3 min

Even open relationships need boundaries

Good communication is the key to making sure everyone knows the rules

Dear Dr Ren:

My boyfriend and I have been together for almost five years and we’ve always had an open relationship. About a month ago my 20-year-old cousin came to visit from the Maritimes. While he was here, he shared his coming out story and asked us to show him around the hot spots. After one long night of bar hopping, he came on to my boyfriend. To my horror, he accepted.

Aside from the creep factor of this kid being my cousin, this was way outside the rules of our relationship. Now my lover has all sorts of excuses and justifications and says I’m being rigid.

Is this a deal breaker? Can you help?


Dear Stunned:

That’s quite a predicament! Though I understand the crisis, I need to know more about the rhythm of your lives to respond appropriately to your question.

Was this incident a one-off in your years together? Have you never seen anything like this before? Sometimes we surprise even ourselves with a mistake we regret forever. Were you perhaps all so loaded with drugs and/or alcohol that your judgment was severely compromised? If so, you might want to put that on your not-a-good-idea list. If this was a one time only occurrence, you are wise to resolve it, forgive it, and move along. Renegotiating your contract couldn’t hurt either.

On the other hand, have you witnessed bizarre or uncharacteristic behaviour in other contexts, never knowing when they will occur? Are you willing to be the watchdog in such situations? If life rolls along smoothly until he surprises you with a zinger like this, you need to decide if you can live with the pattern because another occurrence is likely in your future. The good times may be soothing, but you will be forever on alert waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Could the incident with the cousin be a symptom of trouble in your relationship? If your lover is harbouring anger or resentment, boffing your cousin would certainly be an effective way to begin an end. Sometimes it is easier to get thrown out than to leave.

What does your boyfriend say about the evening? It sounds like he is defending himself, but perhaps you haven’t quit yelling at him long enough for him to do much else. Does he condone his actions? Does he not recognize the trailer park flavour of this? Try to get past your anger to find out how he feels about what happened.

You do not mention how your boyfriend violated your contractual agreement aside from the cousin issue, a big factor missing in your letter. Perhaps this reflects your understandable reaction that crossing the family line violated all rules. But that’s muddy thinking and you need clear perspective now. Getting some professional counselling may prove beneficial to help you each speak and hear clearly.

Another consideration is how often this cousin appears. If he has not visited before and will not likely again, he serves as a symbol. But if yours is a close-knit family, holiday dinners could be awkward for a while. The ripple effect of this misspent night could be far reaching. What would your family think if they knew of this incident? Your boyfriend’s actions jeopardized your family’s acceptance, often hard-won and always valued. Does he understand that? What is the story with his family? Perhaps these values are simply not part of his emotional lexicon. If not, bring him up to speed on the importance of your family ties. Let him know the rules. Then keep an eye on him.

Five years is long enough to learn someone. I understand that this is a major investment on your part and you do not want to walk away prematurely or cavalierly. You need to determine if this incident with your cousin was a case of temporary lunacy or an indication of an irreconcilable difference. What are your boyfriend’s ethics? Really listening to your partner will give you the information you need to make an informed decision.

Coupled relationships, especially polyamorous ones, are for adults, and ethical adults at that. Can you be content with a partner who does not share your ethical values? This is really the crux of the matter. It will be difficult to hear if your partner admits to values you do not share, for once the truth is spoken you cannot un-know it and you will have a heartbreaking choice to make.

Find out what your boyfriend’s message is. If his defensive posture is fuelled by embarrassment and underneath he comprehends the inappropriateness of his actions, he may just need a safe space in which to apologize. If so, stay with him while you learn to communicate better.

However, if you find that your lover is ethically deficient, leave. Alternatively, you can wait to see if it happens again. Sadly, if it involves poor ethical standards, it will. It may not involve such tacky examples as sleeping with family members, but it will hurt nonetheless.

Fool me once, shame on you…