Some of the most frequent questions I hear from couples on the topic of non-monogamy are ‘How do you define your boundaries in an open relationship?’ and ‘What are your rules?’ This hints at a common – and totally understandable – set of desires of anyone who’s entering into an open relationship for the first time: certainty, control, clarity, safety. In essence the question is
How can I avoid getting hurt, hurting my partner, or destroying our relationship?
Well, this is one of the first choices you’ll make on your non-monogamous path. And it’s a choice that most couples make unconsciously when they’re opening up, because they don’t know the options. So let’s dive into 3 approaches to defining your open relationship boundaries and agreements:
- Prescriptive – The Fixed Path
- Descriptive – The Desire Path
- Iterative – The Experimental Path
Creating Open Relationship Boundaries: Approach #1
The Fixed Path (Prescriptive)
Prescriptive boundary setters are going to get explicit about exactly what is and what isn’t okay, perhaps before the possibility of dating someone new even exists. Think, ‘I’m only open to physical intimacy with people who practice safe sex.’ or ‘I’m not comfortable with my colleagues knowing about our non-monogamous lifestyle.’
This take it or leave it approach is awesome if you’ve got deep clarity about what you want and don’t want in your life, and can clearly communicate that to your partner(s). In most cases, the absolute clarity will help them to feel safe as well, because they know what to expect. And occasionally, it may lead you both to realise that your desires for the relationship are incompatible, and that’s okay.
For the inexperienced, however, a lot of prescriptive boundary setting will sound more like imposing rules or restrictions on the other person. For example, ‘You’re not allowed to fall in love with anyone else.’ or ‘Kissing is fine, but you can’t touch each other sexually until I say so.’
Expressed like this, the rules are a way of maintaining [the illusion of] certainty and control. Believing you’ll be safe and comfortable with this change as long as you can keep hold of the reins and decide when, where and how fast this thing is moving. And I absolutely get that, because this relationship is incredibly important to you and opening up can feel like you’re throwing all caution to the wind!
But… rules rarely work if they don’t make sense to all parties. Which leads us down the second path.
Creating Open Relationship Boundaries: Approach #2
The Desire Path (Descriptive)
In Japan, landscape architects open public parks before the footpaths are constructed. After some time, they survey the land to see where visitors’ footsteps have worn the grass down, and it’s along that route that they set the permanent walkways. Even in other places where fixed paths are engineered from the start, you’ll see humankind forging Desire Paths of their own if another trajectory makes more sense.
A descriptive approach to boundary setting considers that you don’t necessarily know how you want to explore the terrain until you’ve started exploring the terrain. And so, you keep your boundaries open to all possibilities and fly by the seat of your pants. You do this knowing that at some point a boundary will become apparent and that when it does, it’ll likely be because someone has trespassed on it. Perhaps by hooking up with your best friend at a Christmas party.
Now, with that in mind, this approach requires deep trust and commitment from all parties. You’re walking into something knowing there’s a risk it’ll hurt. And so it is critical that you have solid mechanisms in place, for:
- understanding your feelings and needs as they arise;
- working together to resolve challenges and release tensions; and
- communicating, then adapting your relationship to the new information you’re receiving.
You’ll also need a good measure of generosity and care for each other, and a fundamental belief that you’re on the same team (i.e. even if it hurts, you believe they’re not out to hurt you.)
Importantly, if you know straight up that something is a dealbreaker for you, or a hard boundary, it is not fair or safe to let your partner wander unwittingly into that territory! Descriptive boundary setting is an approach for exploring unknown terrain, not for setting someone up for failure.
But there’s still a better way to do that.
Creating Open Relationship Boundaries: Approach #3
The Experimental Path (Iterative)
If you take the first two approaches as the extremes of certainty and uncertainty, you can think of this third one as Goldilocks. A way of setting open relationship boundaries that leaves you the space to stretch your comfort zone, without throwing yourself into panic mode.
Iterative boundary setting borrows ideas from innovation and the lean startup methodology. (Bet you didn’t imagine seeing those buzzwords round here…) When you and your partner are setting your open relationship boundaries in an iterative way, you come together to:
- make a hypothesis about what might work for you;
- design experiments to test that out for a time; and
- adjust your agreements as you learn more about yourselves and each other.
It gives you a safety net for exploring the limits, because nothing is set in stone.
This is great when some aspects of open relationships feel uncomfortable – potentially because of societal conditioning – and you want to try to shift that. For example, you might experiment with radical full-disclosure at the start of your non-monogamous journey, hoping that the more you hear, the easier it’ll get to manage. You agree to tell each other about every first date, first kiss, first touch etc. And perhaps that works for you. Or perhaps you realise that hearing all of these intimate details about your partner’s dating life is boring, or painfully triggering, so you try a gentler approach instead.
Making your open relationship boundaries experimental is also a useful way to navigate needs and desires that first appear to be in conflict. As long as it’s not a hard ‘No’ for anyone involved, you might agree to try it one way, then the other, and simply observe what works and what doesn’t. From there, you can make a more informed decision about a mutually satisfying agreement.
In a sense, with this iterative approach to setting your open relationship boundaries, you’re edging uncertainty. And that gives you permission to experiment, to learn and to grow, while you and your partner design a relationship on your own terms.