Smart People On Bad Days

My boyfriend and I have a great long-term relationship, and I love him very much.

We have a kind of open relationship; in the past, we have dated (and slept with) other people, but only together.

We have been lucky to find people who were into both of us and to have some great experiences with them.

Recently, my boyfriend started expressing interest in seeing people other than me, alone. He was getting a lot of attention at that time, and he wanted to pursue it whether or not the person giving him attention also wanted to see me. I kinda freaked a little.

It made me really insecure, and when we talked about that, his reaction didn’t help.

He agreed to slow things down and not pursue anything serious (though meeting people and even making out with them individually was okay), but I felt like he did so grudgingly, and that neither of us was really happy with where things stood.

But then, even more recently, I met up with a man who I peripherally knew and who, it turned out to my surprise, was really into me. At first we just flirted, but the second time we got together, we had an amazing night of talking, and we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. I realized I had to tell him the whole story, and fast, so I did, asking him if he might be open to seeing both me and my boyfriend. He was respectful and didn’t seem freaked out (which was a relief), but all I’ve heard from him since then is “maybe I’ll call you sometime when I’m in your neighborhood and we can take a walk and get a coffee.”

So – I need advice on two fronts. First, I do think I want my relationship with my boyfriend to be more open eventually – for us both to be doing our own thing more and exploring connections with other people.

But how do I get to a place where I feel OK about him seeing other people without me without feeling insecure?

How do I talk to my boyfriend without the inevitable “Oh, now that you’re interested in someone else you want to be more open!” reaction? And, what do I do about the other guy? Do I just let it drop for now? We are bound to run into each other sooner or later (we circulate in the same “scene”), and my boyfriend may be with me, and I can just imagine the awkwardness. If I simply thought this guy was a hot piece of ass, I wouldn’t care so much, but I genuinely like him.

Dear Camille,

It takes courage to open up your relationship, and it takes courage to be honest with your partner about your emotions –particularly when the emotions you have to own up to are ones of vulnerability.

Hell, all long-term relationships take courage!

You did the right thing initially by telling your partner about your insecurities and your hurt feelings. So first, congratulate yourself on being Very Brave. It’s good that you are such a brave, optimistic, and honest young woman, because what you need now is an additional quantity of courage.

There are lots of ways to organize an intimate relationship, and you and your boyfriend have chosen a particularly challenging way to do so. The fact that it is possible at all, that you have found some adventurous people who are willing to bone you both –and simultaneously!—should please you greatly. I’m not sure if the rest of us, particularly those who are single and searching, should be hopeful because if you can find people who are into that than surely the rest of us can find someone who’s into whatever it is we’re offering, or pissed because you seem to have a disproportionate part of the dating pool under your auspices.

But for you, the point is that you started your relationship one way, and now it’s changing. Even if you and your boyfriend decide not to change your behavior, some of your thoughts and feelings have developed in unexpected directions.

And change can be really fucking scary.

Going forward you need to remember that you are Very Brave, and that you are loved; you need to know that change happens and that you can accept it and shape it gracefully (and expect your partner to do the same); and you need to be open, honest, empathetic and trusting. Before you do anything else, you need to talk to your boyfriend.

Smart People On Bad DaysYou asked how you approach this conversation without having to hear some recrimination from him about your changing your mind when it was more convenient for you to do so. I can’t tell you that. You’re going to have to hear him say, at least initially, some things you don’t want to. He deserves a chance to say those things. And you deserve to hear it. But if your relationship really is a resilient and loving one –one that is worth it in the long-term– than you will both survive this exchange. He needs to understand that things change, and that your new, sexy circumstances have made it easier for you to be comfortable with a change he wants. He needs to be happy for you that you are more at ease now. And you need to be willing to admit that you changed your mind. It’s okay to change our minds sometimes. It’s appropriate to react differently to new events. And we need to give ourselves and our partners the freedom to be wrong sometimes. Being wrong is how we learn. I used to tell my college students this all the time: have an informed opinion, I would say, and then, when you get new or better information, change your mind. You changed your mind, and you should give yourself credit for that –and so should your boyfriend.

As for how you get comfortable with the idea your boyfriend seeing people separately from you, make sure that the fact that he’s going out and getting it on with someone else doesn’t mean that he loves you less, and that he tells you that. As long as that’s true, you need to be able to hear it and trust him. And that should help a lot with any insecurity you experience. And set up good relationship habits. You and he need to be able to talk and to listen, and to be able to tell the difference between discussions in which one of you simply needs the space to express your emotions and times when feelings or circumstances call for a change to the relationship. See my tips for having productive, fraught conversations if you think that will help.

Set up good boundaries for the relationships you will both pursue, and keep communicating as things progress.

Once you are sure that you can continue to get what you need from your partner, you will probably feel better. It might also help to remember that not every inequality is an inequity. We should strive to have fair relationships in which both partners are cared for in the way that best suits them. But not everything that works well for one person will work well for the other. For example, if your boyfriend loves cooking and you hate it, he might do most of the meal-making; not equal, but not really unfair either (as long as you do the dishes or something). If he ends up getting more attention from others sometimes, and taking advantage of it, and you really want to open up your relationship further, you will have to be okay with that. Remember that sometimes it will be you who has a few more dates. And as long as you explore this, and the emotions it engenders for both of you, honestly and with empathy, it doesn’t have to be a problem. It’s okay to take emotional risks and to challenge yourself and your partner, but it is not okay for either of you to feel coerced into doing anything you’re not comfortable with. So investigate this thoroughly, but if you can’t come to a place where you are comfortable, don’t open up your relationship any further.

As for the other guy: for christssake, call him!

I bet he dreads an awkward interaction at the next punk show or art opening or whatever as much as you do. He has emotions too, and right now they’re probably complicated and confusing. When he suggested that you might have coffee sometime, my guess is that he was trying to secure another meeting with you alone before you tried to pull him into some imagined group-sex scenario. But you don’t know what he was angling for because you haven’t talked to him yet. And since you respect him enough, and like him enough, to see him as more than just a hot slice, you and he both deserve a chance to talk this over. Talk to your boyfriend first, and then, after a suitable interval, give the guy the whole story. At best, you’ll develop some kind of new and fulfilling relationship, and at worst, you’ve got an awkward but ethical latte on your hands. It is always better to be honest and up-front with people, and you need to practice telling potential friends and partners about your “alternative lifestyle” without fear, and without scaring them. Practice may not always make perfect, but it sure helps, and though we can’t expect perfection from our relationships, we can put in the effort to organize them so that each partner is loved, respected, secure, and happy.


Photos courtesy of malias and


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