My girlfriend and I have been ambiguously open since we started dating five months ago, but now I’d really like us to be exclusive.
We haven’t actually been hooking up with anyone else since we started dating, but recently she made out with an ex. She wants to keep the relationship open (so she doesn’t feel trapped by “the death sentence of monogamy”). When I heard she made out with her ex, I realized how not OK I am with our arrangement.
Now we’re at an impasse. I feel like I can commit only if we’re closed, and she feels she can commit only if we’re open. The good news is we’re both willing to compromise to make it work. We love each other. Thoughts?
–Open (but not that open)
I’m sorry that you find yourself in a position of feeling betrayed or uncomfortable with your relationship. However, I do think this situation offers an opportunity to explore the boundaries and structure of your relationship, and your relationship to relationships in general.
People and their hearts don’t work according to a progressive logic, but you can be conscientious and use language to “negotiate” within a relationship. I once knew a couple who had a ‘State of the Union” conversation every year for their marriage. Putting it in formal terms helped them to discuss their issues matter-of-factly without the tropes of guilt and shame that usually come with these things.
Because you asked about negotiation, I’m turning to an old chestnut called Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, which was first published about 30 years ago by two Harvard Business school gents named Roger Fisher and William L. Ury. Relationships aren’t business deals, but sometimes they operate like them. Perhaps at this moment it’s time to treat yours as such.
Onwards, to business school…
KNOW YOUR BATNA
When it comes to self-respect in relationships, I’ve often thought it’s essential to know your bottom line—the place where you just won’t go no matter what. But maybe I was wrong! The dudes who wrote Getting to Yes have another idea: a BATNA, or “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” They talk about this idea in the context of negotiations where one person has more power than the other (which in a relationship could be anybody at any given time). Basically for a BATNA to work, you need to know what your alternative is to agreeing with her. Think of alternatives to a negotiated agreement. Maybe that means planning a trip away from your partner, or looking around at other people that you could be interested in being with besides her who are down for monogamy. This might feel harsh, and ultimately if being in the relationship is more important to you than anything else, you’ll stick with it. If not, you’ll know what to look out for next time.
ASK YOURSELF WHY
This is the real kicker when it comes to open relationships. Articulating to yourself why you’re not OK with certain behaviors beyond a party line of “it’s just not right,” takes a lot of work. Sometimes the answers are uncomfortable and ugly. Which leads us to…
JEALOUSY IS A GIVEN
Asking yourself why you don’t want somebody to do something often reveals a lot of fears, jealousy and insecurity. Those are all normal feelings. They happen in relationships that are open and not open. Having an open relationship is definitely not a cure all for those feelings, rather it’s a lifestyle choice that provides different parameters for discussing those feelings. As the business school dudes remind us, “We are creatures of strong emotions who often have radically different perceptions and have difficulty communicating clearly.” It’s a given, so go with it.
START THE CONVERSATION WITH THINGS YOU’RE OK WITH
Call me a Pollyanna, but I’ve always thought it’s best to begin negotiations on a positive note. Find the common ground and start by articulating that. Or, as our good friends Fisher and Ury suggest, “Look for mutual gains whenever possible.” What’s beneficial to both of you about this relationship? Start by talking about that.
ABANDON POSITIONAL BARGAINING
A traditional negotiation might involve two parties haggling over an agreement to get their way. Sounds like a spousal argument, no? The authors of Getting to Yes refute this position and instead invite you to engage in what they call “principled negotiation.” In your case, that means starting by offering up options that you think might be appealing to your partner. How would she feel about being able to make out with other people that she hadn’t been involved with? What about making out with people in other cities? Or in a different vein, taking a vacation together to establish your own intimacy as a couple before opening up the relationship? Think about what your partner might be into, and then brainstorm for yourself a number of options that you might present to her. You have to be truly comfortable with these options of course, but starting by stepping into her shoes will give you a leg up.
In any sort of negotiation there will be a LOT of talking. It can be easy to let your eyes glaze over at a certain point, but as Fisher and Ury point out: “Active listening improves not only what you hear but also what they say.” They suggest that you “make it your task while listening not to phrase a response, but to understand them as they see themselves. Take in their perceptions, their needs, and their constraints.” It sounds like you’re well on your way there with your partner, but try taking a step back to just hear her out. What does being “trapped” feel like to her? What does it look like? What is the positive alternative that she imagines? It might be scary for you to really hear what she’s saying, but ultimately it will end better if you can really hear her.
NEGOTIATE INTERESTS, NOT POSITIONS
Right now, you’re talking about two positions: an “open relationship” versus a “closed relationship.” But you each have different, similar and overlapping interests within these positions. As Fisher and Ury say, “The basic problem in a negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side’s needs, desires, concerns, and fears.” I’m guessing you probably don’t want a relationship that feels like a “death sentence” any more than your partner does. She says what she doesn’t want, but what does she need from you? Company? Companionship? Love? Sex? Work to understand her interests and yours and then talk about how you can satisfy those rather than going back and forth about the abstract idea of “open vs. not open.”
My dearest, relationships involve the most complicated and subtle negotiations. Maybe we should all get MBAs before we’re allowed to fall in love, but barring that, we’re left with less debt and more tricky conversations. Try stepping back a bit and look at this deeply personal situation with a little bit of pragmatic impartiality. As Fisher and Ury write, “For an effective solution, giving support to the human beings on the other side tends to improve your relationship and increase the likelihood of reaching agreement. It is the combination of support and attack which works; either alone is likely to be insufficient.”
Go get ‘em tiger, you’ll make out like a bandit.
Just the Tips is Playboy.com’s weekly advice column with professional matchmaker Katherine Cooper. Have a question for Katherine about sex, love or dating? Shoot her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @kathkathcoop.