We’ve been inundated with the concept of “the one” throughout our lives. But what if “the one” is really more like a great entrée with some side dishes? Although we’re led to believe that monogamy is the gold standard of relationships, sociologist Dr. Elisabeth "Eli" Sheff says that “polyagomy is far more common across cultures and societies and history than monogamy.”
In fact, thanks in part to the internet and dating apps, open relationships are seemingly on the rise (or perhaps more people feel comfortable openly acknowledging them). According to a 2016 study, one in five Americans has been in a non-monogamous relationship at some point. Plus, age, race, political affiliations and socio-economic status doesn’t seem to affect the likelihood of someone entering an open relationship. However, people who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual were slightly more likely to have experienced non-monogamy.
As we all know, relationships are work. And when you add in more parties, it gets decidedly more complicated, and you might discover that sometimes more isn’t merrier. So if you’re considering starting an open relationship, you’ll need to weigh your wants and needs, consider your partner’s and establish some guidelines beforehand. But first things first…
What exactly is an open relationship?
“Open relationships fall under the umbrella of consensual non-monogamous relationships and generally, but not always, tend to focus on sexual activities over emotional with other partners,“ explains clinical psychologist Dr. Catalina Lawsin. “Under this larger umbrella there are many types of consensual non-monogamous relationships, some of which include: polyamory (where partners support one another having both emotional and sexual relationships with other partners with the understanding that love can take many forms and individuals can love more than one person at a time), monogamish (similar to open, but restricted only to sexual activity with other partners), swinging (exploring sexual activities together at social events and meetups with other couples), and relationship anarchy (there are no set rules but instead the relationship is flexible to the needs of each partner).”
She also emphasizes that open relationships are not like affairs, a common misconception. “It’s quite the opposite,” she says. “The core ingredient of an affair is the secrecy of it. In open relationships partners are open in their sexual activity with others and supportive of it.”
The rules of an open relationship
While no two relationships are alike, there are some general guidelines to consider when trying to establish a healthy open relationship. Dr. Lawsin offers the following checklist, adding that any rules or boundaries should be discussed, negotiated and reassessed occasionally throughout the relationship and adjusted as needed.
1. Negotiate your sexual boundaries
Boundaries regarding sex should be explicitly negotiated, such as how often sex can occur (e.g., weekly, monthly, etc.), with how many partners at a time, where (e.g., on business trips) and whatever additional physical or logistical (e.g., time) dimensions a couple wishes to define in their relationship. This includes the type of sex as well. For example, is penetrative sex OK or just oral? What about BDSM? Also, do you prefer your partner to only have sex with strangers who they will never see again or rather with someone you already know and trust. Yes, it might get weirdly specific, but you’ll want to figure this stuff out before you open the flood gates.
2. Define your emotional boundaries
Emotional boundaries can be harder to define and set, but they should definitely be discussed, with each partner being honest about what they can manage for themselves and their partner.
3. Safe sex is a must
When you transition your relationship from exclusive to open, you might be super excited to get started with your new ventures, but don’t let all those safe sex practices fly out the window. Discuss with your partner what you’re both comfortable with and how you’ll actually practice safe sex IRL.
4. Be honest
Open relationships relinquish partners from needing to hide or suppress their sexual needs, therefore honesty about what they’re doing should be maintained. Couples need to specify how many details the other wants to know (if any at all) as well as how often. This should be reassessed as needed (and this also applies to #3).
5. Schedule check-ins with your partner
Transparency about how each partner is feeling about the other’s sexual pursuits should also be negotiated and checked on. Partners can make assumptions in any type of relationship, so it’s important to have check-ins with one another to provide a safe space to process emotions, make any adjustments to negotiated boundaries and assess the health of the primary relationship.
6. Don’t forget your about your relationship
Schedule time and space to nurture the relationship and make sure to maintain this. Date nights, trips away and expressing love need to be prioritized to maintain the relationship foundation. Dr. Sheff agrees, saying that it’s easy for one partner to get distracted with a shiny new, exciting relationship and forget to pay attention to the longer-term relationship. “Don’t just save all the fun juju for the new relationship,” she adds.
Is an open relationship right for you and your partner?
First, for an open relationship to work, both partners need to enter it willingly, not begrudgingly. If a person acquiesces to an open relationship, perhaps out of fear of losing their partner, it’s “a disaster because open relationships are challenging, even if everyone wants to be in them. Relationships in general are challenging. If it’s a non-monogamous relationship, and someone has been pressured or bullied into it, or has given in because they feel the person will leave them if they don’t, then that builds up resentment,” Dr. Sheff says,author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families. “And then when something happens, [for example] someone accidentally gets pregnant, someone gets a sexually transmitted infection, then that just blows up.”
Also, it’s not a strategy to fix turbulent relationships, Dr. Lawsin cautions. “On the contrary, consensual non-monogamous relationships rely on trust and require a healthy stable relationship that is mutually supportive to succeed. All relationships require negotiation, and bringing in additional partners to a relationship often requires more negotiation, communication and planning.”
To start, figure out why you want an open relationship. “People should think deeply about their motivations,” says Dr. Sheff. Do you want multiple partners, but recoil at the thought of your partner being with other people? Are you simply looking for an excuse to hook up with other people? Or a way not to fully commit? “It’s not reasonable to expect a partner to be sexually exclusive with you, while you have sex with anybody that you want,” she adds. “Sometimes couples can work out a poly-mono relationship, but in my experience, as a relationship coach and in my research, I have seen that that hardly ever works…Usually people who want a monogamous relationship want their partners to be monogamous with them.” So make sure you and your partner are on the same page.
Next, consider how well you communicate and handle conflict as a couple, which are key ingredients for relationship success, especially in non-monogamous ones. “Because conflict will inevitably arise in any relationship. And if you add additional people into it, the potential for conflict dramatically increases,” Dr. Sheff says. “So if people don’t know how to handle conflict and then they enter a potentially incredibly sticky situation like non-monogamy, that could definitely blow up in their faces.”
Psychotherapist Dr. Kristie Overstreet also suggests working with a certified sex therapist if you need help navigating the possibility of an open relationship. And if your gut is saying “yes yes yes” or “oh God, no no no,” listen to it.
What type of open relationship works for you?
The type of relationship that’s best for you and your partner really depends on what you’re seeking. Dr. Overstreet says that “both partners in the couple need to decide if they are open to emotional, physical or both aspects for an open relationship.”
Dr. Sheff breaks it down like this: “Are you both wanting sexual variety with no strings attached? Then swinging is good for that. Are you wanting more emotional intimacy? Then polyamory is better for that. Do you want no rules and for each relationship to be taken on its own individual independence? Then consider relationship anarchy.”
People who practice relationship anarchy choose to be together out of desire rather than obligation, Dr. Sheff explains. “They are not necessarily on this ‘relationship escalator,’ where there’s one way to have a relationship with increasing exclusivity and commitment until you’re married, with sex only happening with that one partner. Relationship anarchists are not down with that at all.”
What about jealousy?
You’re gonna get jealous. It’s inevitable. So, Dr. Sheff says, people “should anticipate it and start building skills around dealing with it before they even engage in open relationships.” And if you do get jealous that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the idea of an open relationship altogether. Rather, you need to face the jealousy head on and figure out why you feel that way, perhaps because you’re feeling insecure or threatened by your partner’s new relationship. Dr. Sheff says that this is a good time for your partner to reassure you (or for you to validate your partner) by saying, “I love you. It’s OK. I’m not leaving you and here are all the reasons why I love you.”