'I'm Polyamorous, Here Are My 4 Tips For Open Relationships'

I have known since adolescence that I am polyamorous; I love more than one person at a time. Though I didn't have a word for it until I was older. When I started working with people as a therapist three decades ago, one of the areas I was interested in was helping people feel ok about non-monogamy, because I had quite a lot of shame around it for a long time.

About seven years ago, I started talking more about my private life; my polyamorous relationship, BDSM preferences and that attraction for me is not about gender, if I really like someone's energy I will be attracted to them.

Somebody then called me about a TV project following couples who were non-monogamous and asked if I would want to be in it, because I'm non-monogamous. I said no, because we're rather boring. We do have an unusual situation in that we're non-monogamous and it's also a BDSM relationship; I always say he's the boss. But if you came to our house and looked at our relationship on a daily basis, it looks like a traditional marriage, though I have a couple of partners in the U.S. and they are long term committed relationships. My non-monogamy is what is known as "kitchen table polyamory." Everybody knows each other and we are all close. I'm 59 now and I'm still partnered with someone I was with 42 years ago. We've been friends, lovers, friends with benefits and we're still in each other's lives all these years later.

Non-Monogamous Therapist Dr.Lori Beth Bisbey
Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey has been working with couples opening up their relationship for more than three decades. Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey

More recently, I was contacted by a production company for Open House: The Great Sex Experiment, a TV show on British television network, Channel 4, asking me to participate as the show's therapist. Couples who want to open up their relationship come to a retreat in the show, I meet with them, find out what they want to do and then come up with activities to help that along. Most of the couples who came wanted to open up sexually, though some wanted to open up more long term. The show follows these relationships, but overall, I've worked with about 1,000 couples opening up their relationship over more than three decades of work as a therapist. So, these are my tips for couples considering non-monogamy.

Know exactly what you're asking for

Often people I work with haven't really talked about what they want. I frequently see couples when they have attempted non-monogamy and it's gone really badly. Repairing is harder than helping people prepare for a better experience.

I advise my clients to figure out exactly what it is they want. Do they want to do things together or separately? Are they talking about opening up for life or for the short term? Are they talking just sex or do they want to be friends with people they're having sex with. After that, there still needs to be discussion about boundaries and what comes up for people.

I worked with one couple, Mary* and John*, who were really focused on finding people and making profiles on dating sites, but they never actually talked about what kind of non-monogamous experience they wanted to have. Mary thought he was going to be with her and they were going to go and find someone for a threesome. Meanwhile, John wanted Mary to go off and have her dates while he had his separately. They had a completely different idea of what they were going to do; they hadn't thought through what they wanted and the impact on the relationship. So, they ended up in a fight before they did anything because John started talking to a girl on his own. I began by suggesting that they start with talking through why they wanted to open up their relationship and figure out what they wanted to get out of the experience. Then they were able to agree on what would work for both of them.

This couple had also never talked about sex and they had been together for about 10 years. That's not unusual, I'm afraid. People often don't talk. Knowing what you want also means knowing what your desires are and exploring what you want together. Talk about it.

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Don't go for a threesome as your first non-monogamous experience

Three is an awkward number. I can't tell you the number of couples who want a threesome and are really excited about it, and then it doesn't go well because one person feels left out. On Open House: The Great Sex Experiment I worked with one couple who had a threesome and the two women were really focused on each other. The male partner in the relationship didn't know how to communicate to get involved. You see in the show that it resulted in a major blow out. They came and saw me and we talked about why they didn't communicate during the situation. Having sex doesn't mean you don't talk. We talked about how to communicate and what to communicate about. I asked if they had talked about what they wanted before getting into bed? The answer was no. It seems really simple but these are the things people miss. The second time this couple and a third woman talked about what they wanted beforehand and during, and everybody had a wonderful time.

I always suggest not choosing three for your first non-monogamous experience, and I tell clients to be really clear about what the focus is going to be and what happens if the third person is really into one partner and not the other. If you choose four you have much less chance of that happening.

Keep talking

One of the mistakes I see people make is having an agreement with each other about the rules they're going to have and not reviewing that. They then go out and have other relationships but they don't continue to look at what they have agreed to. Humans are not static!

One couple I have worked with, Bobby* and Jim*, opened up their relationship, but Bobby didn't really want to date. He was happy to go out and have episodic sexual experiences when he was away for work. Meanwhile, Jim really enjoyed dating. So he had permission to do more. He didn't have to be away for work; he could go on a date during the week. They had agreed that as long as no more than two nights a week were taken away from the relationship, that was acceptable. But Jim had the same partner for a number of dates, and they hadn't really talked about whether they could date the same partner multiple times. Jim tended to date the same people over and over again and Bobby wasn't happy with that, and became insecure. They didn't talk about it until Bobby was really upset, and so the first conversation about it was a big fight. Jim got upset because he felt like he hadn't done anything wrong. I encouraged them to schedule regular reviews of what they agreed to and their boundaries. You need to keep talking.

Do your own work

Non-monogamy and polyamory require self development. What I see getting in people's way most often is their own insecurities and issues. The biggest issue is jealousy; fear of being replaced or not being good enough.

I've had clients, Jessie* springs to mind, who thought they were going to be fine with opening up the relationship. Jessie was until her husband started dating someone who was very similar to her. She felt very uncomfortable with that, and she and her husband were arguing all the time. Jessie came to see me on her own and said she felt like her husband was having an affair. I gently reminded her that she had agreed to non-monogamy, so we looked at what her negative feelings were about. For Jessie, it felt like her husband was dating a younger version of her. She felt that all of her perceived flaws were being magnified, and that her husband was going to eventually run off with this other woman. I call this: "Monogamy hangover." Monogamy is "either/or" whereas non-monogamy is "both/and". We then discussed his behavior and she realized she was happy with it; they were having date nights and he was paying her lots of attention. She then had to do her own work in order to feel comfortable. It had everything to do with how she felt. Jealousy is often about ourselves rather than anything on the outside.

For all relationships, not just non-monogamous ones, communication is the number one skill you need. Good communication skills are required to have a healthy one-on-one relationship, but when you start adding numbers, more complications arise and the better those skills need to be.

People often say that because I am non-monogamous I must be pro-non-monogamy. Actually, I'm pro non-monogamy for me. It works for me and for some people and it doesn't for others. If you choose monogamy, that's great. What I am is pro-choice. I want people to know enough about themselves and what is out there in order to make good choices.

Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey is a GSRD (gender, sex, relationship diversity) therapist, sex and intimacy coach and psychologist. You can find out more at drloribethbisbey.com or follow her on Instagram @drbisbey.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

*Names have been changed.