An open relationship is a broad term describing an agreement between established partners which allows for additional romantic or sexual connections. There is great variability in open relationships as to what specific couples may determine is acceptable for them to explore. The term “open relationship” may be used to describe any relationship in the spectrum of Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM).
What Is an Open Relationship?
An open relationship is a term that encompasses the full range of Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM) or Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM). The ENM/CNM spectrum includes all sexual and/or romantic relationship choices which include multiple partners. ENM/CNM necessitates the informed consent of all participants who are romantically and/or sexually involved with one another.
Open relationships may refer to those in the lifestyle or swinging community who explore sexually together through dating other couples or singles and/or attending events or parties which encourage sexual play. Alternatively “open relationship” may refer to both members of a couple individually exploring sexual experiences outside of the dyad. They may have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about those experiences, or they may enjoy describing their sexual adventures to one another in order to heighten their own sexual connection.
Polyamory vs Open Relationship
The term “open relationship” may be used to describe polyamory, which is a type of Ethical Non-Monogamy that places an emphasis on depthful, intimate relationships with more than one romantic partner. In polyamory, romantic love of more than one partner is not only allowed but encouraged.
More often the term “open relationship” is used to describe a monoromantic partnership which is open to other sexual connections. This typically means that, unlike in polyamory, the established partners consider themselves to be romantically monogamous, placing their relationship hierarchically above other connections. The couple avoids romantic, emotional bonds with new partners in favor of sexually focused experiences, either together or separately.
Do Open Relationships Work?
Open relationships can work if both partners in the relationship are interested in opening up their marriage or relationship. It’s important that these couples have honest conversations about why they are looking to open up a relationship and make sure they are doing so for the right reasons. It can be fulfilling for partners to be open as one partner may feel satisfied to see their partner being loved and enjoyed by others. Open relationships are less successful if one of the partners is not excited about the situation, or if communication is lacking in the relationship.
Types of Open Relationships
There are many types of open relationships with various subcategories. The main types of open relationships include swinging, open marriages, and polyamory.
Swinging involves people, coupled or uncoupled, who attend sex parties and participate in sexual activities with one or more people at the party. These interactions are purely physical and sexual and end after the sexual encounter is finished.
Open marriages describe couples where one or both partners seek out additional sexual partners who can become romantic partners as well. These secondary partners sometimes offer a type of emotional attachment and intimacy that is fulfilling to the partner in the open marriage.
Polyamory is a type of open relationship that is based on non-monogamy, where people have multiple sexual and/or romantic partners. These partners can all be committed to the open relationship of polyamory.
What Are the Benefits of Open Relationships?
Some of the benefits of an open relationship include:
- Sexual empowerment and increased confidence.
- The ability to explore sexual experiences with more than one gender.
- Enhanced sexual energy in your core relationship.
- Developing skills to navigate tricky emotions and communicate more effectively.
What Are the Potential Drawbacks of an Open Relationship?
Dangers and pitfalls of an open relationship may include:
- STIs and other physical health risks.
- Jealousy and insecurity.
- Damage in trust in your core relationship.
- Copious amounts of time devoted to relationship management and communication.
Is an Open Relationship Right for You?
Open relationships of any kind require a secure foundation with your partner. These relationships necessitate self-awareness, high-level emotional skills, and an ability to build deep trust within your relationship to withstand moments of vulnerability.
A secure foundation in a relationship means:
- You feel emotionally and physically safe with one another.
- You are both comfortable with independence, personal autonomy and self differentiation.
- Your relationship is relatively low conflict, with few or no incidents of verbal escalation or significant ruptures in connection.
- You both have the skills to emotionally self-regulate.
- You and your partner trust each other to be honest and to adhere to any agreements that you make together about your relationship.
- You have a satisfying sexual connection (however you both choose to define satisfaction.)
- You have a willingness to communicate honestly and vulnerably with each other about your emotions.
- You have a shared vision for how an open relationship will enhance your lives.
While some couples choose to open their relationship when they are emotionally and/or sexually dissatisfied with the connection they have with their partner, healing your relationship first will be an important step prior to considering opening up to other partners. Opening a relationship to avoid doing the work it takes to find emotional security with yourself and with your partner rarely works out successfully.
How Do I Talk to My Partner About Wanting an Open Relationship?
If you are considering opening up your current relationship, consider a structured conversation and be intentional about how you bring up the subject with your partner. It is not unusual for the suggestion of an open relationship to elicit fear, confusion and an assumption that you don’t care as deeply for your partner anymore. To avoid hurt and miscommunication, let your partner know that you have something serious you want to discuss and set aside time without distractions to be deeply present with one another.
Start With the Positives
Talk about all the ways in which you love your relationship with your partner and what you don’t want to change. Make it clear that you are not going anywhere and that this would not be a downgrade to your relationship.
Be Clear About What You Want
Consider carefully ahead of time what it is about an open relationship that feels important for you and for your partnership. Be clear about what your vision for opening up your relationship is, while leaving room for your partner to ask questions and posit their own thoughts and ideas. Speaking from an emotionally aware place about your perspective will help your partner to hear you and understand where you are coming from.
Take Your Time
Remember not to rush the conversation. If your partner gets overwhelmed, pause and focus on helping them to feel safe and return at a later time to the discussion. Your partner will not agree to embark on something this vulnerable and adventurous if they don’t have time to fully process what you are asking for and feel clear-headed in their decision. You have probably been thinking about this conversation for awhile, but the topic may be brand new to your partner. Give them some time to digest what you’ve discussed.
Common Open Relationship Rules to Discuss
Clarifying agreements before opening up can go a long way towards reducing the risk of miscommunication and the need to rebuild trust within the relationship later. Every couple will need to determine their own open relationship rules and guidelines that feel right for them.
Questions to consider include:
- What level of sexual activity is acceptable? For example, is penetrative sex allowed?
- Can you each explore sexually alone without your partner present?
- Is having sex with another partner multiple times or on an ongoing basis acceptable?
- Do you want to meet or talk to each other’s partners?
- What gender/s are okay to explore with sexually?
- Is “fluid bonding” (ie. sex without protection) allowed? If not, does giving or receiving oral or manual sex constitute a need for barriers?
- Are there restrictions around substance use during sexual encounters?
- Should sexual experiences be disclosed to one another? If so, when should those experiences be shared? How much information do you want to know? Is the purpose of sharing information to enhance your sexual connection, to understand personal risk, or something else entirely?
- What depth of relationship with other partners is allowed? Are friendships okay? How about romantic bonds?
Establishing expectations is an important step towards feeling clear about the container of your relationship and being on the same page about the adventure you are embarking on. Try not to become too rigid in your agreements thinking they will keep your established relationship safer. Instead, focus on a shared vision for how you hope an open relationship will enhance your connection and foster personal growth.
How Often Should We Check In On the Relationship(s)?
Regular check-ins are crucial to the success of an open relationship. Intentional time set aside to explore both logistics and emotions goes a long way towards inoculating the relationship from misunderstandings and broken trust. When you first begin, weekly or even daily check-ins can be valuable, regardless of whether new sexual experiences have occurred. Check-ins give you the chance to connect emotionally, express fears and concerns, plan logistics and continue to grow your shared vision of an open relationship.
Open communication with secondary partners can also be important. You may want to include them during regular check-ins, particularly if you are in a polyamorous or non-hierarchical relationship structure. This can help reduce the triangulation which happens when you make a request which affects another partner without their participation in the discussion.
However, it is also crucial that there is time set aside for honest communication between you and your partner, especially if you have a nesting or core relationship. Tending to established relationships with direct attention and clear requests can help them continue to feel positive and emotionally connected. This may sound like a lot of time set aside for talking – and it is! Communication is the key to a successful open relationship.
If you are not sure how to go about having a productive check-in with your partner or partners, try this format:
- Connect physiologically first. This might be by having a heart-to-heart hug while standing and breathing together, or in any way that you tend to feel bonded and connected to your partner/s. This practice facilitates co-regulation of your nervous systems and helps conversation flow from a connected and trusting place instead of from reactivity or fear.
- Establish briefly what you hope to discuss. Name both logistical and emotional agenda items so that expectations for the discussion are clear. If it feels like there is too much to talk about for the time you have set aside, prioritize your agenda items and schedule another time to revisit additional topics.
- Establish communication expectations prior to your check-in. Utilize “I statements” and identify your emotions when you talk, particularly about anything which carries emotional weight. Speak from an emotionally grounded place and make clear requests for what you want. Ask your partner/s to reflect back what they hear and clarify if necessary before they respond.
- Reconnect before you finish. Check in that everyone has had their agenda items addressed in a satisfying way. If not, set a future time to revisit. Take the time to hold each other, breathe and connect physiologically before you wrap up your discussion. How these check-ins feel is just as important as what happens logistically as a result.
Signs of a Problem in Your Open Relationship
There are potentials for issues that are important to think about and consider as you go down the path to opening your relationship. One partner may begin to feel jealous and the boundaries of the open relationship may be challenged by outside partners who may have their own needs they are trying to get met.
Jealousy is to be expected in an environment where monogamy is the norm, as much of our society lives by a monogamous standard, so it’s important to check in frequently about how you and your partner are feeling in the open relationship. It takes a lot of vulnerability to have these conversations but it is important to have them.
Final Thoughts on Open Relationships
If you’re considering an open relationship but don’t know where to start, it might be helpful to reach out to a sex-positive therapist who specializes in working with the ENM/CNM spectrum. A skilled couples therapist can help you and your partner decide if opening your relationship is right for you and facilitate the necessary conversations to ensure that you and your partner are in agreement about what an open relationship entails.
For Further Reading
- Opening Up by Tristan Taormino
- Building Open Relationships by Dr Liz Powell
- A Happy Life in an Open Relationship by Susan Wenzel