How To Make an Open Relationship Work

I’m Alexander Cheves, a writer, author, and sex educator. My nickname is Beastly. I give adult advice on this blog — no question is off-limits. To ask me something, email AskBeastly@gmail.com or send a message via the Ask Beastly contact form.

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I just celebrated my three-year anniversary with Brent. I took him to dinner, then we walked through my neighborhood, looked in all the windows and dark storefronts — the meat store up the street with lamb carcasses hanging in the window, the Greek bakery filled with every possible kind of cake. We made a loop and returned to my apartment. It was a small and simple celebration, no big trip or expensive gifts. Three years in, there was nothing more we needed to prove to each other.

I was rather terrified because I had let slip a confession a few drinks into dinner: when the pandemic came and life as we knew it stopped, I panicked and bought him a ring. It was very inexpensive, from a cheap jeweler online that I like, and I kept it with me. I kept it through the pandemic, through the various lockdowns. It went with me to three different apartments — I moved a lot during COVID-19 — and stayed unopened in its box, which I wrapped in plastic wrap and kept in a jar of ink pens.

I told him this and his face broke into a big, ridiculous smile, more of a gasp. And so I was revealed: I could no longer play the aloof one, the one who might run at any moment. Contrary evidence was here. I didn’t want him to leave me. The pandemic took life as we knew it away, so buying the ring was my attempt to control one thing, lock one part of my future down: him.

I felt embarrassed and strangely nervous after this confession, vulnerable in a way I haven’t felt in years. But in the days after, we talked about it, and he understood that the confession of the ring was not a marriage proposal — I wasn’t ready for that yet. But I was at least thinking about it.

He still hasn’t seen the cheap little ring, and if I ever get down on one knee to give him one, it won’t be one that cost $60. I’ll keep it dumped in my pen jar and one day he’ll open it, for a lark, years from now, maybe with another ring on his finger. That’s the hope, anyway.

Our relationship is fully open, and thank god for that. The honesty and transparency required in openness strips all pretenses and games away and makes conversations like this possible: “I bought a ring because I love you and want to keep you but I don’t want to give it to you right now.” Our openness has always felt easy and natural, so I’m still surprised — and usually annoyed — when strangers have opinions about it. When my relationship comes up in conversation with new people, I’m often barraged with unsubtly judgmental questions, or someone says, “What kind of guy would let you do that?” or “I could never do that!” or — the worst — “I don’t see how that’s a relationship.”

We all possess the ability to make our relationships what we need them to be. My relationship gives me the freedom to play along with the beauty of getting to know someone. Jealousy and cheating feel like cute, antiquated concepts associated with yesteryear loves. We don’t even have to tell each other everything, every hookup we have, so long as there exists the agreement that there’s nothing we won’t tell each other if asked.

This is ethical non-monogamy. I’ve promised only to love and be honest — I have not promised sexual or even romantic exclusivity. Three years in, here are 30 tips on making a relationship like this work.

1. Be friends first.

Don’t jump into it. Get to know each other for a year or two.

2. Have similar sexual interest.

Brent and I work partly because we’re both into similar stuff. We’re both bottoms, both kinky, both into anonymous sex, both into group and public scenes, and so on. Satisfying our mutual sexual interests automatically requires openness.

3. Prioritize your sexual needs over your partner’s.

Selfishness is good. Be committed to satisfying your needs first and encourage your partner to do the same.

4. Do not try to satisfy all your partner’s sexual needs.

No single person can satisfy all parts of someone else, and the pressure to do so is what often drives people into hopelessly toxic, sexless relationships. You will likely never see every sexual aspect of your partner and you have to be okay with that. Some interests and desires they will only share with others.

5. Don’t stop having sexual adventures together.

So far, I’ve seen non-monogamy and openness work best for people who are sex-positive and sexually adventurous — people who enjoy a fair amount of sex with outside playmates. But don’t stop having sex with your partner. You may only have a certain kind of sex with them, and you may not have sex with them very often, but don’t let it go cold. Keep coming up with new sexual adventures to go on with each other.

6. This is obvious, but communicate well and often.

If you’re a passive-aggressive communicator or indirect communicator — if you don’t like sitting down and discussing feelings directly and honestly — an open relationship will not work for you.

7. Go on regular dates!

Don’t let a month pass without going to dinner together and calling it a date night.

8. Discuss the five F’s.

Every few months, sit down together (over drinks, dinner, at a park, wherever) and discuss Friends, Family, Fucking, Finances, and Feelings.

Friends: Are you spending enough time with your friends? Too little? Does your partner have any friends you just don’t like? Family: How’s your relationship with yours? What does your partner’s family think of you? What do you think of them? Fucking: Getting enough sex? Too much sex? Are there sex journeys you want to take? Is there a sexual playmate you want to have “something special” with? Any trust/jealousy issues? Finances: You have to talk about money. How are your finances? How is theirs? Lastly, Feelings: Do you have any grievances to air? What do you think is working? Is anything not working? Do you feel ready for next steps? What are next steps?

These can be difficult topics for any couple, which is why you have to schedule time and mental space to talk about them. This long conversation is just a ritual, something you have to do. And it can be a great conversation! But the rule is total honesty with no repercussions, so this can also be a scary conversation, particularly if you think something you say might end your relationship. If it does, that’s fine — there are worse ways to break up than during an intimate, honest conversation with each other.

9. Discuss outside romantic interests and flings as a real possibility.

If you fuck enough people, you’re going to eventually find “special people” — fuck buddies who would be candidates for a more official relationship or who you simply want to keep seeing. (If you both mutually decide that you should pursue these people as official relationships, congrats, you’re polyamorous.)

It’s important to talk about this possibility and not be afraid of it. Brent and I have decided that I am his “primary” and he is mine, which means that even if we take romantic interest in others and have occasional “special people,” we are prioritizing each other over all others.

10. Be proud of your openness.

Wear it like a badge of honor.

11. Trust your partner to tell you their needs and feelings.

I struggle with this one. I have to remember that Brent will tell me if he doesn’t feel good or needs space. I don’t have to pry this information out of him.

12. Be sensitive. Sensitivity is a good thing!

Some people think open relationships are only for the thick-skinned and unemotional — and for Brent and me, that could not be further from the truth. We’re both very sensitive people, and I think this sensitivity has made our open relationship easier. We are attuned (sometimes too much) to each other’s moods and can always make emotional space to care for and listen to each other.

13. Respect your time apart as much as you respect your time together.

In relationships, time apart is almost more important. You need breathing room.

14. Be possessive of your own space and boundaries.

This doesn’t mean you can’t live together, but you should probably have a two-bedroom apartment. Be needy when it comes to having your own alone time — know when to close a door or ask for a night by yourself — and don’t take it personally when your partner needs a night away from you. It’s not about you — everyone just needs time to themselves.

15. Decide if you want to talk about the sex you have with other people.

Brent and I really don’t talk about it, but some open couples decided to make it a requirement — that outside sex must be talked about. I don’t think that’s particularly healthy, but to each their own.

16. Always encourage your partner to play with others and explore their sexuality.

I commonly tell people that, as a boyfriend, it’s not my job to control what Brent can and cannot do. If anything, my job is to care for him and help him live his best life, and his best life involves a lot of wonderful, exciting sex. I only want him to do exactly what he needs to do. Love is not control or denial, yet I think a lot of people see it that way, and that’s why there are so many horrible, toxic relationships out there. You’re a partner, not a prison warden.

17. Allow your home space(s) to primarily be de-sexualized places of rest and recovery.

Sexually adventurous people often need de-sexualized zones. I certainly do, and I choose to make that place my home. I’ve lived in heavily sexualized homes before that were very unhealthy. This does not mean I never have sex with Brent in one of our apartments, but we don’t do this often, and our best sex happens outside our homes — at sex parties, in other people’s apartments, in public, and so on.

18. Prioritize intimacy over sex.

Brent and I have lots of sex with lots of different people, but intimacy is different. Intimacy is something we have with each other, and it can’t be replaced by any random guy online. If we measured our sex with each other against all the sex we have with outside people, we’d both admit that we don’t have the most intense or mind-blowing sex together. Thankfully, it’s not a comparison — I’m not with him for the intense, mind-blowing sex (although sometimes our sex is like that). I’m with him for the hours we spend cuddling and watching TV together.

19. Allow each other to change.

If you’re in an open relationship then you’re probably open to new ideas and experiences. That means you’re going to change, and your partner will too. Your partner may discover new kinks or new sexual interests that take them down new roads and you have to permit, accept, even encourage that.

20. Do everything you can to dismantle your ideas of possession. No one belongs to you.

Nothing about your partner is “yours.” Their body isn’t yours. Images of their body aren’t yours. Your partner had sexual and romantic lives before you came into the picture and will have these lives after you leave it.

21. Ask for space and solitude when you need it.

A good rule for any relationship.

22. Communicate sexual and romantic limits and boundaries.

My boundaries for Brent include no meth. If he develops an affinity for meth, I have to leave him, because I have my own history with the drug and can’t date someone who uses it. A romantic limit: if he falls in love with someone else and wants to make them a primary partner instead of a “special someone,” I’m not going to shift to second-tier. I’m going to leave.

23. Even if you don’t commit to sexual exclusivity, you must make some commitments if you want the relationship to grow.

People need commitments, actually. I had to learn that even though Brent didn’t want monogamy, he still needed to know if I was planning on staying with him for the foreseeable future (I am). Sometimes a commitment can be as simple as this: I’m committed to us and want it to work and I am open to whatever that looks like.

24. Surround yourself with friends who support your relationship.

Don’t buddy up with judgmental jerks.

25. Cultivate and encourage separate sexual circles.

Heavy overlap and many shared sex partners can get messy.

26. Don’t try very hard to meet or see the people your partner enjoys fucking.

Those people are none of your business.

27. When jealousies and comparisons appear — and they will — you must bring these feelings out into the open.

Talk.

28. Discuss harm-reduction and moderation strategies when it comes to sexual health.

There was a moment when Brent and I were getting too many sexually transmitted infections one summer and we had to decide to limit the number of sex partners we were having. We decided to only do groups on special occasions and big gay events, not any random weekend.

29. Nurture the friendship you’ve built your romantic relationship on.

People will regularly ask you things like, “What’s the difference between your relationship and a friendship?” And that’s fine — there shouldn’t be much difference between your relationship and a really good friendship.

30. You never have to explain your relationship to anyone. It’s only for you and your partner to understand.

As long as you both get it, it doesn’t matter if anyone else does.

Love, Beastly

3 Comments

  1. First of all, I truly look forward to your entries each week since I discovered your blog. As a like-minded individual, I’ve found validation and recognition from your willingness to share these aspects of your life that I don’t often see in life or online. I’m also in a consensual non-monogamous relationship (married actually for about 6 of the 11 years we’ve been together), and I’m also a clinical therapist who works with people figuring out how to make these situations work for them. Reading this list, I recognized some of the things my husband and I did that helped make the decision to wade into non-monogamy successful (It was never explicitly stated, but recognizing from the beginning that we were both very sex-positive, I think we both intuited that committing to monogamy was probably not going to be an eventual given). This list was wonderfully insightful. On both a personal level as well as on a professional level, I feel like I gained a fuller understanding of the ways that an increase in trust, autonomy, enrichment, and intimacy even can be the rewards of a thoughtfully, consensually, and intentionally executed decision to chose non-monogamy. Thank you from Chicago.

    Like

  2. Wow thanks for sharing makes total sense keep being you liberating & honest.
    Straight Single female interested in how relationships work.

    Like

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