When open relationships break up: How to support your free-loving friends

When I first announced on Facebook that I was “in an open relationship”, it being approximately the third and the most serious relationship I had been in so far, the update brought a handful of ‘likes’ and one comment from a woman who merely said ‘Yolo’. On the one hand, correct–I do only live once, I may as well have a boyfriend while I stalk the confines of this mortal plain. But on the other, it was clear that she saw my open relationship as a wacky experiment, rather than as a rather nice part of a lifestyle that I had committed to long before this particular partner–indeed, a decision I had made before I got into any relationships.

In a world where exclusive monogamy rules at a global level, and many of us get a lot of our early relationship lessons from Snow White or romantic comedies, open relationships are frequently treated as a novelty object, rather than as legitimate relationships with feelings as messy and deep and loving–or not–as any other kind. When they break up, some of the same attitudes come out from well-meaning people whose presence is often necessary and appreciated, but who accidentally say some unhelpful or damaging things with regard to the open relationship aspect. So for people bemused by the whole thing, here’s some advice about how to help your free-loving friends out when they have relationship problems.

But first, a preamble: what the fuck is an open relationship?
Hell, before we even start on that, let’s clear up what we mean by ‘relationship’. This would take a long time to do comprehensively–I’m considering writing a thesis on it–but the short version of how it’s largely defined by dominant Western culture is: an ongoing sexual and emotional agreement between two (or more) people. Now of course not all ongoing sexual agreements are going to be ‘relationships’, but it’s very rare that explicitly non-sexual agreements are termed as such. (I suggest the romantic relationships of asexual people are a rare exception.) Of course, people often disrupt this definition of relationship in their personal lives–I’ve had platonic best friends who I often felt I was in a relationship with, given that the high levels of commitment, emotions and co-dependency outweighed those I’ve had with many sexual partners. But these sorts of relationships aren’t generally used by the state to halve your student allowance, nor to legally bind people during a ceremony that bridal shops and elderly aunts tell you is the best day of your life. Whether we like it or not, these capital-R Relationships exist as a cultural and institutional way of organising people’s social, emotional and economic lives, and it’s really hard to escape that social conditioning even if you want to.

So if we’ve got that definition of relationship down, let’s look at the ‘open’ part. Basically it involves the possibility of engaging sexually with more than one person during the same time period. (And again, I say sexually here because obvs you engage emotionally/socially with more than one person during a time period–such people are called ‘friends’.) One of the reasons many people interpret open relationships as a ridiculous and impossible idea is because they’re characterised as a bizarre and otherworldly category of intimacy, wherein you have to open yourself to a whole world of chaos where any and all limits on your partner’s behaviour are taken off, and then robotically shut yourself off from feeling or expressing any misgivings about them hooking up with anyone else. In the romantic comedy No Strings Attached, which flirts with the idea of non-exclusive non-monogamy, Natalie Portman’s character sets a ground rule with her friend-with-benefits that they are to have “no jealousy”. This is pretty ludicrous–who can promise to never have an emotion? Even the most experienced free lovers get jealous from time to time; although they might interpret and express that feeling differently, anyone who says they never get jealous is straight-up lying or deluded. But when culture only talks about the most extreme working conditions for open relationships, it’s small wonder many people stick to exclusive monogamy. (And I’d argue that culture paints them as such precisely for that end, but that’s another discussion.)

But not all open relationships are the base-jumping of intimate human interaction. In reality, the relative openness of any relationship forms part of a spectrum. Think of it like a door: everyone can only open themselves far before their hinges start squeaking–some people may be able to open your door farther than others, some might make you want to lock that door up for a long time afterwards. To get away from a weird metaphor, I’m just going to say these things are hugely variable: some people who describe themselves as ‘in an open relationship’ have one primary partner and sleep with other friends on the side, or only make out with other strangers at parties. Some may require advance notice of hookups or a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy; some may welcome their lover back from their month-long holiday, ask “So, how was your trip down south? If you know what I mean?” and guffaw inappropriately. Others might have more than one capital-R Relationship at the same time, or be part of an agreement between three people. Everyone sets their own limits for what they feel comfortable with–there’s no magical ‘right’ or universal way to do an open relationship, because each individual has different limits on what they can and want to do in the context of sex and love.

So that’s the preamble, and we’ve established, I hope, that open relationships are real relationships, and come with all the love and arguing and vulnerability and quoting the LOTR opening during sex that any other relationships do. (Heavens no I’ve never done that why are you staring at me.) And, like any other relationships, they end at some point, and working through the logistics of breaking up is painful and scary and boring and periodically amusing and complicated. Unfortunately, many people tend to assume there are different rules for how to respond to their tearful friend on the phone about their seemingly unusual situation. So to help support and avoid hurting your loved ones when they’ve got out of an open relationship, some tips:

1. Don’t assume the breakup has happened because it was an open relationship
This sort of assumption is actually made about a whole host of different kinds of relationships: queer ones, ones involving sex workers, interracial ones–as though they’re uniquely dysfunctional, whereas white cisgender hetero monogamy always works amazingly (ha ha…ha.) Before even asking me why my breakup had happened–which was nothing to do with any other lovers–people lined up to tell me that “this is what happens with open relationships”. Similarly, my friend was arbitrarily blamed for her relationship breakup because “you can’t trust those bisexuals”. True, it can be rough pursuing a non-normative relationship; and it sure isn’t helpful that one’s pain during a breakup is suddenly not their own to flounder in, but supposed to represent an entire social demographic of strangers. If you’re an outsider, you might have uncomfortable feelings about the idea of open relationships, or know that you couldn’t do them yourself–that’s fine, but that’s not your friend’s problem, and it’s really not the time for you to bring that stuff up.

Even if someone’s breakup did happen because the people involved couldn’t hack an open relationship framework, picking this time to moralise about open relationships as a whole is effectively saying “Ha, you thought you could get one over on culture and you lost, you should probably quit trying. Not only is your relationship fucked, but your whole sexual-romantic orientation, methodology and belief system is too! Er, hugs.” What sort of defeatism is this! Besides, this sort of automatic naysaying to alternative relationships is why, for example, a lot of queer movements put up a happy front where only comely monogamous cisgender couples who’ve been together for decades get the spotlight. This means that a lot of queer domestic violence and rape goes unaddressed, because if we talked about it then culture would throw out all of queerness. This same pattern is going to happen as open relationships become more socially visible in the West–the smiling white middle class faces of polyamory, meaning “many lovers” (*), will take centre stage, and the cheating (yes, it happens in open relationships too when you break their rules), abuse, inequality and oppression that can happen in all relationships will be pushed behind the scenes.

TL;DR: Breakups are painful enough without the added violence of your friends culturing at you. Don’t do it.

2. Don’t imply that the relationship didn’t matter much to the person because it was an open one
A lot of people tend to think that people who do anything other than lifetime exclusive monogamy are roaming sluts whose feelings melt away like icecream when confronted with a new, hot person. And yeah, some of them probably are; good for them, so long as they aren’t being abusive to others. But I’d say most of us aren’t like this. Even against our will we become entwined with other people, and extrication of one’s identity and heart from another person can be a brutal affair; parts of it may always remain within that person, even the smallest shards. Many people offer cheery “Plenty more fish in the sea!” platitudes, which midst emotional agony can feel a bit like “get over this now because your crying is making me uncomfortable”. It’s safe to say most people in open relationships know there’s more than one fish in the sea, given they usually don’t ascribe to the One True Love theory. If they’re lucky they may even have other sexy, er, fish, around to comfort them (and cumfort them oh ho ho). But no person and no relationship can ever be replaced, so each breakup will represents a unique loss. If your friend was having a fight with their best friend or even their casual friend, you (hopefully) wouldn’t only say “What’s the problem, you have other friends!” Best not to do it for romantic relationships either.

3. Don’t vilify the person’s ex
For the most part, breakups don’t represent a clean break where one day you’re lying in bed watching Avatar: The Last Airbender with your partner and the next you’re not speaking anymore, forever. In many cases, there’s a decent chance for reconciliation between parties, even just to a friends or friendly level, so vilification is pretty counter-productive. Despite my so-far fairly successful policy of staying friends with my exes, I’ve still had people say post-breakups that my partner is “better off without that ho” or that my partner was a total dick. Although the “ho” comment could just have referred to me standing and walking while being a woman, it felt like an attack on the openness of our relationship, as though I was just a big slut and that’s why we broke up. Not true, not helpful for either of us. (Besides that I was offended by the whore-shaming aspect; fuck that oppressive noise.)

While it’s sometimes okay to comment on the inappropriate behaviour of someone’s ex, it’s not generally helpful to hate on them. If you tell someone that their partner is a monster, that makes them the bride of a monster, and can hurt their sense of self and evaluation of their own judgment. Your friend may want you to say “she’s a shit person eh”, but it’s not really your evaluation to make. A possible exception for this is cases where the person’s partner has been abusive. But even then, it’s probably safest to express anger at their behaviour, e.g. “making you cry about money and pointedly sleeping with your friend right after you said you felt jealous about their relationship was a royally fucked up thing to do, and says far more about them and their own insecurities than it does about you”, rather than vilifying the person as a whole.

4. Help the person find a sense of agency, particularly if they’re the dumpee
People who have just had a breakup may be feeling very overwhelmed and disempowered; they might have to find new living quarters, sort out custody and care of children, get divorce papers going, change workplaces and social scenes, and adjust to a whole new life routine that has a gaping hole in it. It can be hard enough to feel in control of one’s own life at the best of times, and such an event can amplify this feeling tenfold. This is the same for open relationships; they might–not always–have another sexy bed to go stay in, but the breakup still represents a change in their lifestyle, no matter which side of the breakup they’re on. While sometimes all you can do is sit and nod while they cry next to you, at certain points it can be good to gently prompt them towards thinking of things they can do to feel better. How they can use the time they have to read that book, or get that piece of writing done (yes this piece partly exists as a self-directed therapeutic exercise), or catch up with these particular friends–basically that they have autonomy over their own life, and while their ex may still be a huge part of it, they still have the power to do some positive, independent things for themselves. It’s best if they can remain in the driver’s seat for this though, rather than being overwhelmed with suggestions, which leads to my next point:

5. Actively listen, and follow their lead as much as possible.
Obviously this should top the list, but hey, my poorly-structured article, my rules. It’s probably this far down the list because it’s so hugely complicated and variable. Since breakups involve a whole swathe of emotions, the way people want to get support will similarly vary. If they want to talk about the breakup, let them talk, and actively respond to what they’re saying. If they don’t want to, don’t push them; you might not be the right person or it might not be the right time. They might just want you to distract them with gardening or discussion about your baby or that stupid evo psych article you just read.

If they don’t bring up the open aspect of their relationship, don’t press them on it. You may be curious for salacious details of the other people they were sleeping with, but unless they offer them, save your musings for your elaborate fanfic comic lying under your bed. However, your friend may want to talk over the open quality of their relationship with you, if it had caused them problems. It’s worth noting these problems can come from both ends of the spectrum; their partner may have slept with too many other people for their liking, or their partner might have tried to control them too much. They may voice doubts that open relationships are for them, or at least decide that they’re not going to try them again for awhile. On the other hand, they may believe that open relationships are the only form of relationship in which they can function. Either way, these are ongoing thought processes, and the person doesn’t have to solidly decide what their stance is. There is no universal answer as to whether monogamy or non-monogamy is ‘better’ or ‘more natural’ for humans–in context, any such arrangement can be healthy or messed up for each person and their various partners.

6. Look after yourself if need be
It’s often not easy supporting someone through a breakup. The person in question can be very angry, depressed and pessimistic, which can be hard to be around for long periods. As mentioned before, people in open relationships sometimes have more support people to call on than others, but it’s not always the case, and hence they may inadvertently push your emotional capabilities a bit in their misery. If you’re feeling tired and discouraged after supporting your friend, vent to your partner or sister or other friend about it–not to the person in question. This follows an excellent idea called Ring Theory (see: http://www.aish.com/jl/l/dam/Giving-Comfort-The-Ring-Theory.html)–you send comfort in towards people at the centre of a trauma, and vent your hard feelings outward. There are many ways of spreading the support base around so it doesn’t fall on one person, and so everyone gets what help they need.

Any of these tips sound familiar to you monogamously-inclined types? Good! While I don’t want to get into a milquetoast Same Love type of discourse, open relationships really aren’t that radically different from non-open ones. (If they can even be classified as discrete categories, given the aforementioned spectrum of openness.) So just do the usual things. Be nice to your friend or family member, go get the tissue box when they’re weeping copiously on your shoulder, stand next to them while they throw empty beer bottles at the wall in a parking lot, watch Labyrinth with them, sit and actively listen to them talk through their pain, tell them how sorry you are that things didn’t work out and that they’re feeling sad, remind them they’re not an awful person, let them know they are loved and can love again.


(*) Semantic yet political point of interest: Some people conflate open relationships and polyamory. IMO this is inadequate analysis–to me polyamory refers to the number of partners you have, where openness refers to the attitude and ethics brought to relationships. (I also call this ‘free love’, but people often look at me like I’m just talking about Woodstock.) Furthermore, you can in fact have closed polyamorous relationships, e.g. four people who’ve agreed to have sex and other funtimes with each other, but frown upon external relations. Such an agreement is called polyfidelity.

Just as not all polyamories are the same, not all monogamies are the same either. Some couples who identify and practise their relationship monogamously will still talk to each other about people they find attractive, whereas others won’t or can’t. I also posit the idea of an open monogamous relationship–one where both parties are totally fine with the idea of their partner sleeping with other people, but don’t have the time or particular inclination to sleep with anyone else in the vicinity. (Perhaps they aren’t particularly sextroverted, yep that word just happened *deal with it*.) Besides, even the most wildly polyamorous people are not open to everything; most would set limits on their partners sleeping with all their friends and coworkers and whatnot. I also resent the idea that polyamory=fully ethical, honest and open relationships too; just as in any other demographic there are plenty of racist sexist abusive jerks out there who are right into polyamory. Freedom and love, it hardly needs saying, are vastly complex concepts, and sleeping with many other people at once is not inherently loving or liberatory.