Stick your head in the sand

Written September 2013

“May I see her picture?” I ask my husband.  We have an open relationship, even though some might call it polyamory and my husband is dating again. Dating causes stress in our relationship. Our coping strategies to deal with stress are different.
“I don’t think so.” He grins. He knows I’m curious. He also knows, that seeing a picture can  cause trouble. My husband likes to keep the troubles as little as possible.

The nice thing about an open relationship is that you can have a relationship with someone else next to your primary relationship. An exciting, new experience. What’s harder in an open relationship is that your partner is having this too. Feelings of jealousy, insecurity and loneliness can arise. The question is: how do you deal with that?

My husband and my lover both have this same tactic. They pretend the other doesn’t exist. They both pretend to be the only ones in my life where I, in their eyes, tell funny stories about a fantasy friend and a fantasy life. My husband doesn’t even want to see a picture of an important person in my life, after him and our children.
“If I do that, I can picture him in bed with you, and that will not be good for our sexlife. ”

I’m doing the opposite. I always want to know everything. Pictures, stories, you name it. But these pictures are also rubbing my nose in it. That he’s usually in bed with a younger woman (with bigger breasts). To cope with that you have to be very Zen. So Zen that you enjoy it, when your husband has had a good time with someone else. That you are happy, that you can grant him that. I’m not Zen yet.

Coping with stress in an open relationship

There are different ways to deal with stress. Coping as it is called. The American psychologists Lazarus and Folkman (1984) have distinguished two ways:

  1. Problem-focused coping: You identify the problem, consider possible solutions, weigh the costs and the benefits, and then select an alternative. In this case:
    The problem: my husband is having a new girlfriend. What kind of a woman is she? Will she be a girlfriend that will only put a claim on my husband, or will she also be friendly and understanding towards our relationship?
    Solution: A peak at her picture might help. Just to see if she has a friendly face, if she looks nice. Let’s discuss this with my husband.
    Costs and benefits: The theory sounds nice, but in reality, seeing a picture most of the time brings a lot of hassle. Causing my husband a lot of stress, before he has even met her. In this stage, he refuses. Causing a dilemma with me. Should I let it go or not?
    Select: I let it go. I really want him to find a nice girlfriend and I don’t want him to feel uneasy when he meets her on his first coffee-date, because of me. Besides, we have been through several dates now, and we have learned better how to take care of each other. This helps me, to sit on my hands for a while. There will be plenty of time later.
  2. Emotion-focused coping: if we look through these glasses at this example we can distinguish these efforts:
    Avoiding, minimizing, or distancing oneself from the problem No picture = no lover or husband = not having to deal with uncomfortable emotions.
    Positive comparisons with others I never make a fuzz when my wife goes to her lover. I think I can deal with an open relationship very well. (Probably even better than she does)
    Seeking something positive in a negative event the nights my wife is away I can do all the things I don’t do when my partner is here. Watch horror-movies and make dishes she doesn’t really like. Me-time to the max.In some cases, emotion-focused coping strategies involve reappraisal, whereby the stressor is construed differently (and somewhat self-deceptively) without changing its objective level of threat. For example saying that you are delighted that your partner is seeing someone else, because you feel like a failure if you don’t. Doing this too long, can in the end feel that you constantly crossed your own boundaries or let others cross them.

In the Western way of thinking, problem-focused coping often comes out well. It is strongly related to being responsible and taking responsibility for the situation you are in.  You tackle the problem. It feels powerful and strong. But in an open relationship this can also mean a lot of hassle, conflicts and hours of talking. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It’s necessary. You don’t change from a monogamous to a non-monogamous relationship overnight. But give the both of you a break from time to time too.

Emotion-focused coping is a more avoidant strategy and seen as less sexy. It can cause a feeling of loneliness for the partner, when pain or problems, are being denied or ignored. But addressing the problem and also explaining that you prefer a different strategy can be very helpful. It can bring ease in a stressed situation, and can protect the relationship. Not knowing everything can be a blessing. “There is no lover at all. She just has a fantasy boyfriend.” This strategy works wonders for my lover and husband.

An open relationship is sometimes like running a marathon. Don’t worry about how you ‘should’ do it. Think about how to keep it bearable. Take the pace, where you can easily keep it up for a while and take the time to grow.A pace that makes it possible to even enjoy it. You don’t have to deal with all the issues right away and you don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes just stick your head in the sand. That picture? It’ll come another time.

Do you recognize these coping-strategies? When do you use one and when the other? And do you have a preference?

With kind regards,

Rhea Darens
EFT-relationship counselor for couples in an open relationship
Are you stuck? Don’t wait to long and contact me for an appointment (online or face-to-face).

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