There she was…crying and wiping her tears away while trying to tell me what was troubling her.
She didn’t understand, she said. How could he do this? He wanted an open relationship. How did this happen? He mentioned it months into their relationship. He changed his mind. She agreed to the open relationship, reluctantly, but she agreed she said because she never thought it would happen. And it did. And here she was a couple months after that conversation, crying in between statements of incredulousness.
“How could he do this?” “How could she want this, too, knowing that I’m also his girlfriend?” “I don’t want this at all.” “Doesn’t he love me?”
And there she was, crying, and wondering how it came to be this way. Some couples choose to have open relationships. They talk about it, are honest with each other, and make it work. It takes a tremendous amount of work – on yourself and on the relationship- for this type of relationship to survive. I give her boyfriend credit- he did say he wanted an open relationship. He didn’t hide it.
Some cultures and religions accept open relationships as part of their belief systems. Before you shake your head in disagreement, it’s not that open relationships are “bad” or “wrong,” it’s what works for you. When you’re in a relationship, there’s an opportunity to talk about your beliefs, your wants, and needs with your partner, particularly in the beginning stages of a serious relationship so that you can determine whether an open relationship will work for you. It’s vitally important to have these kinds of discussions about your needs and wants before weeks and months go by and you’re invested in the relationship. And, it’s vitally important to be honest with yourself and your partner so that months in, you’re not devastated because you weren’t truthful about what it is you really need.
When I (Nicole) begin working with a couple, I often start with an exercise I adapted from Harville Hendrix’s work (he wrote Getting the Love You Want). It’s called the Relationship Needs exercise.
The exercise helps couples and individuals become clear in what they absolutely need in their relationship. They become crystal clear on what they can compromise on and what they won’t. Many couples enter counseling in crisis- and this exercise helps provide couples with not only getting in touch with their needs, but also how to communicate in a healthy and respectful manner. For example, if a wife puts down a husband because he needs to be close to family and she doesn’t care- we then shift the work in that moment to communicating with each other in a way that is curious, nonjudgmental, respectful, loving, and compassionate. Many couples don’t have these kinds of discussions because of the perceived repercussions- conflict, disrespect, shame, or blame, for instance.
When I spoke to this young woman, I immediately asked her what she wanted. While many people would tell her to leave the relationship, I don’t think that’s helpful. That’s my opinion- maybe she’d like to explore what an open relationship looked like and what the rules might be.
Knowing what your needs are before you become serious with someone is incredibly helpful- and it’s a must! Many couples get married and don’t have these kinds of discussions. Or, one or both partners aren’t honest with each other or with themselves and push aside what they really want. Know that, over time your needs will change. You may not have wanted children 5 years ago, but now you do. You may not care if your partner is a democrat and you’re a republican, but now it’s important you have the same political viewpoints. Whatever your needs are, take the time to get to know what they are and what your partner’s are. It will save you a whole lotta unhappiness and misunderstanding.