Open relationships allow partners to step away from monogamy to seek sex or emotional attachment from someone else. Partners may engage in either casual or regular sex with another person. Every open relationship is different, and communication is the key to making yours a success.
What is an Open Relationship?
If the idea of an open relationship is new to you, you may be surprised to learn that these relationships are not a new concept.
The idea of an open marriage rose to fame in the 1970s when Nena O’Neill and George O’Neill published their pioneering book Open Marriage: A New Lifestyle for Couples. The book helped foster a sexual revolution in which old-fashioned marriage ideals were stripped away in favour of contemporary ideas about love and relationships.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes an open marriage as a relationship in which partners agree to let each other have sexual partners outside of the marriage. With a more modern definition, the Urban Dictionary states that an open relationship is when “two people agree that they want to be together, but can’t exactly promise that they won’t see other people too”.
The Urban Dictionary goes on to explain that an open relationship is a chance to “have it all”. Considered by some as the best of both worlds, those who have a successful open relationship can enjoy all the benefits of having a long term partner, alongside the freedom to hook up with other people.
An open relationship differs from infidelity, swinging and polyamory. Infidelity is when one partner begins a new physical, sexual or emotional relationship with another person without agreement from their partner. Swinging is when a partner has a new relationship with a purely sexual, rather than emotional basis. Polyamory allows partners to be in more than one committed relationship at a time, and all of these relationships may have equal importance.
How to Have an Open Relationship
An open relationship should be tried for the right reasons. You should feel completely committed to your partner, but want the freedom to have a sexual or emotional relationship elsewhere.
Communication is the most important part of an open relationship. You will need to set boundaries and parameters with your partner about acceptable sex, emotions, and personal choices with a partner outside the relationship. For example, you may agree that condoms must always be used, that sex with friends or colleagues is off-limits, or that only one other sexual partner is allowed at one time.
Your discussions should also clarify how much time can be spent with the new sexual partner to ensure you still spend quality time as a couple. Don’t ignore feelings of jealousy. It is important to be open and honest with each other.
You may also want to agree what (if anything) you will tell family or friends about your open relationship.
Once you have agreed on boundaries, accept that they are not set in stone. This doesn’t mean one partner can disregard them, but it does mean that another discussion can be held to assess whether the boundaries are working or if a change is needed.
Starting an open relationship is something that you need to agree to together. Remaining open and honest is, therefore essential. An open relationship is not the same as having an affair, so if you feel the urge to lie to, or keep secrets from, your partner, you will need to ascertain the root of the dishonesty.
Couples start an open relationship to enjoy themselves and each other more! Having an open relationship should not be seen as a punishment for either partner. If one of you isn’t enjoying it, it’s time to have an honest discussion together.
Couples in open relationships often believe that you cannot get everything you need from one person. By looking elsewhere for sex or intimacy, you should be able to enjoy life and love with your partner more.
How Popular are Open Relationships?
Being in an open relationship means stepping away from the traditional conventions of a monogamous relationship. For some, this departure from the well-established status-quo is a scary prospect, and an open relationship will not be right for everyone.
However, when both partners enter into an open relationship together, it can be a success. A study of 2,270 Americans in 2012 led researchers EC Levine et al. to conclude that 4% had been in an open relationship. Men, gay and lesbian individuals, bisexual participants, and those identified as “Other, Non-Hispanic”, were most likely to have engaged in an open relationship.
A study in 2016 found that open relationships were more common in younger adults. In fact, 71% of participants aged 50 or older said they would leave their partner if they wanted to have an open relationship. Only 1% of participants in this age bracket had engaged in an open relationship.
Open Relationships in Popular Culture
One reason for open relationships being more popular or more readily accepted by younger people could be their existence in popular culture. Broad City, No Tomorrow and Big Love have all tackled non-monogamy, open relationships and polyamory. Watching characters managing modern relationships may lead to more acceptance of ‘alternative’ relationships.
What are the Benefits of an Open Relationship?
At first glance, an open relationship might seem like the sort of choice only a couple with problems might make. On the contrary, open relationships should only be embarked upon by a completely secure couple in their partnership and feelings for each other. An open relationship requires trust, honesty and excellent communication to succeed.
Those considering entering into an open relationship will find plenty of reasons to do so. An open relationship can pave the way to a stronger, closer relationship with your partner whilst allowing you to be intimate with another person.
Some people begin an open relationship because they are attracted to someone else, but don’t want their current relationship to end. One partner may realise that they cannot satisfy the others’ sexual needs or have different sex drives. Together, they may decide that these sexual needs can be satisfied elsewhere. This allows the couple to stay together without sex (or a lack of it) causing resentment.
Years into a relationship, sex may follow the same pattern every time or have become less frequent. Having a sexual partner outside the relationship is likely to offer exhilarating, spontaneous sex. Sex may occur more frequently, or with more variety or excitement than within the primary relationship. Having a new sexual partner outside your relationship may also inject new sparks of excitement into sex with your primary partner.
Some people seek the thrill of a new relationship. These thrills might include heightened emotions or adventurous sex.
Having an open relationship can be helpful for partners with different sexual orientations. Bisexual individuals may desire a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex to their partner.
A man who is in a committed relationship with a woman, but later realises that he is gay, may not want to end his long term relationship but desires sex with men outside the relationship. His female partner may accept him having sex outside the relationship and choose to have sex with other men herself. As long as both partners are happy and comfortable, this arrangement can work well.
If a sexual urge, need or desire is not met in your relationship, you may begin to resent your partner. An open relationship allows partners to feel sexually satisfied. This, in turn, may help you to appreciate your partner for all of their other qualities, rather than becoming blinded by resentment.
Difficulties of an Open Relationship
An open relationship will not be suitable for every couple. Embarking on this way of life can lead to difficult feelings and upset within the relationship.
The most obvious drawback to an open relationship is jealousy. You need to incredibly secure within your relationship to accept your partner having a sexual relationship, or feeling emotional attraction, with someone else.
One partner may start to feel vulnerable when the other finds satisfaction in a partner elsewhere. This can lead to low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy.
Occasionally, the request for an open relationship is made when the relationship has poor foundations. Any couple considering an open relationship should ask themselves if they are truly happy together. Some couples will embark on an open relationship when they are unhappy together but too afraid to break up.
Trying an open relationship is a relationship that is not working will lead to more heartbreak than mature separation.
If there is a trust issue within your relationship, an open relationship may not be appropriate. If one partner has previously had an affair, for example, the other partner may be unable to enter into an open relationship. They may worry that their partner will repeat dishonest behaviours under the guise of an open relationship.
There’s no reason for an open relationship not to work if both partners want one and are able to communicate openly and honestly. Spend time talking to each other, set clear boundaries, and only begin when you are both ready.