An open relationship can be awesome—if you do it right.
Are you considering opening up your relationship? There is nothing wrong with that. Really.
Monogamy, while the most popular relationship style, is not the only relationship style available. In fact, new research suggests that people in open or polyamorous relationships are actually just as happy, if not happier, than those in monogamous relationships. Take that, societal norms!
What is an open relationship, exactly?
An open relationship is when two people in a monogamous relationship make the consensual decision to explore non-monogamy. This can mean a variety of things, including introducing new sex partners together or separately, or developing outside romantic relationships. An open relationship is a little like a an awesome Crock Pot recipe you made up on the fly: It’s completely yours; it has no guidelines; and you figure it out as you go along.
To open your relationship is to go down the road less traveled, and you might not know other couples to model your open relationship after. That’s where this guide to open relationships comes in. We’ll talk about how to know if an open relationship is right for you, as well as what to do once you’re in one.
Is an open relationship right for you and your partner?
Here are some things to think about.
Write a pros and cons list.
Before you decide to pursue an open relationship, you should make a list of pros and cons, suggests Kristie Overstreet, PhD., a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist: “This will force you to come from a logical versus emotional place.” If you’re going to make an open relationship work, there cannot be any surprises—you have to know all of each other’s insecurities and desires.
Make sure you and your partner are really on the same page.
“You’d be surprised at how many couples I work with where they’ll both say they want to open up, but as we work together, one will usually reveal they like the idea more than the actual practice,” says Mal Harrison, a sexologist and director of the Center for Erotic Intelligence.
Don’t do it to fix your relationship problems.
Listen up! Opening your relationship is not a way to fix a broken relationship. It’s quite the contrary: You need to have a completely solid foundation and total trust in your relationship if you’re going to open it up.
“Trust in your relationship needs to be solid,” Overstreet says. “An open relationship will not work if there are extensive trust issues.”
If you’re unsatisfied, unhappy, or dealing with other relationship issues (such as cheating), do not—we repeat—do not try an open relationship. It will crash and burn in a fiery apocalyptic hell-storm.
Harrison says that people she works with often think they want to be open, but it turns out they’re just looking for an excuse to be a massive jerk: “Some people realize they really just have commitment issues, or some, internal power struggles where they’re really playing in the manipulation pool rather than practicing integrity.”
Successful open relationships come from happy relationships, wherein both partners trust each other and simply wish to explore other sexual avenues.
So you’ve decided on an open relationship! Now, how do you make it work?
Here are some tips to get the most of your open relationship.
You need to set clear and defined boundaries before anything happens. Are you allowed to form romantic attachments to other people or is it just sex? If you get attached, are you to drop the person immediately? How often will you get tested for STIs? Are both of you being non monogamous or just one of you? Will you share your experiences or have a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy? Etc.
All of this may sound exhausting, but if you want an open relationship to work, it’s non-negotiable.
“This is not a one-time conversation in the beginning,” Harrison says. “These are continuous discussions you’ll have throughout the waves of new experiences and feelings throughout your relationship.”
Boundaries may shift and change depending on both partners’ comfort levels. Be honest when you feel like something needs to be adjusted.
“Avoid stuffing and stacking your feelings,” Overstreet says. “You are not protecting your partner or your relationship by not being honest about what you are experiencing. This can easily lead to resentment and anger that will cause further harm. Don’t avoid having a tough conversation.”
You need to stick to the boundaries—otherwise, it’s cheating.
With clearly-set boundaries and expectations, you can’t go pulling some shady stuff and label it part of your open relationship. You must act within the boundaries put in place and display integrity.
“The second a relationship stops being consensual, cheating has occurred,” Harrison explains.
You might be asking: How the hell can someone cheat if they’re allowed to sleep with other people?
Well, it’s actually quite simple. Cheating is when you’ve broken the trust of your partner. If you have set a boundary wherein romantic attachments are not allowed, you must honor that. If, in this scenario, you catch romantic feelings for an outside partner and don’t end it, you are now being unfaithful to your primary partner.
There is a big difference between staying inside the bounds of your open agreement and violating the trust and freedom you’ve been given.
You might have to make adjustments to who you’re seeing.
As you start to develop new couplings, you still have to make sure your relationship with your primary partner is sound. If one of your outside partners is causing tension between you, you may need to adjust the arrangements.
Harrison refers to two of her clients, Mikey* and Lisa*, who have a wonderful open relationship. At one point, Lisa started seeing Scott. While she didn’t feel jealousy about Mikey being with other people, she became very jealous when Scott did. “Mikey didn’t like seeing how Scott effected Lisa’s overall energy and mood, so they spoke about it, and Lisa ditched Scott to find more compatible partners,” Harrison says.
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Open relationships are all about communication. In fact, you’ll have to check in, talk, collaborate, and discuss feelings far more often than in a monogamous relationship for it to work. There are simply too many spinning plates at once to go about it differently.
If you ever change your mind about anything, share it with your partner immediately.
“Check-in regularly with one another about how the open relationship is going,” Overstreet says. “It’s important to have a conversation frequently about what needs to be tweaked, changes, or boundaries that need to be established.”