Just the Tip is a sex and relationship column hosted by queer non-monogamous kinkster Jera Brown. Here you will find interviews with sexuality researchers and educators as well as smart and compassionate responses to anonymous questions. If you would like to be interviewed or have a sex or love question you’d like Jera to answer, email justthequestions@gmail.com or DM Jera on Instagram or Twitter @thejerabrown.

Recently my girlfriend broached the idea of ethical non-monogamy. Sometimes I fret whether she really wants to be with me long term. But then she talks about getting married, so maybe opening up is something else entirely. 

Overall, I love the idea of opening up, and I’m glad she’s thinking about things on her own. But I have some reservations, as well. 

My girlfriend has also expressed bisexual feelings (I don’t know her exact experience with other women). And I find I’m having a much easier time reconciling the idea of her having another relationship with another woman. I truly care about her happiness. I don’t want to just be like, “Oh yea girl/girl that’s hawt.” But I’m paranoid if she was with another guy, I’d get frozen out and she’d leave me.

I’m also worried about being the pervy old man. I’ve met several guys who claim they and their wives have an open relationship. And without fail, every time it turns out their wife would be surprised to know about this. I’m turning 44 in a couple of weeks. I’ve always been conscious of wanting not to be that creepy older guy.  So is there a lot of dishonesty in this lifestyle or is it just the people I’ve talked to? I just don’t want anyone seeing me as a cheater, even if I was trying to have a relationship with them.

So a lot to figure out. How do we go about looking into ENM in a healthy way?

So you’re in your forties in a long-term relationship and your girlfriend is interested in exploring her sexuality and questioning what freedom would look like if you two actually kick the bucket. 

Congrats. You have the most normal relationship in the U.S. 

This is definitely a growing trend for couples that have been together a long time, and I’m all for it. It means something’s shifting around what we consider to be the standard relationship.

But I have to warn you (and this is going to be the primary theme throughout this post): Evolution typically doesn’t mean things get easier. In fact, when you’re evolving, things can get much, much more difficult.

1. A Lot of Couples Don’t Survive Opening Their Relationship — And That’s a Good Thing

Like any major life change: moving, having kids, getting married, etc — stress and change often make or break a relationship. These changes expose how healthy your communication is and your ability to handle conflict together. But they also change people, and sometimes you grow apart — and that’s okay.

Opening a relationship is the same. It can change what you want; how you see your partner; how you see yourself. 

There should be a warning label attached to non-monogamy that says “Enter At Your Own Risk” because I truly believe that every relationship you begin is like stepping through a doorway. Sometimes this doorway leads somewhere profound and sometimes not. But after a while, you won’t be the same person.

The thing is: who doesn’t want to evolve? If your relationship doesn’t withstand change, maybe it’s not the right fit. Maybe it used to be and it’s not anymore. Outgrowing someone — or simply growing apart — shouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s not a failure; it’s just life.

So is it worthwhile for you? I recommend checking out my previous post about reasons NOT to be polyamorous to see if you’re considering ENM for the right reasons. But you’ve been warned. 

2. Your Partner May Be More Likely To Fall For Another Dude — And You Should Let Her

Okay, so your partner is bi-curious but you’re more afraid of her developing feelings for another man. Honestly, it’s a legitimate fear. 

There are totally women who’ve hidden their deep feelings/desire for other women from themselves for years, finally explore it, find the right woman, and never look back. (And good for them!!!)

But what most often happens is that a bi-curious woman figures out that she enjoys getting frisky with another person with a vulva once in a while, but she’s still staunchly conditioned to develop stronger feelings for men. Whether or not this is biology or being raised in a heteronormative culture, I’m not sure.

And I’m being super general here. This is just what I’ve seen and, at the end of the day, everyone is different. But the point I’m trying to make is that your fears of your partner developing stronger feelings for another man are valid. But here’s the thing: are you going to let your fears control you?

The dudes that tell their girlfriends, sure we can be open, as long as it’s just with other women … those dudes are fricking lazy. Besides the “ick factor,” these dudes are afraid to process their insecurities, and they’re afraid to trust their partners. 

So please refer to rule number one: enter at your own risk. Because if you’re going to do this whole ethical non-monogamy thing, you might as well do it right:

  • Be prepared for a lot of introspection and processing.
  • Be prepared to own up to your fears and insecurities.
  • Be prepared to have hard talks with your partner.
  • Be prepared to be called out on your bullshit.
  • Be prepared to do what’s right for EVERYONE involved.
  • Be prepared to confront your inner-asshole and do everything you can to change him into a gentleman.

But wait … why did I say you should let her fall for another guy? Yeah, yeah — I was being facetious. Mostly. The thing is, if you open up and one of you falls for someone else, maybe that’s a good thing.

Like I said, opening up can act like a stress test on a relationship, and if it doesn’t withstand the stress, maybe it is time to move on. And that’s okay! Or maybe your relationship will just find ways to evolve which is even better.

Ever heard of relationship anarchy? (Something work checking out)

What if your partner loves the two of you equally? What if you fall for someone else? All things worth considering that may actually be good for you!

3. Don’t Trust the Loudest People In the Room 

You asked if the lifestyle is filled with dishonesty. It’s an interesting question. 

Ethical non-monogamy is supposed to be the answer to the unnaturalness of monogamy. It’s a way of saying that it’s natural to have feelings or desires for more than one person at a time, so why don’t we face this openly?

Does that mean that people pursuing a non-monogamous lifestyle are always open and honest? Of course not. Because we’re humans. We’re flawed. 

But regarding your friends whose wives would be shocked to find out they’re in an open relationship. Ummm … then they’re not actually in an open relationship are they? So why would you believe these people could tell you anything about what it’s like to be in an open relationship?

In other words: don’t trust the loudest people in the room to be the best example of anything. They’re just loud. They’re not necessarily right.

Perhaps the people you might know who are actually in open relationships are more discreet about it. Or perhaps you’re just not hanging out with people who are pursuing ENM.

There are two extreme ways of pursuing ethical non-monogamy (and often people fall in the middle).

On one extreme are the people who continue to use toxic heteronormative scripts and don’t learn from the experience. These are unicorn hunters. These are people who never learn the nuances of consent. These are people who see ENM as a license to have no-holds-bar fuck fests and don’t give to damns about who gets hurt.

Oftentimes, people can believe that taking on a framework of ethical non-monogamy absolves them from doing the deep work needed to actually be ethical. 

These are the creepy old dudes and dudettes.

Then there are the people who are trying to break out of the toxic heteronormative scripts. They learn to question everything: like relationship hierarchies, their communication styles, their privilege in relationships, and even why they’re attracted to certain people. 

Now trying to be ethical doesn’t mean someone always gets it right. Of course not. But at least they’re trying.

If you don’t want to be the creepy old dude, my advice is just to question everything and find a mentor. Someone who’s been successfully open for a while. Someone whose relationships you’d like to emulate.

How do you know if someone has advice worth pursuing? Here’s what I’d do: ask them how their idea of ethical non-monogamy has changed over the years. If it hasn’t, they probably haven’t been doing the work. If they have a thoughtful answer, it’s probably worth asking some follow-up questions.

This is why community is so important. Finding nearby polyamory meetups can be super useful. NOT necessarily to be used as a meat market. (That can feel icky). But you can learn what’s worked and hasn’t worked for other couples. If you’re close to a major city, I recommend looking at meetup.com for poly groups, as well as Fetlife. You can also just Google “polyamory + [name of city]” and see if anything shows up.

One more important point here. You mentioned, “I just don’t want anyone seeing me as a cheater, even if I was trying to have a relationship with them.”

So, first of all, I strongly suggest not just randomly pursuing people. Just because you’ve opened up your relationship does not make the entire world your sex buffet. Look for signs of interest. Look for signs people are already non-monogamous. Or just stick to dating apps and alternative communities.

Second, look into kitchen table polyamory, which is a style of relationship where people you’re dating meet your significant other. In my experience, the folks who seem like they’re cheating even when they’re not … this is often the result of having a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship. It’s not that DADT relationships never work, but they often avoid some of the hard conversations that could strengthen a relationship.

While it can be uncomfortable at first to meet the people your partner is seeing or sleeping with, in the long run, it can lead to healthier outcomes.

One more thing: kudos to you for being open about your fears and doing something about them. You’re already heading in the right direction. And no matter what happens, you’re going to be okay.

Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...