As a counselor in private practice in Berkeley, California, I see a lot of clients who are navigating the complexities of some form of open relationships. Some practice the swinging lifestyle, others form triads, some are married but have outside long-term relationships. Most have gone through one or two painful break-ups in their explorations of this relationship style. To help people through this, I have written a book called “The Polyamory Break-up Book: Causes, Prevention, and Survival.”
There are seven big reasons that relationships end:
(1) incompatibilities around sex
(3) domestic issues such as housework and kids
(4) different needs for closeness and independence
(5) addictions to drugs or alcohol
(6) untreated mental health conditions
(7) emotional or physical abuse.
These often manifest differently in open relationships than they do in monogamous relationships. For instance, your spouse may already be unhappy that they are not getting enough sex or that sex is not as exciting as they would like. However, when you start having sex with an outside partner, they are likely to become much MORE resentful and dissatisfied. You may have been telling your spouse that you are just tired or have a low sex drive, but suddenly you are very excited about having sex with someone else, and that can be devastating to your partner. If they are also having an outside relationship or if the two of you are going to swing clubs or sex parties, they may be fine with you having this hot love affair with someone else. However, if they are feeling sexually deprived while you are out playing with someone else, they are likely to feel very rejected and hurt.
Or you might already be unhappy that your spouse does not work full-time or does not make sufficient income, or they may be upset about what they consider your poor money management. However, they will become completely irate about this when you start seeing someone else. One husband said, “I didn’t mind being the breadwinner while [she] was home taking care of the kids. But now she’s out having sex with another guy while I am working by tail off to support her.” Or they may blow a gasket when they get the credit card bill and see that you have been spending money on romantic dinners or expensive birthday gifts for your new partner.
Or, a wife may be resentful because she feels her husband doesn’t do enough of the housework, cooking, or child care. But when he starts dating an outside girlfriend, his wife will go ballistic about being left home alone to change diapers and take care of the housework. One surprised husband asked his wife, “I never did any housework before, so why are you upset with me NOW for not doing it?” She replied, “Before, you were working overtime to bring home a paycheck, but now you are out partying with another woman while I am all alone at home doing laundry.”
Pre-existing tensions can really blow up when one partner starts dating someone else. About half of all break-ups in open relationships have nothing to do with polyamory, but are due to these “normal” causes, what I call “the usual suspects.” The other half of break-ups are directly caused by three different components of non-monogamy.
By far, the most common cause of poly break-ups is picking the wrong outside partners. Usually this means picking someone who is looking for a monogamous relationship. Most people in polyamorous relationships have made this mistake at least once, either because they thought they could “convert” their new lover to an open relationship, or because their new partner secretly hoping they could persuade them to become monogamous. Neither is likely to happen. People who really want an exclusive relationship will never be happy in an open relationship, and people who want multiple partners usually cannot be monogamous for very long.
Sometimes people jump into the wrong model of open relationship, and pick partners who want a very different kind of polyamorous relationship. For instance, many couples enjoy having casual sex with other couples or individuals, but they may accidentally get involved with someone who falls in love with them or is seeking a committed relationship. This can lead to disaster for everyone involved.
Picking appropriate partners— people who WANT a non-monogamous relationship and who want the same TYPE of open relationship as you do—is the single most important step you can take to have successful polyamorous relationships.
Another factor that will doom any open relationships is poor time and energy management. It is very tempting to be the proverbial “kid in the candy store” and take on more partners than you have the time or the energy to sustain! One or all of your relationships will collapse, because partners get tired of you cancelling dates because you are too busy, or falling asleep during a date because you were up late last night playing with your other lover.
Last but not least, jealousy destroys many polyamorous relationships. Many people are able to gradually overcome their innate fears about their partner being with other lovers, as well as “un-learn” a lifetime of cultural beliefs about sexual exclusivity being the only proof of love and commitment. However, some people have such intense insecurities, or are so possessive, that they are not able to tolerate sharing their beloved with anyone else; they just find it is too painful and eventually the relationship cannot be sustained.
Photo copyright Antonio Guillem