How Open Is Too Open When It Comes To Open Relationships?

Until very recently, I found myself passionately advocating for open relationships—when I get passionate, my volume gradually increases, my tone of voice gets “aggressive” or as I like to say, spirited, and my hand gestures are out of control. I’ve discussed my desire for and opinions on open relationships (a relationship where both partners agree to see or have sex with other people, it looks different for every couple) with multiple friends, most of whom express their skepticism and dismiss the concept, so of course I loudly attempt to convert them, drawing the attention of everyone around us. The passion stems from my desire for a relationship where I don’t get bored of the sex or the guy and being sexually open in a relationship seems like the “perfect” solution.

When  I found myself on the other end of an open relationship, I got a necessary reality check; I was the side piece, the other woman. Generally, that’s OK with me since I don’t have the same qualms that some have about cheating and cheaters. My very broken moral compass would not have steered me away from the very tall, attractive man, if I’d known before getting in bed with him that he was in an open relationship. Alas, he failed to mention that key detail until the next day, after our post-sex sleepover.

The disappointment I felt after finding out that he was in a relationship didn’t stop me from seeing him again the next day, or the day after that. We had sex every day for four days, we watched the first presidential debate together… well, most of it. He asked me about my political views, the tattoos on the back of my neck and my shoulder. We talked about our families, our pasts. In between all these deep discussions we had sex, lots of it.

He loved cuddling, he was constantly pulling me closer and engulfing my 5’4” frame with his significantly longer limbs and body. It was a whirlwind of sex, conversation, and, dare I say,  friendship. It definitely wasn’t perfect, far from it. We were held together by sex and mild curiosity. He was more interested in really knowing me than I was in really knowing him. His deep questions made me uncomfortable, I didn’t like the deep scrutiny and genuine interest. I kept my distance from him emotionally despite the fact that I would have considered dating him, he was unavailable. While never physically present, his girlfriend constantly hovered over us, never acknowledged.   

We made it one week before reality set in; we spent a weekend apart while he was visiting his girlfriend and I was visiting friends. When he returned that Sunday, nothing seemed to have changed, until he sent the gut-wrenching text: “I can’t see you anymore.” Following the ding of that atomic message, he admitted he fell for me, hard. Then he admitted the only thing stopping us from being together was his girlfriend. Suddenly, everything had changed. He couldn’t keep his distance from me emotionally and knowing that I was a contender for his affection didn’t make the end any easier. It shifted everything I thought about open relationships, tinting my view of them with a dark gray. Knowing how it feels to be on the other side caused me to wonder about how his girlfriend would feel if she knew about his feelings for me. As someone who has never really been in a serious relationship and whose last relationship ended about two years ago, I couldn’t put myself in her shoes. Obviously, she was the one he wanted the most and I was second string.

So now I find myself wondering, are open relationships really worth it? Each couple is different, with their own rules and desires, so what makes them work? And really, open relationships change when one part of the couple finds themselves tempted to date someone outside of their relationship. As a former advocate for open relationships, I’ve created my hypothetical rules and my imagination has run wild with different “what if” scenarios. Sharing this story with my friends has garnered sympathy for me and confusion about why he’s staying with his girlfriend.

I think it’s possible to be in a relationship where you love your partner while also wondering about the “what if?” As someone who lives her life focused on “what if” hypotheticals, I can understand the appeal. We let ourselves leave reality together and create a fractured oasis where we could have deep conversations, tease each other, and have amazing, freeing sex. I was the “what if.”

In a culture where attention spans are decreasing and sex has cut ties with most of its taboo roots, open relationships are a mild return to our hunter-gatherer days where sex ran free and paternity didn’t matter. As devastating as being on the other end of an open relationship was, I haven’t entirely ruled them out.

Lauren Gustafson

Lauren Gustafson

Lauren is a Virginia native and graduate of the University of Mary Washington where she majored in English. She reads passionately, bakes occasionally, and loves rugby. Lauren has spent multiple summers supervising children at overnight camps and she is a pro at dealing with awkward and inappropriate questions. Her goals in life include: being a crazy book lady, living on her own, and traveling any chance she gets.
Lauren Gustafson