Is An Open Relationship Right For You? An In-Depth Guide
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 research 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?
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.
The Self Care Guide For Better Sex
Sex should be good for you, right? That’s why we created a self-care sex guide that allows you to take control of your sex life—which can help improve your overall well-being.
They don’t call self-care self-love for nothing. Self-care is about giving our mental, emotional and physical health priority. While spin class, stress reduction, confidence-boosting, getting some rest, face masking, et al, are a part of that, sex should fit in the lineup, too.
“Self-care is highly individual,” says Toronto-based sexologist and host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast, Dr. Jess O’Reilly. “If sex makes you feel good—physically, emotionally, spiritually or in some other way—then it might qualify as a form of self-care.”
If you want to improve your sex life, sexual relationship or just have more fun between the sheets, the way to do so is by taking a self-care approach. Here are the rules to follow.
RULE 1: PUT YOURSELF FIRST
The first rule of self-care club is to focus on yourself. “Prioritizing your own needs is important in all relationships—including sexual relationships,” says Dr. O’Reilly. Be willing to ask for what you want and set boundaries, too. “Learning to be a receiver of pleasure is just as important as learning to be a giver.” This can not only benefit you, but also the relationship for both of you.
RULE 2: CREATE RITUALS
Do you know what puts you in the mood? Really puts you in the mood? Dr. O’Reilly offers clients, and you, this “Fire & Ice” assignment:
Create a list with two columns; one labelled “Fire” and the other “Ice.” Under “Fire,” write down all the things that put you in the mood and/or make you enjoy sex more. She gives examples such as being well-rested, a white-noise machine to drown out background sound, yoga, turning off your phone at 7 p.m., flirting throughout the day, fantasizing about sex with a stranger, whatever. Under “Ice,” list the things kill the mood, such as exhaustion, kids banging on the door, frustrated with your partner, working late, drinking too much the day before—anything. Update this list as needed and aim to facilitate more “fire” rituals into your daily routine.
RULE 3: ADD MORE FUN TO #SELFCARESUNDAY
“Self-care isn’t as effective if it’s special,” says Dr. O’Reilly, “it’s most effective when it’s the norm as opposed to the exception.” And that makes sense. The benefits of a one-off will be short-lived.
Scheduling sex isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can be fun. Dr. O’Reilly says to take turns planning and instigating the romp. “When one partner is disproportionately tasked with initiating sex, it can lead to frustration and resentment.” And create fun rules too to keep sex fresh. “For example, ban sex from the bed for a few weeks or introduce a new toy every month.”
RULE 4: BE IN THE PRESENT
Mindfulness is a big part of self-care, and it should be with sex too. It boosts sexual satisfaction and will allow you to fully enjoy the sexual experience more. Dr. O’Reilly says that intentional breathing, visualization, emotional presence and touching can help. She teaches a course on “Mindful Sex: Deeper Connection, Intimacy and Pleasure” and offers the following breathing techniques:
Wave breathing: Visualize yourself lying on a beach. With each inhale allow the waves to roll over your body, and with each exhale allow the waves to retreat and roll back out to the ocean.
Cloud breathing: Visualize yourself inside a warm fluffy cloud; with each inhale, allow the cloud to tighten over your body providing warmth and comfort and with each exhale allow the cloud to expand into the blue sky.
RULE 5: EMPOWER YOURSELF TO SAY NO
We often think of improving sex as saying “yes” more often, but that’s not the case when it comes to self-care sex. “If the pressure to have sex causes you distress or is a source of tensioning the relationship, it’s important to work to resolve this pressure.” You can say no.
“One exercise I assign involves learning to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to simple offers and requests. Think of three tasks that you would usually say ‘yes’ to despite your reluctance to complete them,” says Dr. O’Reilly, adding examples like driving a friend to the airport during rush hour. “Make a commitment to say ‘no’ without guilt.” But also consider the reverse, she says. What would you say “no” to despite a desire to say “yes?”
“It may be difficult at first, but being honest about your boundaries and needs can be empowering and with time these communication skills will begin to arise naturally translating into greater satisfaction in and out of the bedroom.”
Don’t wait for anyone else to take charge of taking care of you.
Single? Partner not around? “Self-Pleasure—masturbation—can also help you to discover new pathways to pleasure and learn to prioritize yourself in bed,” says Dr. O’Reilly. “I suggest that you treat your own self-pleasure routine with the same care and respect with which you treat partnered sex: Change things up, keep it fresh and try new things.” Benefits can include, better orgasms, increased body awareness and avoiding sexual ruts—plus, “sex can be hotter by yourself.”