Ask Dr. NerdLove: My Girlfriend Wants To Open Up Our Relationship

Ask Dr. NerdLove: My Girlfriend Wants To Open Up Our Relationship

Hello all you frightening skin machines, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the dating advice column that helps heroes navigate the complicated webs of love.

This week, it’s all about sex — the sex we want to have, the sex we think we shouldn’t have and the things we do anyway. Can a monogamous man accept an open relationship if it’s strictly physical, with no emotional ties? What about when a good Christian girl is caught between her desires and her beliefs? When the two come in conflict, what does it do to the relationship?

It’s time to swing into action. Let’s do this thing.

Hi Dr. NerdLove,

So I’ve been dating a woman for a few months now and we have decided we want a monogamous relationship about a month ago. We are both in love with each other, spend a lot of time together and have many connections, interests and passions for many things. I think as though I’ve found the woman I want to be with for the rest of my life, but there’s a catch…

From the get-go she told me that she is bisexual, but that it has been a while since she’s been with another woman. For the last 8 years she has been in open relationships with men and women, and she was married for 5 years where they started to experiment with “swinging”. She told me about all of this on the second or third date and my reaction and how I felt about it has obviously changed as my love for her and commitment to a relationship has also changed.

She says that she “craves” pussy and that it’s strictly the object of having sex with a woman and that there are no emotional ties if it were to happen while we’re in a relationship.

I have only had monogamous relationships in my life, along with several short-lived hookups, but have always been faithful to the person I’m with. I don’t think or know if I’m ready to have an “open” relationship or a polyamorous relationship, as I am 35 years old, she is 40 and we have talked about what we want in our futures and marriage and children are both on the agenda.

I can’t picture having a polyamorous relationship and I don’t know how comfortable I would be with being in a “monogamous” relationship, yet letting her get her “craving for pussy” fix.

I believe that this would be considered cheating, as the partner is having sex with another human being, regardless of gender, whereas she doesn’t see it that way and doesn’t see how that could affect a committed relationship, marriage or whatever else we have. She sees this action not as cheating but strictly sex, almost as an object with no emotions attached to it, which I believe is dangerous and could be unrealistic.

I don’t want to be the boyfriend that sets rules or tells her that she can’t do certain things, but it’s hard for me to change my moral views on this and how it could affect our relationship. I feel pressured to either give her an answer that it’s OK that she freely goes and has sex with other women, and I just don’t know how to handle it.

I could really use some help!!! Thanks!

Vanilla By Nature

There’re a few things to unpack here, VBN, but let’s start with this: I don’t think opening up the relationship would be a good idea for you for a number of reasons, and certainly not right now.

As I’ve discussed regarding other similar letters in the past, opening up a relationship is something that needs to be done with care and consideration if you don’t want it to just be the prelude to the end of the relationship. Non-monogamous relationships of various stripes and flavours require trust, comfort, communication, communication and also communication.

Right now, it seems like you’re missing at least two of those. You are clearly not comfortable with it, and it doesn’t seem like you two are communicating well, either.

You clearly have very different views about sex and sexual fidelity — and hey, that’s cool. Sex for some people is intrinsically tied up with love and emotional intimacy. For others, sex is sex, love is love, and while the two may co-mingle on occasion, they’re very separate beasts. You are the former, while your girlfriend is the latter. And right now these two different views are causing conflict.

In a sense, this is an issue of belief definitions; you’re defining any sexual contact outside of a relationship as cheating, period, full stop. Your girlfriend, on the other hand, sees sex outside the relationship within the agreed upon rules as just sex; breaking those rules (having sex with a man, for example) would be cheating by her view. You don’t believe someone could have sex without getting emotionally attached; she believes sex is something fun but separate from an emotional commitment.

So who’s right? Both of you are. And therein lies the problem. Right now, you have two diametrically opposed viewpoints and, from the sounds of it, you’re not actually talking about this with her. She’s shared her side of the issue with you — her bisexuality, her relationship history of how she’s practised non-monogamy with partners, her interest in some occasional opportunity to pursue some no-strings-attached sex with women — but you haven’t shared your side.

I get that you don’t want to be the guy who tells his girlfriend what she can or can’t do, but, my dude, you are allowed to have boundaries and dealbreakers. You’re allowed to be the guy who says “hey, you know what? I’m really not comfortable with the idea of an open relationship, even if you’re only sleeping with women.”

If this is a hard line for you, which is completely legitimate, then you need to be willing to say that to her.

That’s vital because this part of your letter really leapt out at me:

I feel pressured to either give her an answer that it’s OK that she freely goes and has sex with other women.

I want to know exactly how this pressure is coming across, because from what you’ve shared with me, it sounds like you either haven’t said anything or you’re afraid to speak up and say how you feel. And I’m here from the future to tell you: regardless of your reasoning, if you don’t speak up now, then things are going to just get worse later on. If you’re afraid to share how you feel, then your swallowed feelings will just turn into bitterness and resentment over time.

If you’re feeling pressured because you don’t feel that you have the right to tell her that you’re not cool with this, then you’re contributing to your own misery; you have to be able to advocate for your own interests and comfort within this relationship and any relationship you have in the future. If she’s putting active pressure on you to give your blessing, despite your discomfort with the idea… well, that’s not good for the relationship as a whole and you need to seriously reconsider your relationship with her.

But regardless of what’s going on here, you need to — say it with me now — USE YOUR WORDS. This is going to be a source of conflict in your relationship going forward if you don’t sort this out now. And the only way that you’re going to work through things is if you two actually talk about this. Especially if she doesn’t know how uncomfortable you are with the idea of opening things up.

You and your girlfriend need to sit down and have an awkward conversation about your feelings about monogamy. Start with sharing your side of things: here’s why you’ve been afraid to bring it up, here’s how you feel about monogamy, here are your fears about what would happen if you were to say OK.

Remember to make it clear that these are your feelings and anxieties, not a judgement about her. Then share what, in an ideal world, would work for you. Then it’s her turn and you let her have her say while you listen quietly.

Once she’s done and you feel like you have a grasp on her take and she has a solid grasp on how you feel… well, that’s when you decide what to do next. And that’s where things get tough, because it sounds like you know where you stand on this and you aren’t likely to change.

Is compromise possible? Sure, theoretically. Maybe there’s some way that she can scratch that itch without actually having sex with someone else. It’s also possible that, if you talk things out, you might feel a little more comfortable with the idea. Maybe if she can commit to monogamy with you for a time — a year, two years, who knows — to build up trust, then you might be able to revisit the question. Or you might not.

This sounds like a pretty hard “no” for you and that’s fine. That’s perfectly legit. But that means that you and your girlfriend may just not be compatible with one another. This doesn’t make either of you bad people; it just means that you two have a fundamental difference in what you need from a relationship.

While you may love each other… well, like the song says, sometimes love isn’t enough. And while that’s a damn shame, it’s better that you find this out now, when you’re only a month into this relationship, then to drag it out.

Good luck.

Hey Dr. Nerdlove,

I have a difficult situation I’d like some advice on. I am a 28 year guy who is pretty attractive, fairly fit, and lucky enough to work as a researcher in the tech industry. I’ve followed your blog and books for a while, and I believe I have gone from a needy/nice-guy attitude about relationships to someone with strong self-esteem and boundaries.

Unfortunately, this growth hasn’t translated into any meaningful, long-term relationships yet, which is what is so frustrating about my recent relationship with a girl named R.

R is a 25 year old nurse who comes from a conservative, Christian family. We became friends about a year ago through one of my friend groups. She also hasn’t had many relationships, mostly due to her faith and the fact she still lives at home with her parents and brother.

She also told me during the course of the relationship that she had no sex education other than a nursing school rotation, that she has never kept track of her menstrual cycle, and has never been to an OBGYN because she was never sexual with anyone else. I’m saying all this now because it becomes important later on.

When R and I first become friends a year ago, I was dating another girl in the group called J. J is also a conservative Christian and, as I later found out, had never dated anyone else but me. After just 2 or 3 dates, J sent me a letter professing her love and her desire to get married. I ended that relationship in short order and took a break from the group for about a month.

Upon returning to the group, I found R and I shared many interests while hanging out as friends over the past year. About two months ago, we discovered that we both liked each other but we decided needed to talk with J before starting our relationship. This ended up becoming the first of two issues we had.

We talked with J soon after and she seemed OK with us going out, but she wanted to tell the rest of the friend group (she constantly wants to be the meditator of disputes in the group). R and I said OK at the time to be gentle with her. A couple weeks later, after several dates, we decided to put our relationship on Facebook and J freaked out that she couldn’t tell them anymore.

She sent us more letters and bible quotes about hurting relationships, eventually so many that we had to block her. Several people in the group took her side after this and when I asked why, they hurled a lot of childish insults at us about breaking dating code.

Since I am pretty confident in myself, I just laughed off the insults and ignored them. Trying to be honest with R, I told her about the comments and how I ignored them, thinking she would also brush it off since she hears much worse in the hospital from patients. I was wrong. She accused me of not defending her and was further upset that I didn’t immediately say anything to them.

I tried telling her gently that they weren’t good friends from their reactions and we shouldn’t let them define us or our relationship. She didn’t really accept that and after several days of discussion, said she forgave me for not defending her initially.

The second major problem was about sex. She had stated at the beginning of the relationship she didn’t want to have sex, which I was fine with. However, during one of our first dates she began grinding on me while making out, promptly breaking down crying from guilt when I asked if she really wanted to do that.

She calmed down and we agreed we wouldn’t do anything like that again. But the following evening after another make out session, she asked me to take her shirt off and we proceeded to some mutual masturbation, with me checking that it was OK (she said yes). We did the same at the end of most of our dates the next few weeks, each time with me checking we didn’t do anything she wasn’t comfortable with.

And each time when began making out, she said yes to the masturbation and whenever she no longer felt comfortable, we would stop. But she always felt guilty afterwards and said she couldn’t control herself when she got turned on. No matter how much or little we did, it was the same routine. We would start making out and end up in the bedroom.

The last week of our relationship, we weren’t being careful during one of these physical encounters and had a small scare about her becoming pregnant. We didn’t think there was anything more than a tiny chance something would happen but she didn’t really want to talk about it. Additionally she got upset she I suggested an emergency contraceptive, stating those pills are abortion.

I was still concerned the next few days considering her lack of understanding about sex and her menstrual cycle, and how her family would react if it did happen. I strongly encouraged her to talk to someone and she eventually agreed to talk with her mum about it. I decided after our discussion to talk to my dad, a healthcare professional, about the situation as well.

Neither of them were angry but both encouraged us to be smarter about it in the future. R told me the following day that she had her period and the conversation went well with her mum, but she got extremely upset over the fact I spoke with my dad.

She said she still felt that I didn’t defend her against the friends group, that I pressured her into talking with her mum, that I embarrassed her by talking with my dad and that she didn’t want to talk with anyone about the situation, ultimately I should have known she didn’t want to do anything sexual, and I shouldn’t have started “instigating” any physical contact when we were making out.

At the end, she said she wanted to break up. This was all about a month after we started going out.

That was just over a week ago and I’m still frustrated and disappointed by what happened. I feel I tried to do my best to be honest with her, to not cross any boundaries she had, and cultivate a healthy relationship. I felt talking with someone more experienced about our scare was the right thing to do, just as I thought talking with my dad was the right thing for me to do.

I asked a couple friends and family members since the breakup whether I did the right thing in these situations and all have agreed that her overall reaction towards me was very immature and an excuse to run away from the situation. But I’m still a little unsure and confused. Did I do the right things in this relationship? Like telling her about the friend insults and not responding to their childish insults, trying to work with her to stay in her sexual boundaries, and getting advice in a scary situation?

Is there anything I could have done better?

We haven’t spoken since that phone call and she has deleted all social media pictures of us together from our relationship and our friendship. However we still remain friends on social media and I’m the only one she is friends with from the original friend group.

I really believe we both loved the non-sexual parts of our relationship (going on dates, spending time together, etc), and it feels terrible that the end is defined by this. Do you think there any path back to a new relationship or friendship? Is it even worth bothering to try?

Lost and Confused

Y’know, LaC, I originally had a lot to say about the dynamics around dating in friend groups and the conflicts between sexual desire and religion and the like, but then I noticed a couple of things.

First of all: y’all are in your mid to late 20s and you’re having to justify your relationship to your social circle? Violating dating code? This is high-school drama, not something you should be doing as grown-arse adults. The fact that this was even an issue is kind of absurd.

I could see people being upset if they thought you were cheating on your previous girlfriend with R or that you’d treated her badly in the break up, but honestly this is the sort of thing that would suggest to me that you need a better class of friends. Preferably ones who’ve grown out of rules of “well you can’t date X because you dated Y” and “you made it Facebook Official before we were cool with it.”

Second of all: you went through all of this in the span of a month? Just… dude.

Look, I’m sure R is a lovely woman. But one of the rules of relationships is that you have to be in good working order and R doesn’t seem like she is. If she’s not able to take ownership for her own sexual desires or reconcile her own feelings with her religion, if she’s upset about your discussing issues like a pregnancy scare with your family… well, it sounds like she still has a lot of growing and maturing to do, and you’ve saved yourself a metric fuckton of drama down the line.

You did everything right. It’s a shame that things didn’t work out. Yeah, you may have enjoyed things when everything wasn’t on fire, but again: holy hopping sheep shit that’s a lot of drama to squeeze into a single goddamn month. Be grateful that things ended when they did and move on. And next time, maybe don’t date conservative Christian women from your social circle.

Good luck.

Did you make an open relationship work? Did you survive relationship drama, with your partner or your friend group? Share your story in the comments below and we’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.

Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Write [email protected] and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.

Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.

He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.


  • #1

    RUN! WHY AREN’T YOU RUNNING ALREADY? Did you even read the crazy that you wrote? She isn’t interested in a relationship, she hasn’t even had a real relationship. Damn son, wake up!

    • You mean the open, honest communication between an adult and her partner about her needs in a relationship? I read it. Sounds like they’re not compatible, not that she’s crazy.

      • It’s both, actually. Having sex with multiple people has never and never will be a ‘need’. It’s a farce to even call it a relationship. A business deal would be more apt, there are plenty of people who approach their partnerships that way and are honest about it.

  • I’ve tried a couple of relationships where the partner was polyamorous, but not involving other partners until almost a year into the relationship.
    Long stories short in both cases they just ended up wanting to suddenly go monogamous with the newer partner. It felt like the relationship was just handballed to the new hotness.
    Im not saying it cant work but you can get burnt very badly from this.
    Be 900% sure you can do it and be very careful with how you handle it or prepare for the possibility this can happen.

  • Open relationships can work but adding another person can and usually will end up causing some sort of issue that destroys things

    • Yeah, it’s tough. Even if we’re not wired for monogamy, culturally it’s been steeped into us from birth, so there’s a lot of conflicting feelings and emotions involved.

      If either partner is at all unsure, I think that’s a very bad sign.

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