“I desperately want to have sex with men who aren’t my boyfriend,” is a text I sent my best friend late last April. “I think I really need to be in an open relationship.”
This wasn’t really any huge surprise—to me or my BFF. I’d had my misgivings about the relationship, especially the monogamy part, from the beginning. I’d been happily single for four years when I met my then-boyfriend, blissfully fucking away my early 20s with whomstever I pleased and little desire to change that situation. But you know what they say, you can’t help who you fall for (yes, you were supposed to read that to the tune of “I Bet You Think About Me, Taylor’s Version”), and sometimes you fall for an old-school romantic who has his heart set on monogamy despite already having two divorces under his belt.
Besides, I hadn’t been in a traditional, monogamous relationship since college, so maybe I was due for another ride on the One Dick Only train. I knew that at some point down the road, opening our relationship would probably be an option I’d like to explore—something I brought up a number of times, with mixed to negative results, to my boyfriend pretty immediately after we started dating. But for the time being, I was down to dabble in a little monogamy.
Just under a year into our relationship, however, I’d officially maxed out my capacity for one-man-womanhood. I’d missed the idea of fucking other people from the beginning. But now, suddenly, like a switch had been flipped, I missed the actual fucking other people of fucking other people. It was everyone at once and no one in particular—hot strangers on the train and un-hot ones who hit on me in bars and the shocking number of old flames I started randomly running into on the street and in my DMs like some kind of sign from the universe that it was time to return to my non-monogamous roots.
So I did the thing. That night over wine and sushi in a booth at one of our favorite restaurants, I asked my boyfriend for an open relationship—and he agreed!
…Two weeks later, we were broken up. And I was…actually kind of relieved, TBH. When that relief continued to trump heartbreak in the weeks of post-breakup recovery that followed, I was forced to confront an uncomfortable truth, one I knew I’d been hiding from for a while: I didn’t actually want an open relationship. What I wanted was to be single. Consensual non-monogamy was never going to fix the problems in my relationship because the main problem in my relationship was that I didn’t want to be in it, or at least not enough.
In theory, an open relationship seemed like the perfect solution, the ideal way to hold onto all the good things about monogamy while satisfying my need for sexual novelty. But what I missed more than the physical act of sex with other people, what I wanted more than even the very best parts of my relationship, was the absolute freedom of fucking around with whoever I wanted and answering to no one. An open relationship was never going to give me that. It was only ever going to be a Band-Aid that might temporarily mask and ultimately exacerbate the real issue at hand—i.e., I didn’t want to be in my relationship anymore. Not enough, anyway. Not more than I wanted to be single.
I suspect that I’m not the only person who has made this mistake. As consensual non-monogamy becomes increasingly visible, I think there’s a growing tendency to view open relationships as a panacea for any and all relationship problems, particularly when those problems involve a desire for sex outside of said relationships. This, according to sex therapist Zhana Vrangalova, PhD, NYU professor of Human Sexuality, is of course a pretty common problem to have. Data from a recent collaboration between YouGov and Ashley Madison suggests that 60 percent of partnered Americans have fantasized about other people, and almost half are not very satisfied with the sexual aspects of their relationships.
“Many, many people fantasize about or desire sex with others besides their current partner,” says relationship coach Elisabeth “Eli” Sheff, PhD. In many cases, Sheff adds, this isn’t a sign of a problem, per se, just a sign that you’re an allosexual (aka, not asexual) human.
It makes sense that many of these partnered people who experience a desire for sex outside their relationship might look to consensual non-monogamy as the answer—in part because it absolutely can be!
“Opening up to other sexual partners is a good alternative for couples who are relatively happy in their relationship overall, and the major reason for dissatisfaction comes from the monogamous nature of the relationship itself,” says Vrangalova.
That said, open relationships are very much not the free ticket to the Have Your Cake and Eat It Too buffet we sometimes fancy them. For one thing, the emotional energy and communication that goes into maintaining an open relationship is no joke. This means they need a rock-solid foundation to actually work. Introducing non-monogamy to a failing relationship in an attempt to salvage it is, frankly, unlikely to go well. Think of it as the modern version of having a baby to save your marriage. It may be a temporary distraction, but it’s probably going to do more harm than good in the long run.
“If things are not going well—partners have disdain for each other, fight constantly, are unable to resolve issues without someone just giving in and harboring ongoing resentment, for instance—then it is a terrible time to attempt to open the relationship,” says Sheff. “All of those unresolved issues will still be there, and come out in full force with the added stress of trying to balance multiple partners’ needs.”
Then there’s the fact that while a desire to have sex with other people may be a sign of nothing more than the fact that you’re a sex-having human who isn’t hardwired for lifelong monogamy, it might also be a symptom of bigger problems within the relationship—ones opening that relationship probably won’t address and might even exacerbate.
“If people are happy with each other and want to explore sexually or expand their horizons, then an open relationship can work great and even enliven their existing sexual connection,” says Sheff. “This breaks down, however, when people are either unhappy with each other or not getting their needs met in their romantic relationship and are actually looking to get out of it, but are reluctant to be alone.”
As I learned firsthand, however, it’s harder than it sounds to tell whether opening up is actually a healthy move that will strengthen your relationship, or a Band-Aid you’re slapping over issues you’d simply rather ignore. How do you know if you’re opening up for the right reasons, or just prolonging an inevitable breakup?
Surprise—there’s no magic formula, no blood test you and your partner can take to confirm that you are, in fact, open relationship material. That said, there are some ways you can figure out whether opening up or breaking up is the right move. Here, experts share some tips on getting to the bottom of your own desires—because, yes, it’s harder than you might think.
Check the Overall Health of Your Relationship
“Opening up is not a good option for couples who are struggling for reasons unrelated to monogamy,” says Vrangalova. If, for example, your relationship is suffering from a lack of love or trust, poor communication and conflict resolution skills, resentment, abusive or manipulative behaviors, incompatible life goals, etc., then opening the relationship is unlikely to help anything. (Sorry.)
“Some couples resort to opening up in order to fix these monogamy-unrelated issues, and that almost always ends up precipitating a breakup anyway, only often it ends up being an uglier breakup because it’s been made more complicated by introducing additional people and all of the difficult emotions that come with it,” says Vrangalova.
To help break down the massive question that is, Is my relationship actually working? Vrangalova suggests identifying your top relationship needs, then ranking your current level of satisfaction in each of those areas on a scale of one to five.
“If there are many more ones to threes than there are fours and fives, then that’s a good indicator your relationship is in trouble and that opening up is unlikely to fix that,” says Vrangalova.
Ask Yourself If There Are Other Ways to Address the Problems in Your Relationship
Even if you’ve determined that your relationship is otherwise healthy and the primary factor driving your interest in opening up is a desire for sexual novelty, it may be worth exploring other ways to address those needs without opening the relationship.
“One of the biggest risks couples take is jumping into non-monogamy quickly, without giving themselves and each other enough time to be curious about their motives or the process of opening up their relationship,” says psychologist and sex therapist Kate Balestrieri, PsyD.
Opening up or breaking up isn’t a decision you have to (or should, for that matter) make overnight, and they’re also not the only options.
“There are many couples for whom opening up might be a good solution eventually, but who may not be ready to introduce other people into the mix yet,” says Vrangalova. “In that case, they could still increase their level of sexual satisfaction by communicating with each other about their sexual fantasies and incorporating some of them into their sex lives.”
This might look like experimenting with dirty talk, watching porn together, attending sex parties but only hooking up with each other, etc. In short, there are ways to enhance your sex life without actually opening it to others, and it may be worth exploring them before you take the leap into non-monogamy.
Consider the Pros and Cons
Vrangalova recommends asking yourself whether the benefits of opening up outweigh the potential risks and challenges. This is the time to get real—with yourself and your partner—about what those risks and challenges might be, how you plan to address them, and whether you’re actually willing to take them on.
“If it feels like there would be other perils that would make the relationship more difficult than rewarding, it may be time to part ways,” says Balestrieri. “Opening the relationship may either expedite or prolong the inevitable.”
Make Sure It’s Something You *Both* Want
From the time I started dating my ex, I continued to bring up the idea of an open relationship, even though my boyfriend had made it clear he wanted monogamy. (To be fair, in typical straight dude fashion, he also wanted threesomes—but that’s a different story.) In retrospect, this was pretty uncool of me on a fundamental level. Because I have an annoying tendency to consider myself “sexually enlightened” and thus superior, I felt entitled to preach the good word of non-monogamy on the grounds that it’s more “evolved” and practical than the alternative. TBH, I might still kind of think that! (Because I might be kind of the worst!) But it wasn’t my place to try to convince someone that they shouldn’t want what they want.
“If one person is badgering, bullying, or pushing their partner into consensual non-monogamy, then it is not really consensual and will most likely blow up in their faces,” says Sheff.
Okay, called out. But lesson learned.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.
READ MORE ABOUT NON-MONOGAMOUS RELATIONSHIPS:
What Happened When I Tried To Be In An Open Relationship
The Secret To Being In An Open Relationship, According To 14 People Who Are In One