I grew up an orphan of diaspora, immigrating at age 5 from the Philippines to the U.S., a country that didn’t—and still doesn’t—feel particularly welcoming to bodies like mine. Then at 16, I was emancipated, and put myself through college with a hodgepodge of degrading odd jobs. My partner grew up similarly: painting a bigger picture with whatever colors life had to offer, even if it was sh*t brown. We’re used to carving out spaces for ourselves, so it only made sense that we conquered love on our own terms, too.
When my partner and I met, our relationship took me by surprise. I’m someone who deeply values my independence, and loves to do things alone (movies, meals, events—all of it), yet here was someone with whom I wanted to spend every minute. The best part? He also wanted to spend time with me.
My partner and I were young, straight-seeming, and only had eyes for each other. We chugged merrily along for two years, functioning the way I’d always imagined traditional narratives of “true love” worked. But as our understanding of the world became more complicated, so did our views of relationships. As we became more serious, so did our plans.
One day, conversation turned to marriage, and he asked if I’d ever considered it. “Maybe,” I replied with a shrug.
My partner, however, took a more thoughtful approach: “I think I want to be with you for the rest of my life, but we met when we were 24. The idea of never having sex with anyone else seems ridiculous.”
dating is fun—f*cking, even more so. In its own way, even heartbreak feels good.
It sounded so simple when he put it that way—not at all tied to any inadequacies I or our relationship may have had. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how monotonous, restricting, and unappealing my “true love” fantasy sounded. After all, dating is fun—f*cking, even more so. In its own way, even heartbreak feels good.
So, we agreed to be each other’s primary partners, but still date other people.
As someone who relentlessly gambles on love (and often loses), here’s what I’ve learned about making an open relationship work.
1. See the non-monogamy in everyday life
Sexpert and Latina activist Aida Manduley, who is in a polyamorous relationship, says most people are closer to practicing non-monogamy than they think.
“When you are monogamous, do you do literally everything with your partner? Probably not,” Manduley, who works with the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, said. “We have to cultivate the idea that love can exist in many forms, that you can have a life that has a degree of independence from your partner, and that you don’t have to do everything together.”
We aren’t expected to limit consumption of our favorite things in other areas of life (i.e. eating only one food, listening to only one musician), so why shouldn’t the same be true for sex?
We aren’t expected to limit consumption of our favorite things in other areas of life ... so why shouldn’t the same be true for sex?
Sometimes, I want to be with a total stranger, or a woman, or someone who simply has qualities my partner doesn’t—and that’s okay. Wanting to experience a spectrum of sex and sexual dynamics shouldn’t be a point of shame, and knowing that your partner can’t fulfill all your needs isn’t cruel; it’s realistic.
Even in monogamous relationships, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll never have sexual fantasies about someone else. In a respectful partnership with good communication, these desires can be explored healthily.
2. Get over yourself
Part of life is learning that things won’t turn out the way you imagined, and part of growing up is realizing that maybe it’s better that way. This fantasy of wanting to be the perfect partner for everyone is rooted in American narratives of exceptionalism—but none of us are really that special. (Even Beyoncé’s had her heart broken.)
So, the key to making an open relationship work is to stop thinking you’re special, Manduley said.
“That is a really hard identity to let go of, because if you’re polyamorous or in an open relationship, you are admitting that you are not the best human in the world,” she explained. “It’s hard to let go of being the best, but I think it’s important.”
my partner and I give each other everything we can—but that doesn’t mean we can give each other everything.
Letting go of your Special Snowflake Syndrome might seem daunting, but humility has been foundational in my open relationship. The reality is my partner and I give each other everything we can—but that doesn’t mean we can give each other everything.
I want to experience all life has to offer—sexually and otherwise—and I want that for my partner, too. When you’re happy that your partner can be happy with someone else, it means you’re invested in their joy in a truly unselfish way.
3. Communication is key
Regardless of whether you’re the type of person who shares a color-coded Google calendar with everyone you’re dating, or someone who prefers to wing it, you must have a conversation with your partner before embarking on an open relationship.
Discuss what would and wouldn’t hurt your feelings before you see other people, and learn through trial and error. Even when you’re fighting, don’t treat your partner like a stranger. Remember all the sh*t you’ve gone through together (i.e. cross-country moves, family drama, work stress) and what bonds you together.
Even when you’re fighting, don’t treat your partner like a stranger.
When my partner and I first opened up our relationship, I preemptively curbed my jealousy by asking him not to share details about his sexual encounters with other people, or how they look (is he or she prettier than I am?). But the more people we dated, the less pressure there was for our relationship to be perfect and all-encompassing. The happier we were, the more comfortable I felt telling my partner about dates like the best friends we are.
One time, however, I fell asleep after a date without texting or calling to tell him I was home safe. He said it made him feel ignored, which is the opposite of what I wanted. After talking it out, my partner and I realized we simply had misaligned expectations. I learned that I should do my best to text or call in the future, and he learned not to expect it every single time.
If you thought you’d be cool with something, but aren’t, tell your partner. Advocate for what you do and don’t want—because no one else will do that for you. And this goes both ways: Listen to your partner’s likes and dislikes with patience and understanding. If you’re opening your heart to them, you should be on each other’s teams.
4. Make room for jealousy
I expected to feel different after my first encounter with someone else, like the electricity of touching new skin might propel me away from my partner. But after my date left, I was relieved to find that I still felt like myself: excited to be on my own, thrilled by the new experience, but still wondering what my partner was up to. “Do you still love me?” he asked when I called him—to which I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of his question.
The first time my partner slept with someone else, I thought I’d die of insecurity. But after his date, he didn’t hesitate to say yes when I asked, “Am I still your No. 1 girl?”
How could a moment with someone new alter this immense, immovable love we’ve had for each other for so many years? It couldn’t—and I wouldn’t have learned that had I let my insecurities eat me up.
Jealousy is a symptom—jealousy is not the thing itself that you have to worry about.
“Jealousy is a symptom—jealousy is not the thing itself that you have to worry about,” Manduley said. “Jealousy is a thing to work through and to be investigated. Jealousy is usually a sign that you are missing something, are afraid of losing something, nervous about something.”
It should also serve as a tool to improve your relationship, she added. If jealous feelings arise, ask yourself: What am I afraid of? What do I think will happen? What do I feel like I’m missing?
If you voice these concerns to a compassionate partner, they’ll listen to you patiently, help assuage your insecurities, and answer all your questions. Jealousy isn’t an emotion you have to suffer through alone.
5. Choose to love each other every day
If you’re afraid of catching feels while in an open relationship, don’t. Love is often wrongly seen as the big bad bogeyman (you f*cked that guy from Tinder who acted like snuggling after sex was riskier than going bareback). But love shouldn’t be threatening—it’s a gift that’s bigger than all of us—and the truth is, you can’t control it.
You can, however, control how you act on those feelings.
love shouldn’t be threatening—it’s a gift that’s bigger than all of us—and the truth is, you can’t control it.
“You can do some things to try and not fall in love with people, but sometimes, that just happens. What you can control is how much time you spend with people; you can control how you are respectful to your partners,” Manduley said.
You choose to tell your partner you f*cked someone else. You choose to watch that movie without them. You choose to pick up their favorite snack while grocery shopping. When you really care about someone, you consider their feelings when making any decision, both big and small. Choosing to love your partner generously means respecting their feelings every day.
I once told my partner, “I could break up with you any second, and know I’d be okay.” He was confused at first, but I explained that this was a good thing. With everyone else I’d dated, I felt like if they ever left me, I would be distraught, lonely, and sure that nothing good would ever happen again.
But my partner has filled my life with joy by encouraging and helping me to pursue my goals. Our unselfish love transformed me. I’m now more comfortable with myself and my desires. I’m more confident in my ability to live my life as the unapologetic love addict I am.
This hunger, Manduley said, is both healthy and sustainable: “Love is not a zero-sum game. Love is a renewable resource. You can always have more love.”
This post originally appeared on NTRSCTN.com