date — with a different guy — we kissed at the end. I felt a strange mix of guilt, excitement and elation. My partner and I talked about it when I got home, which was surprisingly easier than expected. I suspected I was probably going to have sex with that guy, so we prepared ourselves for that. My partner hadn’t started dating (he’s more introverted than me so it’s not something he finds enjoyable), so it was starting to feel rather one-sided, but he said he was happy that I was having a good time.

Having sex with somebody else after being with the same man for seven years was both amazing and terrifying. I felt comfortable with him and he knew my situation. I always say on my dating profiles that I’m in an open relationship so people know from the start. Open, honest communication with everyone, not just your primary partner, is vital.

But let’s get on with the sex talk. I grew up thinking “normal” sex meant penis in vagina and it ends when the man ejaculates. Penetration was something women did for the pleasure of men. Like many women, I have never orgasmed through penetration, but men often didn’t make any other attempts to pleasure me. A guy once said he wouldn’t go down on me because it was the “kind of thing guys only do with girls they love,” yet blowjobs were always expected from me, of course. So this, alongside my lifelong body image issues, meant I couldn’t let myself enjoy sex. Once I started to learn more about feminism, I realized I had just as much right to an orgasm as a man. Sex was an experience to be shared, not something women do just to please men.

I’m still working on loving my own body (it’s easier said than done) but I’m no longer trying to hide my flabby bits and I’m not so paranoid about if my vagina smells weird or if the guy will think I’ve got too much pubic hair. It’s not their body, so it’s not their choice. It’s taken years to unpick these negative things I learnt when I was younger (and I’m still learning) and I’m lucky to have a partner who is understanding and supportive. I saw a therapist at the beginning of our open relationship, which really helped. I wanted to be self-aware enough to know if I was doing it for the wrong reasons or I was masking any underlying issues. I ultimately felt that our relationship was in fact strong enough to be able to deal with a lot of things and I was able to work on my own personal development.

I’ve since had sex with quite a few people, and I’ve had a great time. Sometimes an unhelpful old thought pops up saying “you’re a slut,” but I just think, YES, I AM. If a slut is a woman who enjoys sex, then I’m happy to be one! My partner and I talk about every date I’ve been on, and I assure him that the experiences I’ve had with other people are different to what I have with him. He’s still my best friend and my lifelong companion. Over the last year, we’ve felt stronger than ever. I’m proud of the life we’ve built together and our resilience and honesty. I admire how grounded, kind and non-judgemental he is, plus his humility and compassion. He understands that I need to have my own experiences and I know he needs to have his. He’s an amazing human being.

Generally, dating in my thirties has been wonderful. Dating apps didn’t exist when I was dating before! Knowing myself a little more means I’m better at knowing the type of people to go for. I always make sure I feel safe and comfortable before I meet someone, and of course it’s always in a neutral, public space. I personally find respect and consent a very sexy quality in a person. Being in an open relationship might sound like having your cake and eating it. It maybe is, once you’ve gotten used to it. I seem to have gone through phases of feeling weird, guilty and sometimes ashamed, to finding it a hilarious novelty (when going on five dates in a week), through to a bit of unapologetic smugness now and then. It’s certainly a journey I’m very grateful to be on.

My tips for starting an open relationship:

Read and learn – Google is your friend! Read both positive and negative experiences.

Think about what you want to get out of an open relationship. Write a list if that helps.

Talk to your partner. Recognize if it’s not the right time for you both. It could be that you need some help with your communication first, in which case you could try relationship counseling.

Establish rules that you’re both happy with. Write them down, reflect, then discuss again until you’re both happy.

Regularly check in with each other once you’ve started dating. Be proud of what you’ve achieved, and finally – have fun!

Top photo: Insecure/HBO

More from BUST

8 Things “I Love Dick” Got Right About Non-Monogamy

“Unicornland”: A Webseries About Polyamory That Puts Single People In The Spotlight

What I Learned From My Polyamorous Relationships


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