I Think I'm Poly: How Do I Initiate Open Relationships?

The start of a relationship⁠ can feel very fluid — you may date several people while you get to know them, and might pick up, stop, shift and start relationships at various points. Sometimes you can find yourself in a situation where you aren't entirely sure if you're "officially" dating someone at all, but it sure feels like you might be.

As a relationship starts to evolve into something more structured or long-term, you may want to have a deeper conversation about the form you want your relationship to take. For you, that may mean bringing up polyamory — or having your partner⁠ bring it up, in which case, this guide is for you too!

There are plenty of jokes about how much poly people talk about their feelings and relationships, and while it's a bit of a cliche, it's one for good reason. Romantic or sexual⁠ relationships between two people can be complicated enough on their own; when the number of people involved increases, the complexity does as well, just like it often does when close friend groups grow. Honest and open communication⁠ with all current and potential partners is essential here. If you don't have a great track record of honesty with previous partners, or have found that communication is tough for you to initiate, now's the time to really dig into those skills and think about how to apply them in your relationships. It gets easier with practice, and when you're balancing multiple relationships there are usually plenty of opportunities to polish those skills. And communication within poly is sure excellent practice.

Before you start these conversations with anyone else, though, it'll help if you can take some time to think about your own desires and goals for future relationships. This isn't an exhaustive list, of course, and your answers may change over time, but here are some good baseline questions to ask yourself as you're thinking about what you want.

  • What appeals to me about having multiple partners or relationships?
  • Do I want to aim or look for a certain type of relationship structure? ( triad⁠ , v, polycule⁠ , etc.)
  • How much time or emotional energy do I currently have to invest in new relationships and to manage concurring ones?
  • How comfortable am I with really honest communication, even about tricky or uncomfortable subjects?
  • Do I know myself well enough to clearly know my boundaries? Am I assertive⁠ enough to set and hold them?
  • How do I feel about my partner(s) dating other people?

If you're currently in a monogamous⁠ relationship, ponder these as well: 

  • Do I want my current partner to be involved in my other relationships? To what extent?
  • How much am I willing to discuss with my current partner?
  • How do I feel about relationships my partner might enter independently?
  • How do we want to talk about our own desires and boundaries?
  • Am I feeling insecure in my relationship? If so, what's driving that feeling?

There aren't necessarily right and wrong answers, here. People choose to have open relationships in a myriad of ways, and there isn't one that's best for everyone. What feels or works best can also change over time. The most important thing here isn't to get the answers right, but to be able to get them out at all, so that you can be as open and honest as possible with current or potential partners. As you learn more about what you want and how things play out in real life, some of your answers may change a bit, and that's fine, but by asking these questions now you're giving yourself a foundation to build on.

If you're not currently partnered with anyone but have been approached by one or more people who are openly polyamorous⁠ , or want to be clear to potential partners that you only want to form relationships in a polyamorous framework, it's helpful to talk about expectations up front. Because people choose to have polyamorous relationships in a lot of different ways, even if someone knows you're interested in non-monogamy⁠ , it's not necessarily going to be enough to just say "hey, would you like to date?" and breeze on from there.

This may sound intimidating, but one of the joys of polyamory is that it gives you a chance to approach relationships with intention and really think about what shape you want them to take. This is possible in monogamous relationships, of course, but because there are more models of monogamy to see and follow, and it's generally seen as the default model for "serious" relationships, choosing monogamy doesn't have to involve this process. Without a default cultural narrative for polyamory to draw from, why not take the time to really dive into your options and create your own narrative? For more on that, and how to think about your ideal relationship model, this article is a good place to start.

What if I'm already in a monogamous relationship?

If you're already in a relationship, and are interested in transitioning from a monogamous framework to a polyamorous one, there's a lot to talk to your partner about. In fact, it's likely something you'll wind up discussing in bits and pieces over the course of many conversations, instead of one huge one. Take some time to ask yourself those questions we mentioned above, so that when you talk to your partner you have a decent idea of what you want and how you're proposing to change your current relationship structure.

We won't lie: this can be a challenging conversation to have. Many people do prefer monogamous relationships, and others who might eventually come to embrace polyamory will be confused or upset by the suggestion at first. You might take a conversational detour into talking about the state of your relationship as it is, and reassuring your partner about your feelings for them. Once you've said your part, it's important to then listen to what they want out of a relationship, poly or not; you will likely need to give them some time and space to sort through these questions for themself, if they haven't already given a lot of thought to what an open relationship⁠ might look like.

Your partner might ask questions that reflect on the state of your relationship, such as: "Am I not enough for you?" "Don't you love me anymore?" Or more logistical ones, like: "Does this mean you want to bring someone in for a threesome⁠ ?" "Can I date other people too?" This is where spending some time with those questions we listed above can be helpful; even if you don't have all the answers right at hand, you can at least talk to your partner a bit about what appeals to you about changing your relationship structure, reassure them about your feelings, and give some details about what your ideal open relationship would look like.

It could be that you don't come to a decision in this first conversation; that's okay. Maybe you'll both have questions for each other, and you'll need some time to really think about what your answers are. If things feel heated, or overwhelming, or just plain confusing, it's always okay to put a big conversation like this on hold, and come back to it in the near future once you've had some time to think things over.

It's important to note that transitioning from a closed/monogamous relationship to an open/poly one is very likely to put some strain on that relationship. Even when everyone's communicating clearly, acting in good faith, and genuinely excited about the change, missteps can happen. A strong relationship can often handle issues as they come up, and some people find that the extra relationship-work and communication needed can actually make the relationship stronger overall, but the opposite is also true: a troubled relationship can really struggle under the added stress of adding new partners. Polyamory is not a great solution to pre-existing issues in a relationship; if things aren't going well, opening up the relationship isn't an automatic way to fix things, even if the issues are focused around attraction to others or one person wanting something the other can't or won't provide.

When you're opening up an established relationship, keeping that original relationship strong and intact can be a goal that winds up driving a lot of your decisions with regards to how you seek out and treat new partners. And while it's fine to prioritize one relationship over others in terms of time or emotional energy devoted to it, it's not okay to discount a new partner's feelings or treat them as disposable if problems arise with an established partner. It's important to make sure you're treating all partners respectfully and as full individuals with their own needs. This is particularly relevant in many situations where someone wants to "give" a partner a threesome, where there's more focus on fulfilling the desires of an existing partner than on what the new partner may want or need. No one's well-being should ever be an afterthought, no matter how many partners you may have.

My partner wants to open our relationship, what should I do?

First off, don't panic! Take a deep breath. If you feel shocked or upset by the idea, it's okay to take a step back from the conversation and spend some time on your own thinking about things, before you really hash things out with your partner. If the idea of an open relationship is a surprise, the fact that your partner brought it up at all might bring up some uncomfortable feelings for you. You might feel insecure about your relationship, or jealous at the idea of your partner dating or being sexual with someone else. You could feel nervous about the logistics of changing your relationship structure, or just plain confused about what's happening and why they brought this up in the first place.

Take some time to sit with your feelings and see if you can tell what concerns or questions are taking up the most space in your mind, and bring them up with your partner when you have a chance to sit and talk together. Ask about what they're looking for in opening up the relationship. It might be that they have clear and specific answers to your questions or concerns, and it might be that they've thought more about the big picture than about the specific details, so this conversation might be a time to ask them to nail down what they want. Polyamorous relationships come in many styles and configurations, and it may be easier for you to figure out what you want when you know exactly what your partner is proposing.

Finally, while we can't tell you what your partner is thinking or feeling, a few words of reassurance: wanting an open or polyamorous relationship doesn't mean that your partner doesn't love you or is bored of you. It doesn't mean you're not being a good or fulfilling partner. By all means, if you have questions about how your partner is feeling about the relationship, now is a great time to bring them up; but the suggestion alone doesn't mean there's a problem. As we noted earlier, if you do find that there are some underlying issues in your relationship, that likely means it's probably not the time to bring new partners into the mix.

Once you've talked with your partner or partners and established some basic guidelines for how you're going to pursue non-monogamy together (and separately), it may be tempting to race full-speed into polyamorous adventures. Do make sure, however, that you don't let your enthusiasm get in the way of other considerations. It's understandable that you might be excited about exploring new relationship territory, but just as in any other new relationship, don't let that excitement move things along too quickly. It's important to make sure you're taking things slowly enough to have a handle on your own feelings, and to touch base with your partners to make sure everyone's still on board. Check in with yourself, too: even if you're excited about polyamory, you may need your own extra time and space to adjust to the changes it could bring to your life.

Especially early on, it's helpful to have some periodic check-ins with your partners, to make sure things are moving smoothly and everyone's still happy with the relationship structure. There may be ongoing conversations, negotiations, or adjustments that need to happen to make sure everyone is feeling comfortable with their individual relationships, and with the larger poly structure as a whole. This doesn't mean you need to call up every partner and metamour⁠ after each date to process what went on, but regularly talking with people in your polycule is a good habit to cultivate. In relationships like a triad where all members are involved with each other, you might set up occasional group discussions or check-ins, but don't neglect to chat one-on-one with people you're dating, even if you share other partners.

These don't always have to be big, scary conversations; sometimes just saying "I'm feeling pretty good about this, are you?" and hearing an affirmative in response can be a solid reassurance. And if things are starting to feel uncomfortable or awkward for anyone involved, it's good to get those feelings out in the open early on, versus letting them fester or turn into real hurt or resentment. It's fairly common for people to revisit or re-evaluate boundaries or guidelines they've set for open or polyamorous relationships after a few weeks or months; after all, it's not always easy to know, before you start something, what you'll need to feel safe and supported in it. A few tweaks and adjustments are totally normal and can go a long way towards keeping everyone feeling secure and happy in their relationships.

Think safe

Of course, safer sex⁠ practices are important to keep in mind when it comes to any sexual relationship, but when someone has multiple partners, the logistics of deciding when it may or may not feel right to forego barriers during sex⁠ can be a bit more complicated. If you don't already feel like a safer sexpert, then now's the time to brush up on the basics; we have a good overview here.

If you are in a closed system, like a polyfidelitous triad (three people who only date each other), then it's recommended that partners have two rounds of STI testing, six months apart, while remaining monogamous to each other in the meantime, before foregoing barriers together, just as we recommend for sexually exclusive⁠  couples.

If you aren't in a closed-system relationship, though, it can be much harder to keep track of just who is and isn't using barriers during sex, getting tested regularly, or communicating with partners about their habits. If you agree to have sex without condoms with a partner, based on the sexual history and testing results of them and their current partners, what happens if their girlfriend's new boyfriend decides to go without condoms with his new flame? Would you feel differently about foregoing barriers with your partner? Would word of this decision even manage to make its way back through the chain of relationships to you?

You have the right to make whatever decision about your sexual health feels best to you, but in order to make the best decision you need to be able to make an informed decision. If you just don't know what safer sex practices people in your extended poly network are following, then you may not be aware of additional risks that arise. Making the decision to use barriers with all partners is often the safest option, in cases like these.

Like so many things in poly relationships, though, establishing a safer sex plan begins with communication. If you haven't had conversations with your partner or partners about what level of risk you're comfortable with, now's a great time to start. Some questions you might ask them or yourself could be: at what point (if any) am I comfortable foregoing barriers with partners? If I or one of my partners starts a new relationship, does my comfort level change? If one of us begins to feel differently about the level of risk we're comfortable with, how will we resolve those differences? Do we want to make getting STI⁠ tests an important event on our shared calendar so we all remember to do so regularly?

As we said at the start of this article, poly people joke about our penchant for communication for a reason: there really is a lot to talk about! There aren't necessarily right or wrong answers to all the questions we mention here, but there are likely going to be at least a few clear right or wrong answers for you and your situation, and it's important to figure those out, both through personal reflection and talking with your partner(s). Some of these topics might feel overwhelming to discuss, but with time and practice these conversations are likely to feel a bit easier and less awkward. As an added bonus: good communication skills will be a positive asset to your relationships now and in the future, no matter what form they may take.

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  • Jamie J. LeClaire

When it comes to sex and dating beyond the binary, not only are we given no blueprint, no representation, and no guide whatsoever, but we’re also working against the heteronormative messages we’ve all been indoctrinated with by media and culture from birth. Here are five ways I’ve learned to safely and creatively navigate dating spaces as a nonbinary person.