A Beginner’s Guide to Open Relationships
Bars, minds, peanut butter jars. It’s a given that these things are best open. Well, many nonmonogamous folks would argue relationships belong on that list.
What exactly is an open relationship?
It depends on who’s answering. There are two different definitions.
The first says “open relationship” is an umbrella term that encapsulates all other forms of nonmonogamy, like monogam-ish, swingers, and polyamory.
The idea is that monogamous means closed, and all types of nonmonogamous relationships are open.
The second (and more common) definition, says that open relationships are one type of nonmonogamous relationship under the Ethical Nonmonogamous umbrella.
Here, usually, open relationships are thought to occur between two people in a primary relationship who have agreed to open up their relationship sexually — but not romantically.
So, while “open relationship” always suggests that the relationship exists outside the One Person Is My Everything framework (aka monogamy), to find out exactly what someone means by it, you gotta ask.
Is it the same thing as polyamory?
LGBTQ-friendly sex educator and licensed psychologist Liz Powell, PsyD, author of “Building Open Relationships: Your Hands-On Guide To Swinging, Polyamory, & Beyond” offers this definition of polyamory:
“Polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, having a loving and/or intimate relationship with more than one person at a time, with the consent of all people involved.”
So no, polyamory isn’t the same. While loving and romantic relationships with more than one person are explicitly allowed in polyamory, that’s not necessarily the case in open relationships.
Sex educator Davia Frost notes that often people who are polyamorous see it as being an integral part of their identity, much like some people see being gay or queer.
Usually, folks in open relationships don’t feel like their current relationship structure (aka nonmonogamy) is a hardwired part of who they are.
It also isn’t the same thing as cheating
People in open relationships have an agreement that having sex or emotional relationships with other people is OK.
Plus, while cheating is considered unethical, open relationships — when done correctly — are ethical by nature.
What’s the point?
There’s no one point. Generally, people enter open relationships because they think it’s going to bring them more pleasure, joy, love, satisfaction, orgasms, excitement, or some combination of those.
Reasons you might consider an open relationship:
- You and your partner both have a lot of love to give and believe you can love more than one person at once.
- You want to explore your sexuality or sexual relationships with someone of a different gender.
- You and your partner have a case of mismatched libidos.
- One partner is asexual and not interested in sex, and the other would like to have sex.
- One partner has a particular kink or fantasy that they want to explore that the other has no interest in.
- Seeing (or hearing about) your partner have sex with someone else turns you on, or vice versa.
How do you know if it’s right for you?
Unfortunately, determining if an open relationship is right for you (or right for you and your partner) isn’t as easy as taking an online quiz and taking the answers at face value.
- Start by identifying why you’re monogamous and what that means for you. What messages about monogamy did you receive growing up?
- Address if or why you’re interested in opening your relationship. Is it because you’ve developed feelings for someone else and would like to act on them? Is it because you or your partner have a lot of needs that might be better met by more than one person?
- Now allow yourself to imagine what your life might look like if you were in an open relationship. Get detailed. Where will you live? Will there be children? Will your partner also have other partners? What kinds of sex will you explore? What kind of love? How does this fantasy make you feel?
- Next, learn more about ethical nonmonogamy. Start by reading about open relationships and polyamorous literature (more on this below), going to polyamorous MeetUp groups, and following folks who practice ethical nonmonogamy or polyamory on Instagram and Twitter.
Are there any advantages to an open relationship?
Hell yeah! There’s a reason more than one-fifth of folks have been or are in one.
For one, it (usually) means more sex!
“I love being nonmonogamous because I’m someone who loves novelty and exploration,” says Powell. “I get to get that by being with as many people as I want.”
She adds: “I also have a high capacity for compersion — which is the joy for someone else’s joy — so seeing my partners sexually fulfilled and happy makes me happy.”
Licensed marriage and family therapist Dana McNeil, MA, LMFT, founder of the Relationship Place in San Diego, California, calls out that even if you eventually end up closing the relationship, practicing ethical nonmonogamy helps individuals hone their skills in problem-solving, communication, and making and holding boundaries.
“It always forces folks to really identify what their desires and needs are,” says McNeil.
Are there any disadvantages to consider?
There are no disadvantages of open relationships, per se, only wrong reasons for entering into an open relationship.
“Nonmonogamy can exacerbate preexisting personal issues and issues in the relationship,” says Powell.
She adds: “If you’re bad at communication, having to communicate more deeply and with more people about more topics is going to give you more opportunities to experience consequences as a result of that.”
The same idea applies if you tend to be dishonest, manipulative, jealous, or selfish. Rather than just one other person experiencing the consequences of that behavior, multiple will be affected.
“Nonmonogamy isn’t going to fix a relationship with an unstable foundation,” says Powell. So if that’s the reason you’re opening the relationship, it’ll likely result in a breakup.
How should you bring it up with your current partner?
You’re not trying to “convince” your partner to be in an open relationship.
Start with an “I” statement and then lead into a question, for example:
- “I’ve been reading about open relationships, and I think it may be something I want to try. Would you be open to having a conversation about opening our relationship?”
- “I’ve been thinking about having sex with other people, and I think I may want to explore that. Would you ever consider an open relationship?”
- “I think it would be really hot to watch someone else with you. Would you ever be interested in inviting a third into the bedroom?”
- “My libido has been much lower since going on [insert medicine here], and I’ve been thinking about what opening our relationship so that you can get some of your sexual needs and wants elsewhere might be to us. Do you think this is something we can talk about?”
If you really want to be in an open relationship and your partner completely shuts the idea down, it may be an insurmountable incompatibility.
“Ultimately, if only one person in a preexisting relationship wants to open that relationship open, you may need to break up,” says McNeil.
How do you establish ground rules?
To be blunt: This is the wrong question.
To understand why, you need to understand the difference between boundaries, agreements, and rules.
“A boundary is about your own person. Your own heart, time, mind, body,” says Powell.
So, you can have a boundary around not fluid bonding to someone who is fluid bonded to someone else.
You can’t have a boundary around who your partner has sex with, how they have that sex, and whether they use barriers.
“A boundary places the onus on us, instead of your partner,” Powell explains. “It’s more empowered.”
Agreements can be re-negotiated by anyone who they effect.
“If my partner and I have an agreement that we always use dental dams, condoms, and gloves with our other partners, but then my partner and one of their partners wants to move toward not using barriers, the three of us could sit down and rewrite that agreement together so that we’re all comfortable,” explains Powell.
Agreements are an especially empathetic and valuable approach for couples who are looking to add a third partner to their sexual or romantic relationship.
Often the third’s (sometimes called a “unicorn”) feelings, desires, wants, and needs are treated as less important than the couples. Agreements treat them more as the humans they are rather than, say, rules.
“Rules are something that two or more people make that affect those around them, but those around them don’t get a say,” explains Powell.
Generally speaking, “rules” are an attempt to control our partner’s behaviors and feelings.
“The desire to make rules usually stems from monogamous conditioning which tells us that our partner can’t love more than one person, or will leave us if they find someone ‘better,’” says Powell.
Although a lot of folks who are newer to nonmonogamy often to want to approach it from a rules-based place, she warns against that.
“Usually, rules end up being disempowering and unethical in practice,” says Powell, adding that she recommends starting with personal boundaries.
What emotional boundaries should you consider?
When the concept of feelings comes up, couples often want to make rules around not falling in love with anyone, says Powell.
That mindset frames love as a limited resource and ultimately sets you up for failure.
“No matter how well you know yourself, you really can’t know who you’re going to fall for,” she says.
So instead of setting a No Emotions Allowed rule, Powell recommends turning inward and asking yourself:
- How do I show love? How do I receive it?
- How often do I need to see my partner to feel valued? How do I want to allocate my time? How much alone time do I need?
- What information do I want to know? How do I want to share?
- Who do I share space with and under what conditions?
- What words am I comfortable using to mark my relationship with others?
What physical and sexual boundaries should you consider?
Common physical and sexual boundaries are centered around sexual risk management, what sex acts are on- or off-limits, and if/when/how you display affection.
- Who gets to touch me and where? Are there types of touch I don’t want to give? How about receive?
- How often will I get tested, what tests will I get done? Will I take PrEp?
- Who, when, and for what acts will I use barrier methods?
- When will I talk to folks about how recently they’ve been tested, and what their various safer sex practices were since then?
- How will my toys be used/shared/cleaned?
- Where am I comfortable having sex?
- What does PDA mean to me? Who am I comfortable being physical with in public places?
How often should you check in with your primary partner about boundaries?
You don’t want to fall into the trap of processing your relationship(s) more than you’re living it (them), but ideally you’ll have regular check-ins.
You might start with a standing appointment and make it less frequently as you get into the swing (heh) of things.
How do you bring your relationship status up to a potential secondary partner?
“You being polyamorous might be a deal breaker to them, and them being monogamous could be a deal breaker for you, so you need to be transparent,” says Powell.
Some templates to borrow:
- “Before we get serious, I like to share that I’m currently in an open relationship, which means that while I can date casually outside my relationship, I have one serious partner.”
- “I want to let you know that I’m nonmonogamous and enjoy dating multiple people at once. Are you eventually looking to be in an exclusive relationship?”
- “I want to let you know that I date nonmonogamously and am not looking for an exclusive relationship. How do you feel about dating multiple people at once, or dating someone who dates multiple people at once?”
If you’re online dating, McNeil recommends putting it right there in your profile.
Does it matter if your secondary partner is monogamous or polyamorous?
There are various iterations of one-sided open relationships, also known as mono-poly hybrid relationships.
In some relationships, due to sexual orientation, libido, interest, and so on, the couple agrees to open the relationship with the intention that only one of the (usually primary) partners “acts” nonmonogamously.
Other times, a person who identifies as monogamous may choose to date someone who is polyamorous.
So the answer: “Not necessarily,” says McNeil. “[But] everyone needs to be made aware that the polyamorous person is dating polyamorously right from the bat.”
“This allows the other person to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to be part of an open relationship.”
Should you have check-ins with your secondary partner(s), too?
Meaning, should you make sure that your secondary partner is enjoying hooking up with you? And feeling respected and cared for? Obviously.
Whether you schedule official check-ins is up to you. No matter what your relationship structure is, you probablyyyy want to have a dynamic where all parties feel comfortable communicating their needs and wants and addressing unmet needs or wants.