Learning boundaries with an open relationship
Part Two: Creating an Open Relationship
The process of learning Intelligent Lust is not about immediate gratification. For those of us who follow the steps, sex matures as we discover the deeper subtleties of our own and our partners erotic desires. As past conflicts heal, desires can change, too. But, some may find sex intensifies and follows new paths. Other couples may find themselves less interested in the kind of sex that once attracted them and its frequency may decline or entirely disappears from the relationship. Even though these couples may have fostered deep respect and trust over the long-term, sex may still remain central in their thoughts and its absence now poses a real dilemma.
There are also couples already in long-term relationship who discover, by following the steps of Intelligent Lust, the differences in their sexual desires are too great to reconcile and yet they feel compatible in so many other ways.
In these cases, is maintaining a monogamous relationship still the best solution? Will it improve or diminish the relationship’s chances of survival?
For many couples, monogamy is not only a preference, but a necessary condition of a relationship – a means of protecting its stability and sustainability. For them, working through the struggle surrounding sexual conflicts contributes to life’s deeper meaning and purpose. But for others, monogamy becomes a choice to be seriously discussed and evaluated rather than followed as a prescription of religious and social norms or some assumed or unspoken rule.
Freud said that marriage was both a “prison and a refuge.” Yet by maintaining the element of choice we can help keep a relationship from closing in on us. When faced with sexual incompatibility or ” bed death” couples should consider all the possibilities open to them, from agreeing to give up sex entirely to creating an open relationship, and then make the choice that promotes the greatest health and growth for
Nothing should be assumed or taken for granted.
Acknowledging the truth to each other by putting it words is the first step. But in order to make an intelligent decision about the future, it’s essential for partners to engage in frank discussions about the possible consequence of their decision. Perhaps the most challenging questions are whether we can accept going without sex for the rest of our lives and are we willing to ask that of our partner? Is it more difficult to face the fear, jealousy and rivalry that may come with an open relationship or the struggle that goes with sacrificing our sexual lives? For some the answer will be difficult. And yet, even though the answers might be painful, sweeping the issue under the carpet will prove an even greater threat. Keeping the truth hidden inevitably grows subversive.
In my last column, I showed what Marion and Hank believed was their sexual incompatibility was more a failure of each of them to communicate their true desires. James and Robert, on the other hand communicated well enough to know that although they deeply loved each each, they were not sexually matched. Here’s the resolution they came to during therapy.
JAMES AND ROBERT: Creating an Open Relationship
As a same-sex couple, James and Robert were left to negotiated the division of roles in their relationship without any visible role models or maps to follow. Over time, they chose responsibilities they thought were best suited for each of them, rather than ones decided by gender as often happens in heterosexual relationships. James payed the bills and did most of the cooking. Robert acted as handyman and did more of the household chores.
Together for five years, they celebrated their commitment in a ceremony two years before they came to see me for therapy. Like many gay men, sex had been in their consciousness from the time when they first had a sense of their “differentness.” By the time they met, when James was 38 and Robert was 34, both had many sexual experiences and a few short relationships through which they refined their sexual tastes and preferences. James enjoyed sex most as a “dominant top,” with “straight acting,” though sexually passive men. Robert, also liked topping, though he preferred sex with men who were aggressive bottoms who would ultimately surrender to him.
Their courtship was slow. They met playing rugby on opposing teams in a gay national league. They took time getting to know each other, each alternately organizing weekly dates planned around cultural life in New York. They were physically attracted to each other, but took sex slowly. When they finally had sex after a few months of dating, they had already developed serious feelings for each other. Sex was more than just recreational.
Robert was more flexible sexually and at first, willing to bottom for James, though he also preferred being the top. Since everything else in the relationship, “seemed great,” Robert continued to go along with sex as it was, occasionally complaining about the lack of James’ sexual versatility. At those times, James would try to bottom, but, “it never really worked” and they would quickly return to old habits. Over time, sex between them gradually became less frequent.
Otherwise, they created a warm supportive family of friends who they enjoyed entertaining. Both became excellent cooks and they competed to outshine the other’s talent in the kitchen, but always with a sense of humor and good will.
Secretly Robert had slowly been building resentment. One evening, according to James, “he went ballistic about sex,” shocking James and himself, particularly because they rarely had a cross word. “I had a tantrum about how rigid James is sexually,” Robert said. Afterward, they had several calmer, though serious conversations, in which they discussed the problem and possible solutions. That’s when they requested a consultation with me.
“We’re not very sexually compatible,” they both agreed. When I asked them how they were so certain, James offered that “It’s just not working with sex. We don’t enjoy the same things or more accurately, we both enjoy doing the same thing. I know what I’m into and what works for me. I don’t enjoy getting fucked and neither does Robert. We love each other and have a lot in common. We have a great life together, but sex is a big problem.”
“We don’t want to break up.” added Robert, “but neither of us is about to give up having sex for the rest of our lives. So what we decided was to open up the relationship to sex with other men.”
“We need your help figuring out the rules,” James said.
Since they seemed so certain of their sexual desires, having gone through the equivalent steps of Intelligently Lust independently, I agreed to help them negotiate a plan for how they could open their relationship to other sexual partners with honesty and respect. I started by asking what they each imagined as their ideal situation.
“Occasionally, I’d like to hook up with men I meet at the gym or online,” Robert answered.
“How often is occasionally?” I asked.
“That’s hard to say. Maybe every few weeks. I don’t know, whenever it happens.”
“That’s sounds like more than occasionally.” James said.
“I guess you’re right,” he laughed. “How about regularly then?” They both laughed now.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like sex a lot, but I don’t want either of us to be spending all our free time on the internet hunting for men,” James added.
“Neither do I,” Robert said sweetly. “I love the time we spend together. This isn’t about that.”
“What about starting with three-ways?” James asked.
“Nope. I don’t think that would work. I don’t mind your having sex with other men, but I’m not yet ready to watch you. Maybe down the road, but not now. How about we limit it to once a month?”
Robert shook his head.
I asked, “Do you want each other to know when you’re planning on having sex, or after you’ve had sex? Do you want to know who it’s going to be with or should it be a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy?”
“I want to know,” said James. “I would rather we are up front and deal with the truth.”
“Agreed,” said Robert. “Sneaking around won’t work. But this is going to take a lot of trust. I would actually like it if we ask each other for permission before we hook up.”
“Hmmm. What? Call you and ask if it’s ok? That might be a little weird. ‘Excuse me Frank, while I call my boyfriend and see if it’s ok to fuck you.’”
They both laughed.
“Here’s what I think,” James said. “We can change it later if we want, but I don’t think we should have to ask for permission so long as it doesn’t interfere with being together. No breaking plans to have sex. Giving each other permission feels too parental.”
He turned to me. “Any suggestions?”
I thought a moment, then answered. “Yes, most people who succeed at open relationships care deeply about their primary partners, which seems to be the situation between the two of you. I understand your concern about asking permission each time, but I think since you’re doing this out of deep respect for each others’ needs, the most challenging part of this will be to preserve those feelings of respect. Some people ask how their partner feels about them having sex with someone else each time. That’s not the same as asking permission, but it does give each of you the opportunity to say, ‘that’s not cool right now,’ if there is some reason you can’t handle it at that moment. There are a lot of surprises when you open up a relationship and I think it’s best when partners navigate one event at a time.”
They both shook their heads in agreement.
“It’s a subtle distinction you’re making. Asking about how Robert feels versus asking for his permission,” James said. “I get your point.”
“I like the idea,” Robert added.
“What else do we need to think about?” James asked me.
“There’s always a risk of becoming involved or attached to a sexual partner,” I said. “I suppose that will be the true test of your feelings for each other. Some people make rules to try and avoid that.”
“What kind of rules? James asked.
“Like never seeing the same person more than once.”
“I like that idea,” James said.
“I do, too.”
“What about bringing someone home?” I asked.
“I’m against that. I don’t want strangers coming into the house.”
“And what about overnights?” I asked.
“I definitely don’t think we should stay overnight with anyone else either,” Robert answered.
“One last thing then,” I said. “Where do you stand with safer sex?”
“We always have safe sex with each other – condoms only. I don’t think that’s an issue,” Robert said. “Do you?”
“Of course not. We’re both HIV negative and we’d like to keep it that way.”
We ended the session with a symbolic gentlemen’s handshake affirming the boundaries set forth.
When we met again three months later, Robert and James talked openly about their experiences. Both had honored the rules and except for a few instances of rivalry in which Robert felt competitive with James because he was “getting hit on more frequently,” things seem to have gone well. We talked about feelings of jealousy, but neither experienced anything strong enough to have raised it as an issue. In fact, they both agreed there was less resentment and tension in the relationship and they were better off having opened it.
“What have you learned about yourselves during these months?” I asked.
“It’s more what I learned about Robert,” James answered. “He’s really enjoying himself. I want that for him. I don’t feel threatened in any way. What he does has nothing to do with how he feels about me. In fact, what we’re doing really speaks to the strength of our relationship. It doesn’t feel fake. I mean, you have to really love someone to work through this stuff. We have nothing holding us together, no marriage license, nothing but how we feel about each other every day.”
Robert smiled genuinely.
Stanley Siegel, Intelligent Lust.
First published 0n PsychologyToday.com on October 26, 2011.