I’m a 20-something woman who has been in a monogamous relationship for a bit over 3 years. Our relationship started mostly as a friendship that led to casual sex, and then to a more “conventional” relationship. I will refer to my partner as “Jack”. We were doing rather well until around a month ago. I had sex with another man (henceforth “Bob”). And I very much enjoyed it. The event has strengthened a feeling I’ve had for a while, which is that I would be much more comfortable in a poly-relationship.

The problem is that my partner doesn’t feel the same. He has said multiple times that he could not “share me” — wording that I find a bit problematic. This has caused quite an inner conflict for me. I love Jack. We spend wonderful time together. I would be very sad to lose this. On the other hand, I cannot deny that I have feelings for Bob. I highly doubt the feeling is mutual, however, but that is something only he can answer.

As I said, I love Jack. I feel torn between the desire to not hurt him, and the desire to acquire some liberty. I feel horrible that what I feel would be best for me is incompatible with his happiness. What do I do? How do I proceed without breaking Jack’s heart (and mine in the process)? I cannot magically make him open to such relationships.



Hi, Marie! Thanks so much for writing. 

Okay, so as you’ve already noted, neither magic nor ultimatums are useful in “converting” someone to a relationship style they feel they are incompatible with. And you’ve already picked up on Jack’s unfortunate habit of describing the relationship in terms of ownership. We’re all fairly familiar with the terms and conditions that come with monogamous relationships as we know them: it’s a game of exclusionary willpower so don’t “cheat,” and it’s an informal ownership contract so it’s up to your generous partner to “share” you with someone else. Ownership of others has been and still is a pernicious concept in our society: slavery is probably the most available example but the marriage contract until recently signed off women and children as property of a man, which was not entirely absolved in leaving a legacy of entitled attitudes conflating control and romance regardless of gender — even when a couple is just dating.

It sounds like it might be time for an adjustment of terms. Asking for a change in the rules is pretty unheard of for most people, and those who take the unspoken contract to be binding may feel justified in immediately breaking a relationship off and telling anyone who will listen how betrayed they were at the very mention of reimagining the bounds of the relationship. It sounds like Jack has perhaps prematurely decided what he is and is not willing or capable to do in your relationship. Has he ever tried consensualy opening up a relationship? You won’t know exactly how Jack will react until you share some of your thoughts and needs with him in a serious discussion. But the question is, is it worth the potential pain?

I really recommend giving yourself permission to map out your dream life in terms of how you envision your relationships to be in a year or eighteen months from now. Go nuts. Wish wildly, even for things that you think might be impossible. In your version of relationship heaven, where are you, what are you doing, who are you with and what are you working towards? Don’t forget to be totally selfish about this. In a perfect parallel universe did anything surprising come up such as the desire to spend some time single, or to experiment with a side of your sexuality that you’ve not explored, or maybe to date women? Everything is allowed. Now the question is how strongly you feel about those items. I know that it can be sad and scary to think of hurting a loved partner, but this is about you right now. And it needs to be — after all, you are the multifaceted human who Jack loves. You are the only one who can uncover your needs, wants and curiosities and his role as someone who presumably cares very much about you could optimally be to support you rather than set limits.

Trying to “open up” a relationship could be hard, disastrous, and/or very, very rewarding. Is it ultimately worth it to you to try? It’s up to you. Consult what you brainstormed and imagine living or not living those possible realities. I also recommend “Opening Up” by Tristan Taormino.

To be clear: coming clean about wanting something other than monogamy was, in my experience, what ended it with my last long-term monogamous partner. It was sad, scary, and very hard. But ultimately I think it was what I owed both myself and him. It clarified the kind of life that I wanted to live which I now would not trade for anything, and he got to clarify what he needed, which was not me. Of course we both wished we could have it all — doesn’t everyone? But we’re both living our lives freer to pursue what energizes us and have fortunately managed to preserve enormous amounts of love and respect for each other.

I hope that the love, sex and relationship dreams that matter to you can all come true.