Most of us have been taught there is only one way to be in a relationship — a monogamous situation where both partners agree to exclusively be with each other. While monogamy may work well for some, it’s not right for every person and every relationship. There are many alternative ways to be in partnership — one way being an open relationship. But what is an open relationship and can it work successfully? We’ve asked some experts to weigh in and give us the lowdown on open relationships.
The definition of an open relationship
An open relationship is an umbrella term that encompasses any type of relationship that is consensually non-monogamous (CNM). It can mean something different to everyone, but generally, it “is a committed relationship where the partners explicitly agree to have other sexual and/or romantic partners, and they negotiate together with the specific boundaries, agreements, and rules of what that openness would look like” Dr. Zhana, PhD, sexuality and relationship scientist, writer, and consultant tells O.school. The couple in the committed relationship might refer to each other as primary partners and value maintaining that partnership over bonds they have with people outside of it.
Relationship therapist Yana Tallon-Hicks, LMFT, adds that an open relationship can look like a couple dating separately from each other or exploring group experiences, such as threesomes. For some, an open relationship involves having romantic relationships with people outside their primary partner, and for other couples, an open relationship might be “emotionally/romantically exclusive” but the couple “agrees to see/date other people separately as long as they keep those interactions mostly casual” says Dr. Zhana.
Open relationships can begin as a monogamous relationship and then “consensually transition into a non-monogamous format,” says Tallon-Hicks. Or, a relationship can begin open if “somebody already knows they might be a non-monogamous type of person or a polyamorous person and they decide that this is the only kind of relationship they will enter into” Marla Renee Stewart, MA, sexologist and sexual strategist at Velvet Lips and the co-founder of Sex Down South Conference, tells O.school.
The difference between polyamory and an open relationship
While concepts such as the swinger lifestyle and polyamory may be defined as open relationships, there are some key differences to consider. When it comes to polyamory and open relationships, there is often some amount of confusion.
“Polyamory is a specific type of consentual/ethical non-monogamous relationship (CNM/ENM) where partners agree to see other people not only for sex and casual dates but also for serious dating and forming multiple concurrent romantic relationships,” Dr. Zhana tells O.school.
In other words, a polyamorous relationship can place more focus on maintaining multiple deep connections with various partners while partners in an open relationship may put more emphasis on their primary relationship.
“Polyamory really has a focus on relationships. Not just sexual relationships, but rather emotional attachments, romantic attachments, or even platonic attachments,” Tallon-Hicks tells O.school, adding that “some people also consider ‘polyamorous’ to be an integral identity label, much like ‘queer’ or ‘asexual.’ ”
Reasons why people choose to be in an open relationship
The reasons one might choose to be in an open relationship are personal and specific to their relationship. Dr. Zhana says some might choose an open relationship because they have “sexual or romantic desires that no one partner can satisfy — like attraction to multiple genders, interest in threesomes and other forms of group sex, or desire for communal loving and living.” It also might be that “they have certain sexual or romantic needs and desires that cannot be met in the current relationship they are in — like when partners have different levels of sex drive, kink interests, etc.”
Stewart says that some people choose open relationships simply “because they feel like they are not a monogamous person. Maybe they have been a cheater in the past and they just don’t want to live a cheating life anymore.”
People might also try an open relationship “to ‘spice up their love life’ or ‘try something new’. Maybe they have been in a relationship a long time and they are a little bit sexually bored with one another and want to date or have sex with other people” Stewart tells O.school.
Dr. Zhana says some people choose open relationships for the personal growth that can come from them. “A lot of people in open relationships also note the sense of freedom and opportunities for personal growth that CNM provides in a way that monogamy rarely does.”
Tallon-Hicks says someone might choose an open relationship for “practical concerns like illness, injury, or distance; or just for plain fun and exploration.”
Many people are in open relationships
Open relationships might be more common than you think. A recent study by Temple University surveyed 2,270 Americans and found that about one in every 25 couples is open — that’s 4 percent of U.S adults or 2.8 million couples. Indiana University researchers used data based on Census samples of 8,718 single American adults and found that 21 percent reported at least one experience of CNM. That’s one in five people.
It’s important to note that many people do not report being in a CNM relationship as the topic is taboo in many cultures and communities. Due to underreporting, there may be even more people practicing CNM than the data shows.
Tips for trying an open relationship
Like any type of relationship, there are certain things that can help make an open relationship work. Here are some tips experts suggest for trying an open relationship:
1. Learn all about CNM first
Stewart, Dr. Zhana, and Tallon-Hicks encourage people in an open relationship or people thinking about being in an open relationship to first educate themselves on consensual non-monogamy. There are many courses, podcasts, and books on open relationships and non-monogamy that are helpful resources. For example, you might start by reading Opening Up: A Guide To Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.
2. Practice strong, clear communication
“To make an open relationship work you definitely need a great foundation of communication” says Stewart. And Dr. Zhanna agrees. She says you need open, continued communication throughout the relationship. This means first talking with your partner about what being in an open relationship looks like for both of you — what do you each want to get out of it? It’s important to talk through any emotions that might arise, especially as new boundaries are being created or tested. For example, one partner may express feelings of jealousy. A conversation may help alleviate that anxiety. Or that conversation may make it clear that boundaries need to be readjusted.
3. Set defined boundaries and rules upfront
Stewart says boundary and rule-setting is one of the most important things for making an open relationship work. It involves determining how your relationship will look and what you and your partner are comfortable with. For example, are there any kinds of relationships or sex acts that are off-limits? Are emotional relationships outside the primary relationship okay? Do you and your partner want to limit outside interactions to casual hookups? Do you have a “Don’t ask don’t tell “policy where experiences outside the primary partnership are not discussed? Do you tell all, or do you divulge only certain details?
To more clearly understand the boundaries and rules in your relationship, Stewart suggests discussing the “what if’s.” For example, discussing how you might talk about how you and your partner will handle X situation if it arises or what you will do if X happens. You may also find that your boundaries and rules change over time — it is important to continuously check in with your partner about your boundaries and adjust them as needed.
4. Be honest with your partners and with yourself
Stewart says that honesty is key to making an open relationship work. Sometimes we are not honest because we are afraid that if we tell our partners the truth, it may hurt them. But often, not being honest actually leads to more problems and difficulties down the road.
You also need to be honest with yourself. Stewart says, “Sometimes people evolve or sometimes people change over time. Maybe you wanted an open relationship at first and then after a while, you didn’t want it anymore.” Being honest with yourself takes a certain amount of self-awareness — an ability to recognize your own emotions, behaviors, thoughts, and patterns. Being able to identify those things will help you better articulate how you’re feeling to a partner.
5. Connect with community
Dr. Zhana says, “Connecting with like-minded, accepting and knowledgeable folks is absolutely critical.” Having support from people who understand your experience can be extremely helpful for navigating an open relationship and feeling affirmed.
There are many online and in-person communities for connecting with other non-monogamous folks. For example, Dr. Zhana runs an online course on open relationships that has a focus on connecting with like-minded people. There are also ethically non-monogamous meet-up groups you can check out. Many people find community on social media platforms, where educators, coaches, and other people in non-monogamous relationships share their experiences.
6. Work with a professional, if needed
“A non-monogamy-friendly therapist can help with bigger feelings that may come up especially as you transition from a closed relationship to an open one,” says Tallon-Hicks. Some of these bigger feelings may be jealousy, worry that you may hurt your partner, concern you will lose your connection with your partner or fear that the open relationship won’t work. An affirming therapist can also help you recognize and push back on internalized beliefs like “non-monogamy is bad,” “sleeping with other people is cheating even if everyone is consenting and honest,” or that you should be able to fill all of your partner’s needs.
Instances when an open relationship might not work
There are many reasons an open relationship might not work out. Dr. Zhana says that generally, “it's when it's not meeting the needs of the people involved, or worse, is actually harming them and instead feels like it's more trouble than it's worth.”
An open relationship does not work “if someone is coerced into the relationship or pressured into getting into an open relationship when they don’t want to be,” says Stewart. “An open relationship will struggle big time if anyone in the relationship is there without their full consent and/or without being adequately informed about what they’re agreeing to. This steps over the line of ‘ethical non-monogamy and can easily become manipulation, cheating, or in some cases, abuse” Tallon-Hicks adds.
People should communicate boundaries and seek professional support or education before opening a relationship. Stewart says, “I think if you don’t do those things, that is when there is danger and when open relationships tend to fail because those things are not clear.”
The bottom line
Open relationships can be opportunities for personal growth, exploring your sexuality, and filling different needs. They take honesty, open communication, and self-awareness to work. If you’re considering an open relationship, it’s important to think about why you want an open relationship, what you hope to get from it, what your boundaries are, and that you communicate these things to your partner.