“Oh you, who linger in the garden, A lover is listening: Let me hear your voice.” Song of Songs 8:13
Judaism has always viewed sex and sexuality as both a blessing and a mitzvah. Each month Halachkinky will offer sex positive and medically accurate answers — written by a Certified Sex Therapist (and former seminary student) — to your questions about all things sexual, social and sacred. You can email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or submit them anonymously here.
How would you approach talking to your partner about opening up your relationship to new sexual partners?
This is such a brave question to ask — I want to start by honoring that! So many people are curious about exploring ethical non-monogamy, but bringing it up to our beloved can feel really scary. After all, this is a conversation that can go sideways quickly if not handled delicately. My first suggestion would be to start with some self-reflection. What is it about opening up your relationship that appeals to you?
In my work with couples, I often stress that it’s important not to think of non-monogamy as curative for dissatisfaction with your current partner. Abraham and Sarah showed us what pitfalls await when we use ethical non-monogamy as a way to fix problems in an existing relationship! Bringing new people into our lives — whether as friends, new family or something more intimate — should always be a choice grounded in love and a desire to be loving ... never as a means to address a lack of fulfillment where you are.
Step one then, is taking some time to figure out if you want to enhance an already strong relationship, or if you’re looking to fill a need that’s currently going unmet. Dealing with the latter? My strong suggestion would be to work through those issues first before introducing the idea of an open relationship. Sometimes, this means having one or two courageous conversations with your partner about a specific topic or issue that’s been on your mind. Sometimes this means working with a relationship therapist, like myself, to unpack some deeper issues and work together to rebuild/reframe your relationship.
If you determine that you and your current partner are in a good place and that what you really want is to expand the joy and happiness you already feel? Then your next step is considering what your vision for “opening up” looks like. Some folks just want to have new sexual experiences with new people — either with or without their partner. This model is often referred to as “swinging.” Others might want to date and form romantic relationships with people who will become new, longer term partners — sometimes called ethical non-monogamy, open relationships or polyamory.
Still others hope that their current partner would be open to dating folks with them and perhaps to forming new romantic and sexual relationships with other people together. This can take many forms from a hierarchical (“my spouse is my primary partner and my boyfriend is my secondary partner”) to a horizontal (“everyone is loved and affirmed equally”) relationship anarchy model.
Sounds complex to consider? It kinda is. Which is why it’s so important that you have a clear understanding in your own mind of what you mean when you say “open relationship.”
Once you know what you mean, I suggest introducing the topic by creating opportunities for neutral conversation. Watch things together that feature relationship models similar to what you’re envisioning. I really love the movie Dr. Marston and the Wonder Women, the show Big Love, the old 70’s comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and the Netflix series Polyamory: Married and Dating as conversation starters. Each of these shows a slightly different model of ethical non-monogamy; none of them shies away from the challenges these relationships can present.
Ask your partner what they saw that appealed to them, what they might not have cared for, what they might be curious to explore further. If they express zero interest in exploring further ... you have your answer. If, on the other hand, they are receptive to the idea of learning more, you can move on to some of the many great non-fiction resources that explore the practicalities of open relationships. My favorites are PolySecure by Jessica Fern, Building Open Relationships by Liz Powell and, of course, The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy.
It’s crucial not to open your relationship in a vacuum. Having folks who are further along on their own ethical non-monogamy journeys around you is invaluable when you inevitably encounter bumps along your own opening-up process. Look for Poly meetups, swinger events and online communities to bounce ideas off of, form friendships within and get suggestions and support as you and your partner grow your relationship in this new direction.
Open relationships aren’t for everyone. But then again? Neither is monogamy. Best of luck to you as you explore all the possibilities available to you and your partner(s).
Stefani Goerlich is a Certified Sex Therapist and Master Clinical Social Worker licensed in Michigan and Ohio. The founder and Clinical Director of Bound Together Counseling, PLLC, Stefani specializes in working with gender, sexuality, and relationship differences. She is the author of The Leather Couch: Clinical Practice with Kinky Clients and it’s forthcoming sequel, Kink-Affirming Practice: Culturally Competent Therapy from The Leather Chair.