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Asking for an open relationship doesn't need to be weird

Sabrina Asseraf, a 23-year-old creative director at a social media agency in Montreal, naturally fell into an open relationship when she met her primary partner at a BDSM dungeon, a space dedicated to exploring BDSM kinks. “It was understood, at first, that what we had was just casual, until it wasn’t. He knew I wanted to see other people — especially since I had others to play with BDSM-wise — and he did as well,” she says.

An open relationship is defined as two individuals within an intimate partnership who both pursue additional emotional or sexual relationships outside of their own, either with shared or separate partners. For many couples, that transition can require extensive rounds of negotiations. When Lori Waltenbury, a 32-year-old photographer based in Toronto, realized she no longer wanted to rely on one person to fulfill her sexual needs, it took several conversations to get her partner to warm up to the idea of seeing other people on the side. “Knowing he’s willing to have these conversations makes us so much stronger,” Waltenbury says. “This past time he was kind of excited about it.”

If both parties are genuinely on board, the conversation — and eventual open arrangement — might yield scientifically backed long-term benefits. A 2014 study from the Journal of Sexual and Relationship Therapy found that adults within open relationships report increased health and happiness levels than their monogamous counterparts. Naturally, the fear to broach the topic can be pretty real. But it doesn’t have to be, says Courtney Watson, a California-based marriage, family, and sex therapist, who offered a little advice that could help you navigate this conversation smoothly and respectfully.

Make sure the timing is right

Timing can make all the difference in determining the success of your conversation about polyamory. While there’s no blanket timeline recommendation that applies to all couples, Watson suggests addressing the topic any time outside of an argument. Set aside a moment when neither of you will be interrupted or distracted. As in Waltenbury’s case, this should not be a one-time conversation, but rather an ongoing discussion occurring organically throughout your relationship.

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Be direct

Jenna Potter, a 28-year-old videographer and musician based in Montreal, found the perfect window to open up the conversation when she began jokingly swiping on Tinder next to her boyfriend. “I expressed that I missed girls and that I never really got a chance to explore [bisexuality] enough [...] It was easier for me to ask him to accept it when I included him in that fantasy,” she says.

But that playful strategy might not work for everyone. Watson warns that proposing your idea in too relaxed of a setting might undermine the sincerity of your request.

“A flirty text could be fine, but also make sure you’re not using humor or subtlety to deflect from clearly asking for what you want,” says Watson. Scheduling an appointment with a therapist (who openly states they’re familiar and non-judgmental of non-monogamous relationships) can certainly help you gain confidence in your ask. But Watson notes that most clients who enter her practice looking for help on how to ask their partners already have all the language they need to get the conversation started. They just need that extra support from a trained professional.

If you’re truly at a loss for what to say, first identify your partner’s communication style and sensitivities, then try a variation of these conversation starters that you believe might suit them best, according to Watson:

· “So, I’ve been hearing a lot about open relationships, and I was wondering, What are your thoughts about them? I’m intrigued by the idea.”

· “Keisha is polyamourous, and when I was talking to her about it, it made me think about my desire to have multiple relationships. What are your thoughts?”

· “I've heard that non-monogamous people are just greedy cheaters, but I don't think it’s about greed. To me it’s about X, Y, and Z. What do you think?”

· “I want to open our relationship but I want to be intentional about your feelings as well as your needs, wants and desires. Can we talk about it?”

· “I’m realizing that my attraction to you in X has changed, but I’m still attracted to you in Y. I've been wondering if opening the relationship could be helpful for me to get X. What are your thoughts and feelings about that?”

When broaching the topic of opening your relationship, ease into it slowly by practicing with other subjects that feel more natural to you. Then, build your confidence until you’re finally ready — or more ready, at least — to discuss opening up your relationship.

Whatever you do, avoid insinuating that your partner is inadequate. Focus, instead, on you seeking autonomy over your own body. For Waltenbury, that meant telling her partner, “You fulfill me mentally and physically, but I want that level of independence,” she says.

Respect boundaries

You might have said all the “right” things at the “right” time, and yet your partner still declined your offer. There are a few things you could do. Watson says there’s nothing wrong with checking in on your partner in a few months to see if their position, thoughts, and feelings on the matter have changed. However, if you find yourself continuously following up “because you are oriented toward or have a very strong preference for non-monogamy,” says Watson, without any movement on their end, it might be time to think about whether this relationship is meeting your needs on a holistic level.

Whatever you do, avoid insinuating that your partner is inadequate. Focus, instead, on you seeking autonomy over your own body.

Ignoring our own boundaries can do serious long-term psychological damage. When negotiating the terms of your sexual contract, be sure to compromise so that you both feel satisfied within the arrangement, instead of compromising your own needs entirely. “I’ve been a serial dater for a while and haven’t given myself a chance to explore polyamory or my queerness. [My current partner] has been very chill about all that,” Potter says. To ease his worries, Potter promised not to bring her new girlfriend into her and her partner’s bed. “That was a big selling point,” she says.

What to do if you’re not on the same page

If they aren’t budging on your offer, it’s important to know when to drop the topic. “There are mismatches in relational dynamics,” says Watson. “You don't have to navigate them alone, but neither of you should have to compromise an integral part of your relational makeup if it’s not working.” She recommends working through the next steps in your relationship with a skilled poly-knowledge therapist so you don't have to try to manage it on your own, says Watson. Tensions might be running particularly high in the wake of a conversation that didn’t go your way, so avoid making any rash ultimatums. “That will only build further resentment,” they say.

And, of course, if your partner has agreed to open up the relationship, go ahead and enjoy this new exciting chapter.