My Open Relationship Needs New Boundaries
A SWEETIE, WHOM WE LOVE:
I have been in a relationship with my partner for 5 years, since high school. We are both in college now and live about an hour apart. We are very committed to each other, live together when possible and have begun to plan our lives around each other. I want to say here, that aside from the below (not small) issue, our relationship is extremely strong, we love each other as much as two people can.
About a year ago they asked if it would be okay if the relationship opened up a bit so that they can experience their queer identity more fully (I am a cis man). I agreed, though it was hard, because I believe that being open is workable. And because we have been together for such a portion of our lives it seems important to make sure we are having lots of experiences.
Recently, though, I am starting to feel like I am less in control of the boundaries of the relationship than I would like. We have worked to communicate our boundaries, but they often are changed or renegotiated later. Boundaries regarding when we are open, with whom, and in what way. My partner feels a lot of guilt about wanting an open relationship, as well as other complex feelings related to their queerness. This sometimes makes it hard for me to be supportive and accepting while also standing up for myself.
Our relationship has changed a great deal since it began, which I love. However, at this point I don't think I would enter into this kind of relationship anew. I certainly don't want the relationship to end, but I also feel a bit like I am not where I want to be.
I know that this is a hard situation to give advice on, and that the only solution is to have hard conversations. I guess I am looking for guidance on how to have those talks, and how to make sure I am looking out for myself and my priorities.
You’re not wrong that I’m going to suggest hard conversations. Because, that’s really all there is at the end of the day when it comes to loving people. You’re already going to have the easy conversations without anyone’s prodding! Good love is good communication1.
But if that was all I had to say, I wouldn’t have answered this letter. For the most part, advice columns aren’t actually, despite the name, about giving advice. Firstly, the ego involved in thinking that I know better than you about anything let alone your life is would be pretty egregious. (This is why so many highly prescriptive etiquette and advice columns make my tongue itch). I think— and perhaps I’m being a grandiose cunt about the whole thing— that they should be more like support columns. So so rarely does someone ask me for advice and I’m like “Oh hell, there is one obvious answer that you are missing you big clodpoll! Just do this one easy thing! Stop being a baby!” Usually it’s more like, “Oh god, you are in emotional hell and I’m so sorry and you’re not wrong to feel that way. Here’s what I would do were I some fully actualized version of the person I’d like to be…”
Ok, now that I’ve made your letter about my philosophy on advice/support, I can give you some!
What you and your partner have done is lovely. It’s fantastic that you have 1) Identified that your partner wants to explore their varied attractions. 2) Opened up the relationship in order to accommodate that. Hell yeah on having the talks necessary to get to this point. Great job! But also, it seems like the talks kind of stopped or stalled and if there’s ONE rule about an open relationship it’s that your communication needs to be BETTER than the average relationship.
I’m bi, but that doesn’t make me an authority on anyone else’s desire or queerness. So what you’re gonna hear is my theory on this. (And I’m wrong a lot!) But at the end of the day, to me, a huge part of my sexuality is loving people or being attracted to people outside of their gender. In fact, I would argue that’s the case for a lot of people, no matter how they identify. I’m not trying to suggest that everyone is at least a little bit bi or pan2 or something, I’m trying to say that when you end up getting to know a person and love a person, most people find that their gender isn’t the only thing they love about them. I don’t love my boyfriend because he’s a boy. I love my boyfriend because he’s Dave. Now, of course, we’re all performing gender and living up to gendered expectations all the time. So yes, there are tons of examples of people expecting things from their partner that are really hetero and gender-normative (which is a little weird to me). Some people’s attraction is predicated on their partner’s performance of gender— paying for dates, doing certain sexual acts, being a good “mother” in a gendered way. Whatever. I get that. And this paragraph is kind of more about your partner than you, sorry, but I want to remind everyone that you are still queer even if you are in a relationship that from the outside is cishet as hell. You do not need to have certain experiences to verify or signify that you are queer, although those experiences can be affirming and sexy as hell.
My point is this, I guess: your partner needs to think about (and then communicate to you) what they are actually getting from their exploring. What are they feeling like being with you isn’t giving them? Because being with you doesn’t negate their queer identity. I understand feeling sad about a lack of experience with people of certain genders— again, not necessary to have an experience to know you desire something!— but also your partner now does have experience. There’s a ton of delicate nuance here, so I don’t want it to seem like you should say to your partner, “Ok, time’s up, you’ve sucked a titty, get your shoes on, get in the car, we’re going home.” I’m saying your partner needs to figure out if they want monogamy or not with you, because the pretext of this being about exploring is past. There is no way to explore everything, to experience everything. You cannot keep the relationship open until that happens, until they feel like they’ve checked enough queer boxes for them to feel satisfied. That’s not how attraction and desire work. (As far as I can tell).
Now, perhaps your partner wants to keep the relationship open forever and that is their vision of the future. Perhaps they’ve realized that they do not want monogamy. Ever. That is totally, totally fine and valid. Nonmonogamy is fantastic—if it’s honest. What you two have right now isn’t, I’m sorry to say. You both are being dishonest about what you need in order, I think, to not hurt each others’ feelings. Which is sweet, but doomed. Your partner isn’t being open about what they’re actually getting from non monogamy and is being deceitful and unkind about boundaries. That’s majorly upsetting. To me— and this doesn’t have to be true for you!— that is cheating. Boundaries are boundaries. You don’t get to violate them and then decide that falls under exploring queerness. It doesn’t. You don’t have to accept violated relationship boundaries to be a good ally.
But you’re also being a bit dishonest. Not in the lying/cheating way (which, not that it’s a contest, is definitely more dicey). But you’re not saying what it is you feel or want or need in this relationship for it to be good for you. I think that’s pretty normal and not a major harm or anything. I am sure however, that if you don’t start opening up and being bruuuuutally honest about how you feel and what you want, things will get worse. One thing I want to note is that you mention your partner’s guilt around what they want (I think you have guilt around what you want, too) but I think you both have UNINTENTIONALLY weaponized your partner’s guilt around this topic. Your partner’s needs and boundaries aren’t more important than yours because they are queer and you are a cis straight guy. In fact, I think it might be useful as an exercise for both of you to take the identity of the people your partner is hooking up with off the table for a minute. I know that you can’t totally erase the original motivation behind opening up the relationship— the truth is the truth and it revolves around experiencing queer relationships3. But it might help if you can talk about open versus not open and the boundaries being changed and renegotiated on its own at least once.
I think, and I might be wrong4, that you’re both afraid of voicing what you need because you both suspect it’s going to be at odds with what the other person needs, and if you can somehow stay here, suspended in time, where things aren’t perfect but they perhaps aren’t Blow Up Our Five Year Relationship Bad, then you can be ok. The problem is that it seems like things are actually creeping slowly to Blow Up Our Five Year Relationship Bad. And they most certainly will get there if you keep not saying what you want and your partner keeps massively violating your trust. I feel a little loathe to put both of those things in the same sentence because I want to be clear that breaking the agreement you two have about your open relationship is way more harmful of them to do than you simply not voicing your feelings (especially your feelings about how they’ve violated your agreement).
Ok, so how do you go about this? Here’s what I would say if I were somehow perfect and brave and got a lot of time to think about what to say beforehand, “Babe, I love you— god damn it do I love you! And I love being in this relationship with you, but there are some things that aren’t working for me. I feel like we are frequently renegotiating boundaries around being open or changing what we’ve agreed to, and that doesn’t work for me. Ideally, our relationship for me would look like [Fill in the blank. Do you want it totally closed? Do you want less frequent/different openness? What do you want?] and I want to hear what you ideally want so we can find something that works. But I can’t keep feeling like boundaries are being crossed when you X, Y, or Z when we’ve agreed that in our relationship we do A, B and C. It hurts. I’ve been hesitant to bring this up for a few reasons. And I need us to talk about those reasons, because I think being hesitant to bring things up is its own problem. [Here is where you talk about why you’ve been hesitant].”
Obviously, that’s a long monologue (and I didn’t fill in all the blanks for you, sorry but I can’t do everything; there’s only so much my adderall prescription can do). But sometimes you need to go on a long uninterrupted monologue to get all the gunk out. I urge you to write down what you really want to say first. Then write down what you want your partner to hear (those are two DIFFERENT things!) And then you can either say what you wrote or you can text them or email them a long letter. You gotta find a way to say this though, and it might mean that you both realize that the relationship isn’t going to work out. (Which will fucking suck I’m sorry!) But the other option is that you definitely find out that the relationship won’t work in about ten months when both of you lying about what you want and need has become unbearable.
You can submit your own question—or yell at me about how I’m wrong—by emailing me at email@example.com
For the not-big-on-talking people, I just want to remind you that communication can be written if that’s better for you and your partner. If you guys want to have your little tiffs and talks via email, do it. Also a lot of communication is nonverbal, sure, but you do still have to be explicit and clear with people you love.
Although I do have my suspicions. I mean who wouldn’t kiss Paul Newman or Rihanna on the mouth?
I would argue that yours is also a queer relationship because your partner is queer, but maybe you two don’t see it that way. I’m not the boss!
Could I say this one more fucking time??