What Is an Open Relationship, and Could It Be a Fit for You?

Photo: Getty Images/Mireya Acierto
People have been practicing various forms of non-monogamy for ages, but in mainstream American society, monogamy—or a committed, two-person partnership—has long been considered the norm, which has largely translated to meaning it's the most accepted. But, monogamy isn't actually for everyone, and if you feel that it's not for you, how can you know which form of non-monogamy might be a better fit?

Under the umbrella of non-monogamy is the term "open," in reference to an open relationship or an open marriage. An open relationship is an intimate (whether romantically, sexually, or both) relationship that is sexually non-monogamous. Alternatively, a closed relationship describes the framework wherein both people involved in an intimate relationship agree to be with each other exclusively (aka monogamy).

The term "open" means that both parties involved are open to other connections. There are no two open relationships that are the same, because we are all different human beings. So, some open relationships may look more like swinging, some may look more like polyamory, and some may look like two autonomous people who simply have the option to have intimate and sexual connections with other people.

Some open relationships look like swinging, some look like polyamory, and some look like two autonomous people who simply have the option to have intimate and sexual connections with other people.

So, could it work for you?

The more important considerations about open relationships are communication skills and the ability to reach an agreement. Crucially, agreements aren't the same as rules that are set for us (like the law). One person doesn't get to unilaterally dictate how something works, and both people need to agree. This requires open and honest internal reflection and external communication.

What constitutes an agreement can vary and change throughout the timeline of a relationship. For example, if you're transitioning from monogamy to an open relationship, you may agree to things like no sleepovers, always using barriers (like condoms) when interacting sexually with others, no dinner dates, and only sexually interacting with other people with the partner present.

There are also agreements around disclosure, honesty, and privacy. For example, when do you share with your partner that you're interested in sleeping with this other person you met? Right away? Does your partner want to know exactly what sex acts you did with a person, or would they rather just know you had intimate time with them, and now you're home? Also, how much do you feel comfortable sharing? Figuring out where each partner's needs overlap is crucial in navigating the agreement process. Some of my clients have notes on their phones with a list of agreements, the date they were made, and the date they want to revisit the agreements. This can be a constructive way to track (and not forget) the agreements you make for a happy and healthy open relationship.

Another key consideration in figuring out if an open relationship could work for you is identifying what you want out of it. This could also change as time goes on; you could start by only wanting threesomes with your partner and move into a place where you'd like to have individual sexual encounters with other folks. Just like we grow and evolve in other areas of our lives, the same is true in the context of an open relationship.

And, for the record, it's absolutely possible to be happy and fulfilled in an open relationship. There hasn't been a ton of research around this, but what exists supports the notion of high levels of happiness and satisfaction. In 2000, a survey 1092 people involved in swinging-style open marriages found that most were happier with their marriages after they started swinging (being in an open relationship). Even the people (over half) who said they were "very happy" with their marriages while monogamous reported to be even happier after opening up.

Even so, sometimes couples that try to open up and be non-monogamous decide to close back up for a multitude of reasons. That's the great thing about life and relationships where the communication is open and ever-flowing—you can talk about anything and everything.

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