While monogamy used to be the default for “serious” relationships, an increasing number of couples are choosing to explore alternative relationship structures. Whether it’s having the occasional threesome or full-on polyamory, opening up a previously monogamous relationship can be really exciting — but also potentially pretty stressful.
Bay Area sex coach Pam Costa, who has counseled many couples through the process of opening up their relationships, says that the first thing a couple that’s considering opening up a relationship needs to do is have an honest conversation about the “why.”
“We’re all unique individuals and we all have different reasons,” Costa explains. “And it’s okay to open up a relationship if you have different reasons, but it’s really important to understand why.”
Costa says that both people’s “why” doesn’t have to match — it’s totally okay to move forward even if you have different reasons for doing so. It’s more important that you both understand the other’s “why” so that you can get “more aligned, more clear — so that there are fewer surprises later on,” Costa says.
The next big conversation that has to happen is about agreements and boundaries. Costa says that you’re not trying to “have a perfect agreement, that no one will violate ever,” but more an increased likelihood of mutual understanding. She has a list of questions that she has each couple go through together in order to help set the boundaries of what their relationship is going to look like moving forward.
“Monogamy kind of has this pre-defined structure. The contract is pretty clear,” Costa says. “When it comes to non-monogamy, it’s a little bit more ‘choose-your-own-adventure,’ so you have to consciously and intentionally figure out what that means for you, as a couple.”
Costa also recommends that a couple find some kind of support — be it another open couple that they admire, a Facebook group for non-monogamous couples, or a sex coach or therapist — who they can turn to for help when a problem comes up. Many couples, she says, wait until a moment of crisis to try to find that support system, so she suggests helping out your future self by doing it before you even go on a first date.
“This is a challenging relationship structure,” Costa says. “Relationships are hard to begin with, so when you add more people to the mix, it’s reasonable to need more help with it.”
One such potential crisis is jealousy — and it’s one that many monogamous couples who are opening up really fear. But Costa advises that people “treat jealousy as a gift” that allows you to really interrogate what you need from your relationship. Get curious and ask yourself: What about this is bothering me? Is it that my partner is sharing romance with someone else? Sex? Intimacy? Be honest with yourself and with your partner and the conclusions you come to will likely strengthen the relationship, not hurt it.
Finally, even when caught up in the “exciting and intoxicating energy” of a new relationship, Costa says, make sure to keep dating each other. While long-term couples of every relationship variety often forget to do this, it’s especially important for those who are newly open. Keep talking, keep dating, keep loving each other. And this transition might just go smoother than you expect!
Emma McGowan is a veteran writer, editor, and SFSI-endorsed sex educator with upwards of 1000 articles on her byline. Emma is a sex/relationships/dating writer at Bustle and a senior writer at Startups.com. Her work has appeared on Buzzfeed, Broadly, Bedsider, Mashable, The Daily Dot, Mic, and The Bold Italic, among others. She’s the Editor in Chief of the sex positive sexual health site Sexual + Being and the sex tech website Kink&Code.