Three years into my open relationship – the lessons I’ve learned

In October 2012 my partner and I decided to open up our, until then, monogamous relationship. We had been talking and fantasizing about our feelings for over a year. Now we were ready to take the plunge.

Why I chose to have an open relationship

When my partner and I met, we were in our early twenties. We embarked on a journey which was my first long-term relationship. His second after a relationship of a year and a half. We both had our adventures with people. And now we found each other in something that felt like a relationship that would last a long time. Would that mean we would never flirt with others again? Never kiss, let alone make love with others?

But there was another aspect more important than the physical options of an opened relationship. Sebas and I both believe in a life of continuous exploration and growth. Deeply connecting with people is, in my opinion, the most intense opportunity for growth. People show us who we are as they interact with us and react to us. The more I could acknowledge my inner desire to connect with people as deep as I wanted and in the form I wanted, the stranger it felt to be the person deciding for another person which lessons he could learn, with who and in what form.

I defined my open relationship at that time like this: “To me, an open relationship is a relationship in which you support the other person to completely and totally live the life they wish for themselves. To discover who they are, to connect with people without limitations, fears or feelings of guilt. To enjoy life to the fullest and to be the happiest person they can be.”

I still believe in those words. Supporting others, whether they are my lovers, friends or kids, to live their dream life is what makes me glow. I love to connect deeply and provide one another with a mirror (or a magnifying glass), to look deep into my own being as well as show them who they are beyond what’s keeping them small.

But the statement is pretty much directed towards others. What I would add now are some words on self-care and self-love. An open relationship is pretty much throwing yourself out there, in the stormy ocean of emotions and insecurities. Right now, my relationship statement is this:

“To me, an open relationship is a relationship in which I recognize my inner desire to grow and explore beyond social paradigms and externally imposed limitations. In my open relationship, I support the people I love to completely and totally live the life they wish for themselves. To discover who they are, to connect with people without limitations, fears or feelings of guilt. To enjoy life to the fullest and to be the happiest person they can be, while at the same time taking care of myself by acknowledging my fears, boundaries and insecurities, and finding the support I need whenever I need it.”

Polyamory, open relationship, non-monogamous or…?

Chapters and chapters have been written about the different labels used in non-monogamous relationships. Just to name a few, there is polyfidelity, mono-poly, solo-poly, swinging, hierarchical poly, nonhierarchical poly, nonsexual poly and of course polyamory and open relationships. As the latter two are the more known terms, they also have the most stigmas attached to them.

Open relationships

The general thought about open relationships is that the partners in the relationship open their original relationship for physical reasons. Both partners can have sex outside the relationship, but generally no sustainable, long-term connections are formed. Telling people I’m in an open relationship, the easiest way to explain my non-monogamous life, often results in assumptions I’m having this relationship form to have sex with others than my partner.

Polyamory

Polyamory means ‘loving more’ and is often defined as having multiple relationships at the same time. I see a lot of discussion within the poly community about when someone is practicing polyamory or not. Basically, you are defined as a polyamorist when you have or pursue multiple relationships at the same time that include a sexual component. Some call polyamory a life style, others call it a nature (like being gay or straight), others call it a choice.

Relationship Anarchy

Relationship Anarchy is a label defining itself as ‘the practice of forming relationships that are not bound by set rules. It goes beyond polyamory by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between different types of relationships. Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, ‘in an open relationship’, etc.’ To me, it’s another label trying to get around labels although they bring up a lot of interesting thoughts.

Sex has never been the primary motivation for me and my partner to have a non-monogamous relationship. Neither was a desire for multiple relationships at the same time. It seems to me that Relationship Anarchy tries to avoid the use of labels for different types of relationships. But isn’t Relationship Anarchy not just another label? Besides, to me anarchy is linked to negative, tough definitions like disorder and confusion.

No-label practice

No label quite covers the essence of what I want to practice with my non-monogamous relationship. Also, I noticed that any kind of label was providing me with some sort of external confirmation. It felt like holding on to a safety net. But what I wanted to practice was learning to love people without holding on to them. In any way. Could I feel unsafe and still open my heart? Could I love unconditionally, no matter which choices the other person makes?

I noticed that a simple label like ‘relationship’ created expectations in both me and the other person involved. I might for example create expectations about how often we should see each other, which things we tell each other or the exclusivity we practice. Generally I noticed that when there is a label, I tend to give the person responsibilities for my wellbeing, and blame them when I feel hurt.

Without labels, there is nothing to hold on to. No cage to put the other person (or the relationship as a whole) in.

Of course there is the other extreme, where I believe all my feelings are my responsibility and my problem to deal with. That’s when I found out there is a difference between what I think I can handle, and what I actually can handle. Which can be different each day.

I started calling my connections with people ‘connections’, as that word has not so much weight attached to it as ‘relationship’. And still have a way to explain my interactions with others to myself and others. I don’t force myself to put my connections into boxes, and therefore minimize the expectations I create in my mind. Everything is a connection, from the stranger I smile at in the streets until the person I see each week and have sex with.

It’s simple: each connection is unique. There are no rules; only intentions. My main intentions: to be respectful towards myself and the people around me, to be as honest as I can, and to deeply enjoy. No labels. No ownership. The downside? It’s very complicated to explain my situation to someone.

How my open relationship changed me

This relationship is like a magnifying glass, clearly showing me all my fears, insecurities, mindfucks (that’s when the mind creates drama and stories based on assumptions, emotions and other unverified things), judgments and basically everything I always desperately tried to keep in the shadow.

There’s no escape when letting go of monogamy. All your dirt will surface and it will hurt. And then there are only a few options: you ignore it, resist it or deal with it. Ignoring is only possible until it hurts so much you need to do something. Resisting pain will result in suffering, which is worse than pain. Pain is simply expressed as an emotion. Suffering is feeling the pain while attaching a story to it and thereby holding on to the pain. You might spread the intensity a bit, but in the end there will be more suffering when resisting pain as when allowing it fully. As long as the pain is not completely conscious, I tend to ignore or resist it. But I trained myself to deal with pain as soon as I notice inconvenience.

Dealing with raw feelings

I learned to deal with bucket loads of fear. Especially the fear of losing him to another woman. There were also many limiting beliefs like feeling not good enough, not special enough, not beautiful enough etcetera. It all became a lot easier to deal with when I realized that these were exactly what they are: thoughts that make me feel bad – thoughts that are based on stuff inside my head. I checked my thoughts hundreds of times. When I was afraid Sebas liked another woman better, I did the scariest thing I could think of: I asked him if it was true. Sometimes she would have traits that he liked better in her than in me. But the whole package he never liked more than mine. Liking something better in another person still hurts, but it feels manageable. And knowing that, until now, he still likes me best to spend his life with, makes me feel safe enough to let go of the fear of losing him.

When a lover is focusing on another love and I feel insecure about his feelings towards me, I simply ask ‘Do you still see me?’ Yes, that’s asking for external confirmation. But we humans have this thing called the dependency paradox, which can be summarized like this: when we are allowed to depend on the confirmation of others, we feel independent of them. So when my lover confirms me after I consciously ask for it (and not go fishing for confirming words and get angry when I don’t get them), I feel more secure about the connection and about his connections with others not influencing our connection.

I learned to check my reality, and to compare my thoughts with that reality. The mismatch was often shocking. People liked me so much more than I liked myself. Maybe it was time to start liking myself more. And as I gradually allowed myself to shift my self-image, fear and insecurity dropped. Hey, I’m freaking amazing. I’m lovely to be around and to be in a relationship with. The deeper I feel that, the less I have to lose.

Feeling better is always an inside job, even though others can support us making the shift.

I created a strategy to deal with fear. An emergency plan for when fear unexpectedly raises its head:

  1. I’m not this fear I’m feeling. I’m reminding myself that I’m the observer of fear that is triggering me right now. Can I see the little girl inside me who’s afraid?
  2. Close your eyes and visualize this little girl. What is she afraid of? What does she need right now? What can I do to make her feel safe?
  3. Are there any emotions that want to be released? Do you want to cry or scream?
  4. Sitting inside makes me go inside. Go outside, into nature if this is possible. Look at the clouds and the stars. Remember that you’re not alone.
  5. Whatever you do, don’t drink alcohol and try to stay away from overeating. You know it makes you feel worse.
  6. Move your body. Go for a walk or do a soft, heart-opening yoga flow.
  7. What would make you happy? Do you want to draw, write, listen to music or watch a movie?
  8. If nothing helps, call friend A, friend B, friend C or friend D. Or call them anyway if you want to.

Sisterhood

A big shift which is still happening, is letting go of the image of other women as competitors. It’s easy to feel threatened by other women – even inside a monogamous relationship. I’m amazing at comparing myself to others, especially when it comes to my perceived flaws. I’m less smart, skinny, nice, kind or whatever to any woman he lays eyes on. It’s tiring. And the interesting thing? The other women often think the exact same thing in the opposite direction.

When we let go of competition and see each other as souls on the same journey towards feeling loved and happy, it’s easier to see sisters as human beings instead of something threatening. Women tend to be way less mean than I expected. Also: what I give is what I get back. When I hold back and take distance, the women my beloved is seeing will also take distance and feel threatened by me. But when I show my vulnerability, they feel space to do the same thing.

So I wrote them a letter, the women that sleep with my man.

I made some great friends. Women who once were lovers of my partner, but stopped dating him, are now dear friends. Or don’t sleep with him (yet), but I know they really like him. I like them better and better, as I let go of my low self-esteem.

And all those other things!

I learned to communicate more clearly. To express what I want and not want. I learned that there is more space in my heart than in my agenda. And thus I learned to prioritize. I also learned that what I want is not necessarily beneficial for my relationship and that sometimes I need to take a step back.

I learned that my desire to connect with multiple people comes in waves, and that there are months where I don’t like connecting with others at all. I learned that it’s easy to get lost in my phone and stay looking at the screen for new incoming messages all day. And I learn to let that go. I learned about respect. Not everybody wants to hear as much about my adventures as others.

I learned to make amazing coffee. I learned about contemporary classical music. I learned about psychology and hand reading and art and…

What about sex?

Even though sex was never my primary motivation to connect with others, I believe sex is awesome. Don’t get me wrong. And yes, I have more sex now than I had when I had a monogamous relationship. Or at least, more diverse sex. I learned how sex can function as a tool for personal growth. How darker flavors of sex helped me embrace dark sides in me. I’ve learned so much through sex that I’m in the process of writing a whole book about it as a matter of fact (you can pre-order your copy on my Generosity page).

So…  are there orgies? Wild sex parties? Let me share some teasers with you in the next article. I will also share about how a non-monogamous relationship changed my primary relationship. Stay tuned.

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