Ethical Dilemmas is a regular column where we hope to give you clear-cut answers for complicated problems. Hayley Glaholt is a pro at carefully examining two sides of a story and weighing each move with a cautious code of morality. If you have a difficult problem you’re currently dealing with and want some free advice, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been with my partner for six years. He’s great, it’s all great, but I want to be in an open relationship. We still have sex, but it doesn’t feel like enough for me. How do I bring this up? I’m worried that I will ruin this great relationship if I do ask, which makes me think I should leave things the way they are. I think he will be really, really hurt.
(female, 37, Toronto)
It would be wonderful if we could easily and calmly bring up subjects like this with our partners, wouldn’t it? If only we could discuss our sex lives like we discuss our weekend plans. Clearly it’s not that simple, though, as you’ve suggested in your question. Talking about sexual satisfaction, monogamy, fidelity, and related things can be explosive, so it needs to be approached thoughtfully.
The first question to address is whether or not you should talk to him about this. Only you can answer that. Can you go on in this great relationship without the element of multiple sexual partners? Will that be enough for you? Is monogamy a price you’re willing to pay to be with your current partner? The discussion below of needs may help you clarify for yourself why you are seeking an open relationship, and in so doing may help you decide what you are/are not willing to risk your relationship for.
If you decide to bring this up with him, you could try using interest-based negotiation techniques. Interest-based negotiation uses three concepts: “positions” (what we state/say), “interests” (what we want), and “needs” (what we must have). Picture an iceberg: “positions” are the tip of the iceberg, “interests” lie just below the surface, and “needs” are even further below the surface. People create conflict when their positions are not compatible. The point of this type of negotiation is to get beyond your positions to uncover the underlying interests and needs, and to hopefully find ways of having those needs met for both people.
From what I can see, right now your position (what you state/say) is this: “I love you, and I want an open relationship.” His position may be this: “I can’t be in an open relationship, and I’m horrified that you asked that of me.” These two positions are clearly in conflict, and the only options available to you two are “yes/open” or “no/monogamous” (fight!).
So, we need to figure out your interests (what you want), and he will need to figure out his. Yours may be, “I want variety, attention, adventure, novelty, tons of sex, intimacy with women,” or something else. His may be, “I want stability, reliability, devotion, attention, a girlfriend that only wants to have sex with me and no one else” etc.
Then you need to go deeper. What are the needs (i.e., what you must have) underlying these interests? Your needs may be…independence. Autonomy. Intimacy. Choice. Self-expression. Spontaneity. His may be…safety. Closeness. Security. Respect. Inclusion. Trust. Harmony. By trying to figure out your needs, you both can do two things: 1) see if you can get your needs met in a compatible way; 2) find out what is essential for you in a relationship (see my intro paragraph above). If your fundamental need(s) cannot be met in a way that works for both of you (for example, if he cannot feel safe or secure when you are involved with other people), then you’ll have to decide if you can live with that (for the sake of other needs that are being met by this relationship) or if you have to separate.
So, once you’ve taken yourselves through the position > interest > need process, you can then move on to the nitty-gritty of coming up with creative solutions that get your needs met. These solutions may look quite different from your original positions. And that’s the fun part! Talk. Listen. Listen more.
Negotiate. Brainstorm lots of options (e.g., making out with different people is fine; having sex with and developing feelings for different people is fine; we can sleep with other people once per year/month/week?), write them down, and strike them out if they don’t work for both of you. Reassure each other that the love and devotion is there. Run through potential real-life scenarios (e.g., can we sleep with people we both know? Can we “friend” them on social media? Can they come to our home?) to reveal your blind spots. My hope is that there will be at least one option that is a keeper. Try it out, and then set ongoing dates to discuss and re-negotiate as needed.