You might have wondered what an open marriage is, and whether it can ever work. While every open marriage is unique, the successful ones have a few things in common. If you’ve ever been curious about the meaning of open marriage, read on for expert insights about this relationship type.
What is an open marriage?
An open marriage means that a couple is married in the traditional sense, but have both consented to seeking sexual and/or romantic connections with people outside the marriage. Since each couple decides together on the specific terms of their relationship, an open marriage can look different from couple to couple. For example, some partners may agree to keep their outside relationships strictly sexual and to avoid deeper emotional connections. Others may want to pursue hookups together or practice the swinger lifestyle. Some spouses may agree to a polyamorous relationship that includes deeper romantic partnership with people outside the marriage.
An open marriage is sometimes seen as taboo because of the strong association of marriage with tradition. For that reason, prominent couples who’ve faced speculation about the possibility that they have an open marriage, like Ayesha and Steph Curry, often attract more questions and media attention. While it isn’t right for everyone, however, an open marriage can allow you and your spouse to explore a wider range of desire and intimacy.
How to ask for an open marriage
Consider approaching the conversation gradually. You can refer to an article, movie, or even current events and ask for your spouse’s take. (“I read an interesting article about Jada and Will Smith having an open marriage. What do you think about the concept of open marriage?”) Psychotherapist Kassondra Glenn, LMSW tells O.school that “media coverage of open marriages can be beneficial for normalizing them. However, celebrity coverage can often be glamorized, dramatized, and/or oversimplified in a way that perpetuates negative stereotypes.”
Working with a couples’ counselor can also help you broach the topic and guide the conversation with your spouse. If your partner reacts negatively to the idea of open marriage, be curious about their response: Is monogamy an important value to them personally, or have they simply absorbed cultural attitudes towards non-monogamy? Be prepared to listen more than you talk, and to put the conversation on the backburner for a while, if necessary.
How to have an open marriage
Having an open marriage requires communication, trust, and more communication. Here are some tips to help you and your spouse explore an open marriage.
1. Make sure you’re on the same page. For an open marriage to work, both partners have to enthusiastically want it. If your partner doesn’t want an open marriage, trying to convince them to change their mind, giving ultimatums, or threatening to leave the relationship is unfair to them and likely to create greater opposition to the idea.
2. Make sure your relationship is in good shape. If you feel that your marriage is in trouble, pursuing an open marriage to “fix” the issue, is likely to make things worse. “Opening up a marriage needs to come from a healthy place. The couple should be in a secure, communicative relationship before attempting to open the marriage,” psychotherapist Kassondra Glenn, LMSW tells O.school.
3. Communicate – a lot. “Having solid communication practices with your spouse before entering non-monogamy can be very important. How do you two check-in about your relationship already, do you both regularly 'own your part' during conflict, and are you direct with your feelings, needs, and expectations? The answers to these questions are important to gauge how ready you may be to open up your marriage,” psychotherapist Rachel Harlich, LMSW, tells O.school. Talking about boundaries, discussing what’s working and what isn’t, checking in about physical and emotional safety, and being able to speak up if you’re uncomfortable are essential for anyone navigating consensual non-monogamy.
4. Create ground rules — but keep them flexible. Harlich tells O.school that “it's important to decide with your spouse logistical concerns, like how soon and in what ways would you like to be notified when new connections are formed, new plans are set with new dates, if sleepovers are happening and in what spaces.” Rather than hard-and-fast “rules'' about what is and isn’t allowed, Harlich suggests creating “agreements.” She explains, “these agreements should not be rigid, but open to change depending upon the experiences, needs, and wants of both spouses.”
5. Follow safer sex practices. “Emotional safety and support are critical for a successful open partnership, but they must be built on a foundation of physical safety. Safe sex is essential to keeping both partners — and all their respective partners — safe,” Clinical psychologist Dr. Judy Rosenberg tells O.school. This means disclosing STI status and talking about what birth control methods you’ll be using (if any). It’s also important to get on the same page about what risks you and your spouse consider acceptable and make a plan for practicing safer sex (always using condoms, for example, or getting tested for STIs on a regular basis).
6. Know that jealousy is normal. It’s a common misconception that people in open marriages are “above” jealousy. But your feelings around relationships — innate and learned — don’t just disappear once you decide to practice consensual non-monogamy. Sex therapist Yana Tallon-Hicks, LMFT tells O.school that feelings of jealousy are “natural, workable, and often temporary,” and should be taken as an opportunity to share your feelings with your spouse and explore what might help both of you to feel more secure. If feelings of jealousy or insecurity persist and don’t get better, though, it may be time to rethink your agreement.
7. Be prepared to reevaluate. An open marriage can sound good on paper, but in practice, it might not be what either of you expected. “Opening up may come with more feelings of jealousy, sadness, and fear than couples originally anticipate, which is to say that there is often work to be done to help couples strengthen the foundation of their relationship,” Psychotherapist Jack Irmas, MSW tells O.school. If you or your spouse feel neglected, unsatisfied, or otherwise unhappy with the way things are going, be prepared to slow down, make changes, or even close the relationship.
Can an open marriage be successful?
An open marriage can work, but only if both people involved actively want it. If your relationship is struggling, if you’re having a hard time communicating, or if you find yourselves unable to agree on the ground rules, an open marriage might not be for you. On the other hand, research suggests that couples who practice swinging (a type of open marriage) are more likely to be satisfied with their marriages.
5 benefits of an open marriage
Having an open marriage takes work, and isn’t the right choice for every couple. Under the right circumstances, however, it can be rewarding for all involved.
1. It can help couples navigate differing sexual needs. “A couple’s desire levels (high-to-low) or content (what they’re each interested in sexually) may be radically different, one or both partners might be queer and want to explore a different type of partnership than their partner’s gender provides, one partner may be asexual while the other isn’t, or the relationship may be affected by distance, illness, or just plain sexual and relational curiosity,” explains Tallon-Hicks. If a couple is sexually incompatible (because of mismatched libidos, for example) allowing for sexual expression outside the marriage can preserve what’s good about the partnership while still letting each person get their needs met.
2. It can make the sex better. For couples who are on the same page about open marriage, the excitement of having other partners can make sex with each other even better. Reddit user monicamaeve says shares this about opening her marriage: “We already feel so much closer and good God–the sex was always good–but DAMN is it hot and multiple times a day, we can't get enough of each other.”
3. It can strengthen your communication. The level of communication required for a successful open marriage can make your communication better overall. Redditor Puzzleheaded-Road502 says: “We have been married a little over 20 years (+ kids) - the moment we started even talking about [swinging] everything completely changed for the better. All of a sudden we were both really open about everything we were too scared to voice in the past about what we desired and wanted.”
4. It can help you learn more about yourself and your partner. Exploring intimacy with someone other than your primary partner might help you discover parts of yourself that you wouldn’t have otherwise. A more dominant partner, for example, might bring out your submissive side; hearing about your spouse’s experience with a new lover might help you learn more about what turns them on. One or both of you might get a chance to explore same-sex (or opposite sex) attraction, or discover a kink that didn’t know you had.
The bottom line
An open marriage can be a way to explore new kinds of intimacy, allow both partners to get a wider range of needs met, and make sex more exciting. Making sure that your relationship is on a strong foundation before you explore an open marriage, prioritizing communication, and staying flexible can help set you up for success.