An open relationship dismantles the notion that one person is responsible for the sum total of your needs—sexually, emotionally, and so forth. Over the past 20 years, our culture has come to appreciate the value in intimate relationships outside a monogamous romantic partnership, like say, female friendships, which have become part of our collective vocabulary. Respectively, most people no longer put stock in archaic ideas about heteronormative gender identity and sexuality. The idea that romantic love is limited to one person seems to be the last frontier as the notion of the nuclear family has been replaced by a modern one. But what exactly is it like to be in an open relationship? Ahead, relationship experts, therapists, and people living an open life unpack how to navigate an open partnership, so you can decide if it’s right for you.
Exactly What Is an Open Relationship?
Steve Yang, a relationship coach who specializes in ethical non-monogamy says an open relationship is not interchangeable with polyamory or non-monogamous relationships, though someone not experienced might not make the distinction. In an open relationship, Yang says, “Each person is allowed to pursue outside relationships, likely with limits on time, or level of emotional and/or sexual connection.” Other ethical non-monogamous relationships include swinging, which tends to focus more on a sexual experience and avoid intimacy, as well as hierarchical and non-hierarchical polyamory.
There are proactive open relationships and reactive open relationships. Proactive ones work; reactive ones don’t.
In an open relationship, according to Yang, the structure looks something like this: You are allowed to go on dates with other people outside of the relationship. Your partner creates limitations or restrictions on time or level of intimacy. For example, you might be allowed to go on dates once or twice per week; the rest of the time, you need to come back home. Or, there are limitations placed on the outside relationship; you might not be "allowed" to fall in love, and if you do, you should end the outside relationship.
Caroline Madden, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the author of Fool Me Once: Should I Take Back My Cheating Husband? distinguishes between two types of open relationships. “There are proactive open relationships and reactive open relationships,” she says. “Proactive ones work; reactive ones don’t. Proactive open relationships are discussed in advance. Rules are decided on and then respected. It is a decision between equals.” Reactive open relationships, she explains, usually happen after infidelity. “One person has already cheated and then asks for an open relationship,” says Madden. “If their partner knows about cheating, he or she might not feel that they have any choice other than to open up the relationship—because it is already happening.” This type of arrangement, she advises, isn’t the most healthy.
Michael J. Salas, PsyD, a therapist who specializes in sex therapy, agrees that reactive open relationships might spell disaster. “Don't assume that opening a relationship will fix your relationship,” he tells Byrdie. “Sometimes people use open relationships as an attempt to avoid relationship problems. It's best to deal with your relationship problems directly.”
Things to Consider Before Embarking on an Open Relationship
Relationship experts and counselors note that before you get into an open relationship (or really, any type of interpersonal relationship for that matter), you square up with yourself. That begins with some self-inventory as you ask yourself some serious questions.
Even an open relationship requires boundaries; otherwise, you're just two people dating other people.
“Open relationships are not for everyone despite their (seemingly) growing popularity,” says clinical psychologist, Michele Leno, PhD. If you think an open relationship might be right for you, Leno advises you consider how this type of relationship will benefit you: “Are you simply doing this to accommodate your partner?” Either way, be honest with yourself, as transparency will be crucial to keeping the relationship safe for all parties involved.
“Be very open about your expectations," she says. "Even an open relationship requires boundaries; otherwise, you're just two people dating other people." She also urges people to think about what you’re going to say to friends and family, and that although you should not seek approval of your lifestyle, other people might not understand. Finally, you might consider setting a timeframe. “Is this ongoing or just a trial to maintain your relationship?” Leno advises you seek clarity with your partner before you act on any type of desires.
Open Relationships and the Gender Bias
Open relationships can do wonders to dismantle gender norms, allowing both men and women to play around with internal notions of desire as opposed to living by what’s designated by external cultural dictates. Sex and relationship coach, Pam Costa, says, “Women go outside the primary intimate connection all the time. It’s called outsourcing. If my husband is only into to sci-fi and I want to watch a romantic comedy, I find a girlfriend to watch it with.” Costa says because men aren’t socialized to have close intimate relationships outside of a primary romantic attachment, they have fewer “outsourcing options.”
An open relationship, however, allows men to have an intimate emotional connection with another person, which Costa says is a basic human need. “We’ve raised a culture in which males are not encouraged to have the same type of emotional attachment to people as women are. They only know intimate connection at a core level need, and don’t necessarily know how to have an intimate connection with someone in a different way.”
A lot of times, men in open relationships will have romantic connections with other women to fill this need. Respectively, Costa sees a lot of women in her practice who are outsourcing sex with an open relationship. “There’s so much more choice than what we were presented with,” she says, explaining that women might choose to have kinkier sex with people outside the primary relationship. "Choose your own adventure,” says Costa, when it comes to exploring desire, “as long as everyone’s okay with it.”
Before you open up your relationship, create a mission statement to clarify needs and desires.
How to Set Parameters
Once you’ve decided you want to open up your relationship, it’s a good idea to have clear expectations, which means setting some parameters. David Strah, a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-author of Gay Dads: A Celebration of Fatherhood adds that before you open up your relationship, create a mission statement to clarify needs and desires. “I often ask clients what they like about their relationship, what they don’t like, what they would like more of, and, more importantly, how they can be more supportive of their partner.”
Strah says it’s vital to consider how you might need to stretch, grow, and change in order to see the relationship thrive. In order to put this theory into practice, he offers a logical strategy that, once again, requires mindfulness and introspection. “I encourage partners to think of their relationship as a third entity,” he explains. “What does the relationship need? What is the relationship currently saying? What hopes does the relationship have for itself?”
By envisioning the relationship as a third entity, you’re essentially giving both you and your partner space to exist separately from your partnership as you work toward a common goal.
According to Strah, four parameters that help guide a healthy open relationship include communication, compassion, commitment, and compromise.
Communication Is Everything
When it comes to communication, discuss explicit guidelines. “Guidelines take into account both partners’ comfort level.” Also be sure to outline deal-breakers. Another key communication tip is to approach the subject with levity—after all, your goal here is to enjoy yourself, right? “Try to add some humor or agree to take a break when you are having a challenging discussion,” says Strah. Finally, make time to have regular check-ins about how you both feel.
Compassion Is a Must
In any relationship, kindness is key, an idea that is so basic, it goes without saying. However, it’s helpful to have strategies in place to make sure you’re acting with compassion. “This often includes active listening, or repeating what your partner said to make sure you got it right,” explains Strah. Plus, compassion includes acting accordingly to demonstrate that you understand.
Commitment Is Key
As mentioned earlier, commitment to your partner is so important in an open relationship. Commitment might look different in an open relationship than it does in a monogamous one, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. In an open relationship Strah suggests prioritizing your partner. “This might include being extra nurturing and/or doing some things you might not want to (within healthy boundaries).”
Compromise Helps with Boundaries
Compromise is essential in any interpersonal relationship, including an open one. Here’s what it might look like in such an arrangement. “Accept that you won’t get everything on your list of wants, needs, and desires,” says Strah. “You need to do some things you might not want to for the good of the relationship.”
When following the above parameters, you and your partner are taking active steps to provide an emotional safe space conducive to opening your relationship up to others. However, you can’t really talk about open relationships without addressing jealousy. So, here’s the deal, and it’s pretty mind blowing.
You could use jealousy to control that person. That’s not a great use of the big feeling of jealousy.
Open Relationships Reframe the Notion of Jealousy
One of the most interesting things about open relationships is how they totally reframe the notion of jealousy, which is something people in monogamous relationships can learn from too. It’s not that people in open relationships deny feelings of jealousy, they just have a different attitude towards it and different tools with which to address those uncomfortable feelings. Costa explains that jealousy is what’s called a “big feeling,” and to think of jealousy as a gift to recognize something about yourself as well as what you need from the primary relationship.
“When you’re feeling jealous about something that happens in an open relationship,” says Costa, “let’s say, your primary partner takes another woman to the movies, and it was so much fun, they stayed for a double show, you might have a reaction. The thought of that makes you feel tight in the chest.” Costa says this “big feeling” deserves to be unpacked. “You could use jealousy to control that person. That’s not a great use of the big feeling of jealousy.” Instead, she urges people to dive deep to discover what these feelings signify. In the above example, you might feel that you lack the spontaneity to take in a double show, and that’s what that feeling is really about.
Another tip to deal with the green-eyed monster is to completely remove morality from the equation, something that goes against so many social dictates, but ultimately, will leave you feeling happier. “When reflecting on your partner’s behavior, it’s important to leave morality out of the picture,” says Costa. “No one is doing anything bad or wrong.” Of course there are exceptions, like when people are being malicious and doing things on purpose to trigger you, but for the most part, you can tame jealousy by focussing on your feelings and what’s going on with you rather than blaming the other person’s behavior.
One of the benefits of being in an open relationship is that you’re addressing these types of feelings and talking about them, well, openly—something that many people in monogamous relationships don’t do. But, what does this all look like in day-to-day life? Do open relationships work? Can you picture yourself in one? Here’s what real people have to say about their experiences.
Real People Share Their Experiences
Janet, 33, has been married for 12 years. “He was the first guy I ever dated and my first sexual partner,” she says. “We’ve been in an open relationship for about five years. Like many couples, we started slowly transitioning out of monogamy as we got better about the core pillars of polyamorous life.” She defines these pillars as communication, reassurance, trust, vulnerability, and openness. Although she says the relationship can be “bumpy at times,” she loves the autonomy the arrangement allows when it comes to her freedom to evolve as an individual. “I've changed dramatically since my early 20s, and my life as an open woman gets to reflect that.”
For Janet, life as an open woman includes a boyfriend in addition to her husband. “I've had a boyfriend for two years,” she tells Byrdie. “He’s also married and we really enjoy relaxing the same way. It's a beautiful relationship and the communication work we do improves my primary relationships as well.”
I've changed dramatically since my early 20s, and my life as an open woman gets to reflect that.
What makes her open relationship stressful is something that we all struggle with: time management. “Meeting great new people is so exciting but has to be managed carefully given your other responsibilities.” In order to make the relationship worth investing in, she wants to “fully show up for it,” but that means juggling other life stuff appropriately. Other parts of open life, like “STD testing and communicating about other partners” become “neutral logistics” necessary for transparency. “I don't see them as positive or negative,” she says.
Ambrose, 43, says an open relationship will actually stop jealousy and insecurity, but you have to be mature enough to allow for those types of feelings to emerge. “First of all you have to be good friends,” he says, “and you have to be honest to talk about sexual fantasies.”
Asha, who was in a polyamorous marriage for years, says open relationships not only allow greater independence, they also help you develop interpersonal skills. “You’re exposed to a wide variety of relationship and dating styles," she says. "Plus, there's more opportunity to appreciate your partners.”
Carol Queen, a prolific author, sex positive activist, and sex expert has been in open relationships for her entire adult life. “I'm in my 60s now,” she says, “and I've rarely (maybe never?) been in a monogamous relationship, so I know a fair amount about ups and downs of open relationships.” She says when it comes to monogamy versus non-monogamy, it might boil down to the way you’re wired. “I once heard one of the mothers of the poly community, Deborah Anapol, who wrote a book called Love Without Limits, say that she thought some people were wired to be monogamous and others non-monogamous. It's the mixed marriages that get into trouble. I think that's pretty wise.”
Making an Open Relationship Work
Queen echoes a lot of the aforementioned sentiment when it comes to seeing an open relationship through. “Even in a relatively casual open relationship context where you don't expect to establish a long-term thing,” she says, “treat the other person with affection and respect, even if it's a one-nighter or you don't know the person's name."
Be clear, honest, and communicate, Queen reiterates, in order to preserve your personal integrity, especially in long-term open arrangements . “Know what your own priorities are and be honest about them. It can be easy to slide into a situation where your primary partner (or really any partner) takes the reins and runs the situation according to their own preferences and ideas about how it should work. That's cool for them, but if you just go along without some clarity about your own desires, things can get iffy.” Here, she says is where a lot of open relationships come under attack, although the problem isn’t open relationships, it’s how they are conducted.
There are many ways to have an open relationship: get creative. Of course, that doesn’t mean this type of arrangement is a free-for-all. It is, however, an opportunity to explore a range of feelings and opportunities, and to buck a conformist system that might not work for you. After all, in this day and age, you’re more than capable of deciding for yourself how to best navigate feelings of romantic love.
Up next: How one editor removed herself from a "non-relationship."