Monogamy dominates the American social culture as the reigning form of romantic relationship. But many more options abound, and many types of relationships can be made. For example, about five percent of Americans currently are involved in consensual non-monogamy, or open relationship, and 20 percent have engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point. Perhaps an open relationship might work well for you. Help your open relationship work even better by keeping these tips in mind.
An open relationship essentially is a relationship arrangement with an open agreement between the partners to have more than one sexual or romantic relationship. That definition leaves much wiggle room subject to interpretation. In practice, consensual non-monogamy typically takes one of these general forms:
• Occasional sexual play with others (sex clubs, hall pass, long-distance relationships)
• Partner swapping (threesomes, swinging)
• Emotional commitments with multiple partners (polyamory, long-distance relationships)
In most forms of open relationship, the primary couple remains a priority, whether that couple takes on a third partner with whom they engage sexually either individually or together, or the couple each has independent relationships with different secondary partners.
The structure of external sexual contacts vary from couple to couple, as each couple decides upon the particular rules that will work for them. For example, some in a long-distance relationship might allow sexual contacts with others only when the partner is away in the other city. Some couples allow only one-night stands, some limit the kind of sexual contact (no kissing, or no penetration), some restrict outside sex to certain nights of the week.
Reasons for opening a relationship vary, of course. For some it’s philosophical (“I believe love is abundant and should be shared”), for some it’s situational (“I’m moving across the country and don’t want the relationship with my girlfriend to end”), for some it’s experimental (“I won’t know if it’s for me until I try it”). Those reasons aren’t intrinsically right or wrong; they’re just reasons.
There are a few reasons, though, that almost certainly will lead to dissatisfaction in the relationship and likely dissolution, ultimately. If the reason for opening the relationship is to fix a broken relationship or to keep the other person from leaving, then reconsider. Opening a damaged relationship will not repair what is broken. Not only will the problems that existed before opening the relationship remain once it’s open, the additional stresses and high-intensity emotions almost certainly will exacerbate the problems.
Sometimes a couple opens the relationship because one partner pressures the other into going along with the idea. This non-monogamy mismatch almost certainly will result in resentment and unhappiness.
The absolute most essential requirement for a successful open relationship: honest communication, with yourself and with your partner. If you can’t talk openly, then chances are you won’t open your relationship successfully either. Science supports this common sense, with research concluding, ” We know that communication is helpful to all couples. However, it is critical for couples in non-monogamous relationships as they navigate the extra challenges of maintaining a non-traditional relationship in a monogamy-dominated culture.”
Secrecy, the opposite of open communication, can easily become toxic. Secrecy about sex with others can lead to feelings of jealousy, rejection, neglect, and insecurity.
Experts say that strong open relationships tend to have a mutually agreed upon set of ground rules. These boundaries help define what is and is not okay with the partners, and boundaries help keep the couple feeling physically and emotionally safe.
Before opening your relationship, discuss your expectations and limitations with each other. Go into explicit detail about what is and is not acceptable when it comes to sexual activity, social and emotional behaviors, chosen partners, and amount of time dedicated to others.
Questions to consider include:
• How much disclosure is required? Do you need to know about an encounter before it happens? Do you need to be told after? How much detail do you want shared?
• Where can encounters with others take place? Can they only happen when your partner is out of town? Are sleepovers okay?
• Is anyone off limits? Do you have veto power over partners?
• Can your partner date others or only have sex with them?
In the case of open relationships, rules are not meant to be broken. Violating any of the agreed upon rules generates distrust and can feel like betrayal.
Consent is not only negotiated, but it can also be renegotiated. As requirements and experiences change, boundaries might need to shift. Regularly check in about how well the boundaries are working and whether any need to be re-drawn.
“Success” depends on your expectations of the relationship. Achieving a successful open relationship requires certain characteristics and skills:
• High degree of emotional intelligence and emotional regulation to handle strong feelings that might emerge, such as jealousy and insecurity
• Self-awareness about your feelings, wants, and needs — in other words, your boundaries
• Strong ability to clearly, effectively communicate
• Basic respect for each other
• Commitment to each other and the relationship
• Ability to advocate for yourself
Changing established relationship patterns can be challenging to negotiate, especially when intense emotions are involved. Getting an outside perspective can be helpful sometimes, whether that comes from friends, social networks, or a professional. Counseling and therapy provide you with support in a confidential, neutral setting where you benefit from an experienced professional helping you think through scenarios and sort through feelings. You might consider seeking guidance from a sex coach, such as Dr. Stacy Friedman, who can help you develop strategies for dealing with your relationship’s intimate scenarios.
Like people and the connections they create, open relationships take many forms. There is no one “right” way; there only is what’s right for you and your partner.