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Making Open Relationships Work

Greta Christina reviews "Opening Up", a new guide to non-monogamous relationships.

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I've been waiting a long time for this book.

For many years, the bible of open relationships, the comprehensive "non- monogamy 101" text that got recommended to everyone, was "The Ethical Slut." But I had real problems with "Ethical Slut." I thought it was more or less fine, but I definitely found it too focused on taking care of yourself, and not focused enough on caring for your partners. (Especially for a book with "Ethical" in the title.) And while I did recommend it to people, I always hedged my bets when I did.

So I was very excited indeed when I saw Tristan Taormino's new book, "Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships." And even before I cracked it open, I was ready, perfumed pen in hand, to praise it to the skies.

Now that I've actually read it, here's what I have to say:

It's fine.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise -- you're right. It is. And I'll explain that in a moment.

But I do have genuine praise for this book, and I want to make that clear up front. "Opening Up" is a solid, insanely thorough guide to non- monogamous and polyamorous relationships. It covers a wide variety of different kinds of open relationships, with extensive discussions of the possible options and arrangements, pitfalls and solutions, that come with each. It provides a solid foundation for newcomers to these kinds of relationships, and offers interesting new options to folks who are already doing it. And it doesn't have the big failing I found in "The Ethical Slut." The need to be considerate of other people while still taking care of yourself permeates this book. And I greatly appreciated that.

I have a few quibbles with a few of the author's ideas and choices. (I was, for instance, annoyed that she illustrated the "changing from being primary to non-primary partner" situation with such a utopian example.) But none were deal- breakers, and I don't feel a compelling need to detail them here. If you want to find out how open relationships work, get some guidance on figuring out whether they might be for you, and learn some road-tested ways to manage them, then this is a fine book. The information is good, it's solid, it's useful, and it's thorough.

I know, I know. Damning with faint praise. So I'll just get to it: my big critique of the book, the thing that's keeping me from lavishing it with unqualified praise.

It's not very well written.

And I found that to be a serious problem -- not just for readability, but for actual content.

The main problem with "Opening Up" is that it's way, way too abstract. There are pages and pages of unbroken therapy- speak about communication and boundaries and owning your own feelings. After a while, it got to be like a not- very- funny satire of a very bad therapist. And there's far too little in the way of specific examples, details of particular arrangements and options and possible solutions to problems.

Example. On the problem of envy:

When you are content with who you are and feel secure and satisfied in your relationship, it greatly lessens your envy of others. Work on yourself and your relationships rather than being preoccupied by others around you. Value yourself and be grateful for what you have. If you see something in someone else or in their relationship that you really want, take steps to get it by changing something about yourself or your relationship. Otherwise, it's best to work on your own self-worth and insecurities to lessen or eliminate the envy. (p. 157)

This isn't enormously useful. It makes it hard to get a handle on how -- exactly, specifically -- you might make an arrangement that deals with your envy and makes your open relationship work for you. Plus it makes for a rather tedious read. Especially when it goes on for pages.

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