My name’s Jesse and I’ve been with my girlfriend for about a year and a half together. Currently we live together on our college campus. We’re in an open relationship, which for us means that as long as we keep an open communication with each other about it, we can have casual/sexual relationships with other people. This is new to me, I’ve always been a pretty monogamous guy, and have not engaged in anything with other people besides my girlfriend. She’s had a couple of flings, but nothing serious, until now.

The last week she’s been hanging out with a new friend on campus, a woman, and I haven’t seen her much in the last few days. It’s not that she’s seeing a woman that bothers me, we’re both queer, but I feel a little threatened and neglected. My girlfriend is the type who falls hard and fast and forgets her other obligations when she has a new lover, she did this with me in the beginning, but I’m not ok with this. I want to be her number one relationship, not just a security blanket for her to fall back on when she feels the need.

She can sense I’m unhappy about the situation, but we haven’t talked about it. I don’t know what to tell her. I want her to be happy, but I don’t want to be left behind, and I don’t want to hang out with the two of them. On top of all this, I was once left for a person of the opposite gender in a previous relationship and it messed me up big time. I’m afraid of it happening again. What should I do?

Dr. Charlie Glickman
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In the polyamory world, it’s well-known that folks can get a bit obsessed with new partners. It’s often called “new relationship energy” and while it can be super fun, it can also make things hard for existing relationships. After all, if your sweetie is off having fun with a new lover while you’re at home, it makes sense that you’d be feeling neglected. The trick to making open relationships work is being able to give each partner and each relationship the attention they need to thrive.NRE is generally a temporary thing. For most people, it lasts no longer than about six months, whether they’re poly, monogamous, or serial dating. If you’ve ever noticed a friend who seems to be in a new relationship every six months, one possible reason is that they’re seeking the next rush of NRE. (Learning how to transition from NRE to a calmer and more stable relationship is a different topic.) But that doesn’t really help you, if your girlfriend and her new lover are in the middle of this phase.So here are some tips for managing NRE and an existing relationship. I’m not suggesting that you do all of them. Rather, see if any of these seem more likely to work for the two of you and go from there.

1) Sleeping together (in the literal sense) is very bonding, especially after having sex. One way to keep NRE in check is to go home after a date and take a shower. That removes the other person’s scent and reinforces the primary nature of the main relationship. So if your girlfriend is staying over at her new partner’s place, ask her to come home, instead.

2) Make time for the primary relationship. And not just sitting on the couch watching TV. Do something fun. Make it quality time. It’s easy for the secondary relationship to be where all the fun is, and that’s not going to make things easier for you.

Along those lines, I definitely suggest you find some ways to have fun, too. I’ve seen people in your situation spend all their time at home, brooding about it. So if you’re tempted to do that, you might want to rethink your plan.

3) Find more ways to give and receive affection. I really like Gary Chapman’s book “The Five Love Languages,” as long as you can set aside his insistence on heterosexual, monogamous marriage in a Christian context. His basic concept actually works in any loving relationship, regardless of whether it’s sexual or not, and no matter what gender or sexual orientation combination it is.

The basic idea is that there are different ways people share love, and that a lot of couples end up fighting because they’re speaking different languages. If you like verbal connection and your girlfriend prefers gifts, there’s a mismatch which can lead to conflict, simply because you’re not using the other one’s language. So being able to identify your preferred modes is a big step towards asking for a middle ground. Check out his book- it’s worth it.

4) I really recommend Tristan Taormino’s book Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. She interviewed over 120 people in different kinds of open relationships and collected their suggestions and stories. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, and learning from other people will make it much less challenging. It’s the first book I suggest to anyone exploring open relationships.

5) Lastly, I think it’s great that you’re both aware that you need to “keep an open communication with each other about” having other partners. But the flip side to that is that you also need to keep open communication about how you’re feeling about it. If you don’t, jealousy and resentment start to build and that won’t lead anywhere good.

Here’s one way you might say it:

“I’m really glad you’re having fun. And you’ve been spending so much time with her that it makes me think you don’t want to be with me. So I’ve been feeling ignored and hurt.”

The formula here is:

a) This is what I see happening.
b) This is what I think it means/what I think will happen.
c) This is how I feel about it.

This is a pretty powerful framework because it explains how you end up feeling like you do. Other people’s emotions can be hard to figure out, so having the explanation will probably make it easier for her. Plus, it’ll help you pin down exactly what is going on for you, too. Obviously, you need to fill in the details to fit- the example I gave was one I made up to illustrate the idea.

Hope that helps!

Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson
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Dear Jesse,Your girlfriend is in the midst of what is often called “New Relationship Energy.” This is something that everyone experiences, a rush of brain chemicals that is akin to intoxication. NRE is a big topic in polyamorous and open relationship circles, and it can be a major pitfall. At a certain level, she can’t help herself; however, if your agreements are clear, and you’ve got mutual understanding that you will communicate openly and your outside relationships will be casual/sexual only, it seems that she has at best not fully honored your agreement. If you want to stay together, this is something you will have to discuss and possibly renegotiate.It also seems that you are not really communicating. If she senses that you’re unhappy but you haven’t discussed it, then things are muddled. Keeping a relationship healthy requires certain skills, and this is perhaps even more important in the context of open ones. Now may not be the time, but if you remain together (or if you get into another open relationship), it would probably be a good idea to become more skillful. Tristan Taormino’s site, has links to many resources that may prove helpful.

In terms of your immediate concerns, it’s perfectly understandable that you would feel threatened and neglected under the circumstances, especially given your past experience. Being left is hard no matter what, and we’d suggest that gender isn’t really the central issue, especially given that you both identify as queer. It’s probably a good idea not to go down that particular mental path.

You will need to discuss this with her eventually. When you do, it’s almost certainly best to remain as calm as you possibly can and resist the temptation to be accusatory and attacking. Focus on expressing how you feel – threatened and abandoned – but don’t say she “made” you feel that way. You can also talk about trust, and the need to have and abide by clear agreements. Trust is really essential whether you’re in an open relationship or a monogamous one. Even if she has not violated the letter of your agreement, she has behaved in a way that does not reinforce trust between you. That is also worth discussing, provided you can do so in a non-blaming way.

In addition, you may have to ask yourself if this particular relationship is right for you and more generally whether you can handle being open at this point in your life. Some of what you’ve said suggests that may not be the case and that your current arrangement is something of a one-way street.

Sorry we can’t offer any easy answers, but we hope some of what we’ve said is helpful.

Mark and Patricia

Cassie Wolfe LSW, MEd
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Dear Jesse~You raise a lot of great points and seem to be very clear about how you feel. All of those feelings, however, (threatened, neglected, fearful, unhappy) really need to be shared with your girlfriend.Being in an open relationship is a wonderful option for many people. Research suggests that those in open relationships tend to have greater communication skills with one another as the relationship operates on a higher system of trust and honesty. However, that still does not mean everything will always flow perfectly. Sometimes boundaries have to be reevaluated and/or renegotiated. Sometimes things happen, through no real fault of anyone, but cause some “not-so-good” feelings that translate into a need for further discussion. For example, a couple I worked with attempted to open their relationship. They agreed to only play together; but when they engaged with another couple, mutual friends of theirs, they realized they were extremely uncomfortable. Afterwards, they both agreed that moving forward, they would not engage with friends.

So with your girlfriend, I would say exactly what you wrote to us…”I’m feeling threatened and neglected because I’ve noticed that you’re spending more time with her than me…I’m feeling scared/insecure over the possibility of you leaving me for someone else.” What it sounds like you’re really looking for here is just some good old reassurance of not only her feelings for you, but that you’re also at the top of her priority list, which really is an essential piece of being in an open relationship: maintaining the primary one!

Now, on the flip side, whether one’s in an open or monogamous relationship, there is always a possibility of being left for someone else, or the relationship just not working out. It’s a risk we all take. What I suggest is that perhaps it may be helpful for you to meet with a counselor/therapist to unpack some of your previous experiences that “messed you up.” Unpacking our past can usually help us to gain a greater level of self-awareness and prepare us if and when some of those feelings that are associated with certain experiences unexpectedly creep up.

All my best,