The Four Keys to Communication in Open Relationships

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It’s always important to have an open dialogue with your partner. In open relationships though, proper communication is absolutely vital. Today, we’re talking about the ways to achieve that.

Forget complex formulas for polyamorous communication! Any communication technique must be simple enough for you and your partners to utilize whenever there is a conflict, emotions are high, and no one is thinking clearly. When one or more people are feeling angry, hurt, or jealous, any complicated communication technique will out the window. It has to be simple and easy enough to remember and put into action when you or your partner(s) are not at your best.

couple prioritizing communication in an open relationship

The Four Keys to Communication in Open Relationships.

Make Sure to Listen Carefully

Pay close attention to your partner(s) words, non-verbal communications, and actions. In an open relationship, it’s not uncommon for one person to feel pressured to go along with something their partner wants. Some examples of this are:

  • Desiring to spend an overnight/weekend with a new partner
  • Wanting to have unprotected sex with another partner
  • Adding a new person into the relationship

In these situations, a partner may say yes even if they have strong negative feelings about granting permission. This is when it’s important to pay attention to their non-verbal signals. Are you making sure to really “hear” your partner?

Many couples have created major, unnecessary drama by ignoring all the non-verbal signs. One helpful trick to remember is that a partner will often “vote with their feet,” regardless of what they say with their mouths. They may say yes to a request to start an outside relationship, but then veto the new partner for some obscure reason, or make rules that are so unreasonable that the potential lover loses interest. Look for any non-verbal expression that your partner may not be happy with the dynamics of your relationship.

Know What You Want and Prioritize Communication about It

You may think you can handle your partner’s request to pursue sex and romance with a new lover, but when it’s all said and done, you may find yourself feeling distraught.

It could be that the particular person triggers jealousy for some reason. Or, the timing could be bad due to other stressors in life. Whatever the case may be, it is vital to express these feelings to your partner. Make sure to acknowledge that you did actually consent to this, but express your desire for a change in the agreement. Be compassionate with yourself and patient with your partner as you go through the process together.

Remember, guidelines in an open relationship are a moving target. They require constant refining and tweaking as you both learn more about yourselves and each other. However, you can’t be afraid to admit your true feelings to your partner, even if you worry that they won’t be happy about them.

We all have a tendency to tell our partners what we think they want to hear, but an open relationship isn’t something to just go along with.

couple prioritizing communication

Prioritize Communication with Yourself

How often are you checking in with yourself and your true feeling about your relationship? Open relationships are often faced with difficult decisions and complicated situations. If you find that you’re struggling, ask yourself three important questions.

  1. What would be ideal for me in this situation?
  2. Are there any situations that might be difficult and painful, but are likely to be manageable, with some hard work on my part and support from my partner?
  3. Is there anything that would make me really unhappy in this situation right now?

Don’t hesitate to say no to any relationship guideline or boundary, especially if it falls directly underneath that third question. Really think about what your bottom line is and stick to that, despite pressure from your partner to go along with something they really want. Many people have made the mistake of “being a good sport,” or “doing this for your own personal growth.” However, if you push yourself to accept something that makes you feel fundamentally unsafe, mistreated, or unloved, it will cause more harm than good in your relationship.

If you are uncertain about a particular request but feel that you can open up to it, it’s not a bad idea to try and “stretch yourself”. There should always be safety parameters in place though. Negotiate a “fallback plan” so that you have a way to re-open the discussion if anything proves too difficult. Maybe agree to try something for a month and then re-evaluate. Or, you can try a range of behaviors with the caveat that if any one of these becomes too uncomfortable, you can opt to veto one of them for now.

Always Tell the Truth

Honesty is the most important part of true, functional communication. Tell your partner the truth about yourself, your feelings, and your outside sexual and romantic relationships. The appropriate amount of disclosure is very important so that your partner(s) know what is going on in your life and how it might affect them. There is no formula for how much disclosure is best. This will look different in each relationship. What’s important is to create the right balance between allowing each person and each individual relationship to have some privacy, while providing all partners with enough information to feel safe, respected, and up to date.

The most important thing is this: don’t lie to your partner(s)!

If one of your partners asks you a question that you don’t want to answer, or requests information you would rather keep private, tell them that. A simple “I prefer not to talk about that,” or “My partner would prefer I don’t share that information.” is enough. But, you should never lie. It only increases the probability of more issues down the road.

Proper Communication is a Learning Experience

Even the most seasoned polyamorous people find it very difficult to talk to their partner about another relationship. We have no role models for this, especially since the existing model is to “cheat” and lie about it. Don’t feel bad if you need to practice this skill to get good at it. Try doing so in a non-charged situation, such as telling your partner about random people you find attractive, whether it’s a stranger on the street, a celebrity on TV , or a conversation about a past lover. If you get in the habit of talking about these harmless attractions, it will be much easier when there is a REAL outside relationship.

Remember though, honesty and transparency do not include invading your partner’s privacy! Resist any urge to snoop into a partner’s email or phone conversations. Instead, let your partner know what level of privacy you expect, and what types of disclosure you are comfortable giving and receiving. Privacy is not the same as secrecy or lying. And its success is dependent on the communication in your relationship.

couple using non-verbal communication

Metacommunication and the Five Goals of Communication

Successful and effective communication depends on something else: metacommunication. This means “communicating about communication”.

You should take time to think about the purpose of your communication ever before starting the conversation with your partner.  That way, you have the ability to communicate effectively. It gives your partner a better idea of the goal you are trying to achieve, that way you can both stay on track to reaching it.

Do you know the purpose of a conversation before it’s ever started? There are five main goals a person is trying to achieve through a particular communication. Can you identify the one you’re wanting?

The Five Goals of Communication

  1. To make a connection with your partner in order to create closeness and intimacy:
    “How was your day today?”
  2. To tell a story or give your partner information:
    “My mother is going to come over tomorrow.”
  3. To ask for support or comfort:
    “I had a rough day at work and I need to vent a little.”
  4. To solve a problem together:
    “We got a bill from the IRS today and I need your help to figure out if we did something wrong on our taxes.”
  5. To make a decision together:
    “Should I take this part-time job or keep looking for a full-time job?”

How is Your Communication?

Women are most likely to communicate to achieve the first three goals: to create intimacy or feel connected, tell a story, or ask for support or comfort. Men, who tend to be more focused on “fixing things,” are more likely to use communication to solve problems or come to a decision.

So, what tends to happen in conversations is that you communicate to meet one goal, and your partner responds with a different goal in mind. Then, neither goal is achieved.

When there is something you want to communicate to your partner, try this: Tell them as clearly as you can the actual goal of your communication. Use plain, direct language, like “I’d really like to work together to make a decision on this topic.” Then, have them confirm that they understand that goal. You will probably be surprised at how much more your partner will “get” what you are trying to say when you approach the conversation like this, first.

Communication skills take time and practice, but they pay huge dividends in sustaining happy relationships. Monogamous couples can get away with some nuances in their conversations, while those of us in open relationships are in a whole different ball game. We need to clearly voice our needs and boundaries and make explicit relationship agreements.

Remember these four keys to good communication, and err on the side of more communication rather than less!

Looking for new partners? Try SwingTowns to discover open relationship dating partners in your area.

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Kathy Labriola on WordPress
Kathy Labriola
Kathy Labriola is a nurse, counselor, and hypnotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, California, providing affordable mental health services to alternative communities including the poly, kink, LGBTQ communities and political activists. Kathy is author of two books, Love in Abundance, and The Jealousy Workbook, published by Greenery Press. She has been a card-carrying bisexual and polyamorist for 45 years. She is political activist and community organizer. She is extra crunchy, lives in a housing cooperative, rides a bike, and raises chickens and organic vegetables. Please visit Kathy Labriola to learn more.

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