My Open Relationship Is Getting Awkward
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?
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!
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
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,
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