I caught an interesting summary on Polyamory in the News of five things that make polyamorous relationships work. In the original article, the author (a therapist) describes the five essential components that she believes an open relationship requires in order to succeed. I mention them here because, as I’ve described in the past, often something that make an open relationship work will be useful in closed or monogamous relationships too.
First, everyone involved in the relationship has to really want it: they have to be engaged, active, willing participants. While this is obviously crucial in open relationships in order to make sure that one partner doesn’t feel pressured or dragged into something they’re not ready for, this is also an important point for closed relationships. Who wants to feel like they’re the only one really “into” the other person, or that they’re wasting time in a relationship that the other person doesn’t really care about? It’s essential–as well as ethical–for people in all kinds of relationships to make sure that they’re on the same page in regard to wanting to be there in the first place.
Second, the participants have to acknowledge that hurtful or painful feelings may come up. This comes to the forefront in open relationships, where partners often must face jealousy while their lovers are gallivanting about with someone else (but only after everyone’s provided informed consent about the whole thing, of course). However, as anyone who’s been in any kind of relationship can attest, hurt feelings can happen no matter what. Everyone in a relationship may have the best intentions, but a misspoken word can still sting, or a thoughtless action can cause accusations of not really caring. The bottom line is, getting into a relationship with someone (or someones) will dredge up feelings, not all of them pleasant, so being in a relationship requires being willing to deal with the whole spectrum of emotions.
Third, communicate a ton, possibly more than you ever thought might be necessary. Be assertive in sharing your thoughts and feelings, and be receptive in hearing those of others. I could write a ton more here, but it all comes down to the fact that communication is the foundation of every relationship, closed or open, brief or lifelong.
Fourth, it helps to have the basic sense of safety and security that comes from the experience of having a loving family. As the original author notes: “When a children [sic] grows up feeling safe, secure, loved and valued, typically they internalize a sense of safety, calm and self-worth. This fundamentally critical experience can help a person navigate poly relationships: a partner’s connection with someone may not elicit old fears about being left or discarded.” In instances where a person lacks such a background or has trauma to overcome, that doesn’t make adult loving relationships impossible, just perhaps a little more difficult. Which is yet another reason to communicate tons, as discussed above, in order to make sure you’re getting help if you need it.
Fifth, it’s important to get the support of people both inside and outside your community who will affirm your choices as valid. The author notices similarities between coming out as poly and coming out as gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or another alternative sexuality: “There are people who will understand and support your relationship(s) and people who won’t. Poly people often deal with judgements, being called immoral, fearing discrimination by employers or family and friends. Consequently, they may strategically choose to remain closeted in some aspects of their life.” Being closeted in some areas may be strategically smart, but it probably isn’t helpful to feel as though you don’t have support from anyone in any part of your life. The same goes for mono folks; if everyone around you disapproves of your relationship (even if it is the normative model), then things may feel more challenging than they ought to.
This list is intended to be thought-provoking rather than all inclusive, and perhaps each point doesn’t hold the same significance for all couples (or other configurations) out there. Still, it seems like these would be a good starting point for a discussion on how you might want your relationship(s) to work and how you can be proactive about helping them along.