Is An Open Relationship Right For You? An In-Depth Guide
As we take stock of our lives at the beginning of a new year, perhaps you’re considering whether an open relationship is right for you and your partner. There is some research to show that older people in consensually non-monogamous relationships are happier than their monogamous peers. Other research says that open relationships don't result in more sexual satisfaction. Since science isn't going to give you the definitive answer about whether or not monogamy is best, let's take a look at some of the reasons people choose consensual non-monogamy, what it takes to be successful, and what might make it a bad idea for you and your partner.
How does an open relationship work?
First, let's define some terms. Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is different from cheating. A core tenet of the practice is honesty and consent. There is no secrecy or coercion involved. CNM is an agreement made between partners to have other sexually and/or emotionally intimate partners. There are various forms this can take. For example, some of the more popular arrangements include:
- Swinging, a practice where a couple goes out together and enjoys sexual encounters with other people, sometimes together and sometimes separately.
- Open relationships, which generally involve an agreement that each partner can have sex with other people, under various conditions and with specific limitations.
- Polyamory, a practice of having more than one committed partner.
There are many ways to implement CNM in your relationship; the key is to be clear about exactly what you and your partner want and expect.
How to know if an open relationship is right for you.
People choose CNM for a variety of reasons. Many people reject the idea of monogamy on principle. They may view monogamy as an intrusive societal restraint, a holdover from a possessive view of marriage, or evolutionally inappropriate. Given the high rates of infidelity and the fact that we are attracted to other people, many people who are in open relationships choose to explore these interests with complete transparency, recognizing that no one person can meet all our needs. Some couples that choose non-monogamy do it for the growth and development of their own relationship; the level of communication and support CNM requires can be very enriching for a couple. Others do it to explore sexual and erotic diversity, whether it's because they have different interests that can't be met within their primary relationship or because they value sexual variety.
That said, there are some reasons that exploring non-monogamy may be a bad idea. It isn't going to solve the problems in your relationship, sexual or otherwise. Just like it's not a good idea to have kids to save a relationship, you wouldn't want to open your relationship to save it, either. It takes a solid foundation to move into non-monogamy. If you have issues with your partner, fix those first! It's also a problem to go into CNM if you're only doing it to keep your partner. It's important that both people truly want this arrangement. If one is doing it out of pressure, coercion, or desperation, it's not going to be successful.
It's also likely going to be a problem if either of you struggles with emotions, communication, or knowing your own boundaries. CNM requires a high degree of emotional intelligence and emotional regulation. To be successful with CNM (that is—to make sure you're improving your relationship by making the change, not damaging it) requires that you and your partner have some skills, as well as commitment to each other in the process. You need self-awareness about your feelings, your wants and needs, and your boundaries; it's important to be able to advocate for yourself as you define your relationship structure. Additionally, you and your partner need a strong ability to communicate clearly and effectively, especially through high emotion. CNM often brings up strong feelings, including jealousy and insecurity, and the two of you need to be able to talk about what's happening and work through it together. You also need a basic respect and concern for each other. Consensual non-monogamy is not going to work if one of you is set on doing what you want regardless of the impact on your partner.
It's also important to understand that one or both of you may experience jealousy, a constellation of feelings that include insecurity, envy, possessiveness, inadequacy, and feeling left out (among others). Not everyone struggles with these feelings (in fact, some research1 suggests some people are more prone to them than others), but many do. Some people view these responses as learned, and they work to overcome these emotional tendencies. Others view them as innate emotions and work to communicate and regulate their own emotional state. Consider whether you may be a jealousy-prone person, how you respond to jealousy when you do feel it, and whether you believe you and your partner can work through it successfully time and time again. (Clear communication, good self-care, advocating for what you need, and adjustment of boundaries and agreements can help you get through. See the following section.) And keep in mind that many people experience the opposite of jealousy—an experience called compersion—where you take joy in your partner's other intimate experiences.
Lastly, CNM should not follow an affair or involve any secrecy. It needs to be free of any stain of dishonesty or infidelity for it to work.
How to begin opening up your relationship.
If you are going to open your relationship, you should have a clear idea of exactly what you and your partner each want and expect. It helps to have clear agreements that shape your open relationship. Here are a few questions you should consider and come to an agreement on before getting started:
- Who can each of you entertain, and who is off limits? Strangers only? Or are you each OK having sexual interactions with people you both know? Are there specific people that you don't want your partner involved with?
- Where are these encounters happening? Are you OK with your partner having someone come to your home? Do you only want the experiences to happen out of town? Are sleepovers OK, or do you want your partner to always come home to you at night?
- How often do you imagine that each of you will be involved with others? Do you want to share all the experiences? Or is it OK for you each to have separate lovers?
- Consider disclosure. Do you want to know in advance about your partner's escapades? Do you want to know after? What level of detail do you each expect to receive?
- What about veto power? Do you want either of you to be able to say no to any given encounter?
These are just some of the questions you'll want to consider if you're serious about implementing CNM in your relationship. (You can check out Opening Up or The Ethical Slut for more guidance.) You might want to start with a few more limitations and then loosen those as you go forward, as appropriate.
Many people make a conscious choice to be in a monogamous relationship and are happy and satisfied. Many others enjoy a relationship structure like those described above that allow for other partners. There is no right or wrong in what you choose, but make sure it fits your desires and ideas about what you want in a relationship. The goal is to create an intimate partnership that works the best for both of you.
Jessa Zimmerman, M.A. is an AASECT-certified sex therapist, licensed couples’ counselor, author of Sex Without Stress, and the host of the Better Sex Podcast. She holds a bachelor's from Cornell University, a master’s in Psychology from Saybrook University, and has completed a certificate in Sex Therapy from the University of Michigan. She specializes in helping couples who have a good relationship but are avoiding sex because it’s become stressful, negative, disappointing, or pressured. She educates, coaches, and supports people as they go through her nine-phase experiential process which gives them real world practice in changing their relationship and sex life.