Open Relationships: The Ultimate Guide to Exploring and Navigating Ethical Non-Monogamy
by Lauryn Higgins
Currently monogamous, but curious about – or actively seeking – an open relationship? For those exploring the idea of more than one partner, navigating all do’s, don’ts, and expectations can feel overwhelming. Read on for therapists’ advice on how to chart the waters, raise the idea with a current partner, and navigate the what, why, when, and how of more than one romantic partner:
What defines an open relationship?
In a word, an open relationship is ethical non-monogamy. Both partners have agreed that each may have sexual relations with others in a consensual and ethical manner. Beyond that, it is up to the individuals involved to determine and write their own rules and guidelines.
“I think about ‘open relationships’ as an umbrella term for relationship structures that are intentionally and ethically non-monogamous. There can be lots of different structures, agreements, and relationships that this includes,” says Kira Manser, a licensed clinical social worker in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
How are open relationships and polyamory different?
Two major types of open relationships are polyamory, and open. Polyamory encompasses multiple in-depth romantic relationships, whereas open allows for new partners, but with connections that aren’t meant to be romantic. And while essentially, most anyone can enter an open relationship, polyamory entails a stronger sense of identity.
“There are polyamorous couples who consider each other their primary partners and each of their other partners often become extended family and sometimes lovers with both primaries,” says Dr. Barbara E. Warren, a psychologist in New York City. “Many in the polyamory communities are also gender diverse, are into kink and consider themselves hetero or homo flexible in their sexual orientations.”
What are some benefits of an open relationship?
That depends on the shape and direction of your open relationship. Take polyamory, for example. According to Dr. Warren, some of the benefits can include increased satisfaction with both the emotional support and the sexual satisfaction that can come from having more than one committed partner.
What are some rules of an open relationships?
Since every open relationship is different, the rules for yours depend on what you and your partner(s) decide. Either way, structures and agreements should be established early on, says Jeffrey Kishner, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City.
"It is important to set clear boundaries and expectations when you open a relationship,” he says. “You have to be clear about what will help you feel safe, and discuss the ground rules that will support that."
Kishner recommends asking yourself and anyone involved in the open relationship the following questions:
Are you okay with your primary partner having other experiences as long as they tell you afterwards, or do you want to know before they go on a date?
What are your boundaries around safe sex?
How many partners or many nights away are you comfortable with?
Do you want to meet other partners or not?
Establishing these from the get-go will help you keep communication and trust strong.
Any “Dos” and “Don’ts” of an open relationship?
Here are Manser’s suggestions for keeping an open relationship running smoothly:
Do invest time in developing a good sense of self awareness and ability to communicate with partners about your internal emotional world.
Do be honest and straightforward when discussing your needs with your partners.
Do get support and help from friends, communities, and therapeutic spaces.
Do your research and educate yourself about different models and ways of communicating.
Don't lie or intentionally withhold information from your partner.
Don't take this conversation lightly.
Don't assume that open relationships are that much different than monogamous relationships.
When might be a good time for a monogamous couple to enter an open relationship?
Consider the stage your current relationship is in, and take it from there. According to Manser, there are plenty of good times to consider entering an open relationship. This could be when a new relationship begins – or when a couple has been monogamous for a long time.
Essentially, if all is well in your relationship and you’re both open to the idea, the timing could be right.
Any times when it’s not advisable to enter an open relationship?
Kira does offer a warning to partners who struggle with communication. “The only time I would say that it is not a good idea to enter into an open relationship is if there have been lots of challenges with communication that have been hurtful or painful between partners,” she says.
Communication is vital to beginning and maintaining any relationship – and open relationships are no exception.
My significant other and I are in a rut. Should we try to fix it with an open relationship?
Manser is adamant that pursuing an open relationship to “save” a monogamous relationship should never be an option. “Literally never. I would put this in the same category as having a kid to save the relationship. It never works – it just makes things worse.”
How can I broach the subject of an open relationship to my monogamous partner?
Honesty is the best policy – so be straightforward and transparent. Choose a quiet, non-stressful moment when you both have plenty of time to discuss.
Try opening the conversation with praise: Start by mentioning something you really love and appreciate about your partner and/or your relationship. As you segue into the request, be sure to use “I” statements – e.g., “I am looking to explore my sexual side more deeply,” or “I would like more freedom in my romantic life.”
Manser suggests reminding yourself why you wanted to purse an open relationship in the first place. “It shouldn't come from a perceived scarcity or lack within your relationship – but rather, the desire to fully express and experience your own sexuality within the relationships in your life,” she says.
What should I do if I want to explore an open relationship – but my partner isn’t, well, open to it?
If your pursuit of an open relationship is met with hesitation, or an outright “no,” your first step in pursuing an open relationship should be determining what you and your partner need as individuals.
Are you genuinely concerned that you don’t have room for expressing your sexuality within your monogamous relationship? Or is it that your interest is piqued by the possibility of an open relationship?
It can sometimes help to offer to let the more reluctant partner “go” first. But if your partner is truly closed, ask yourself which you’d rather have more.
“If an open relationship is just something someone is curious about exploring, but doesn’t necessarily need, it might make sense to consider if the relationship is worth not exploring that part of themselves,” says Manser.
My partner and/or I have jealousy concerns. Can we still consider an open relationship?
Open relationships mean opening yourself to more than one person and when you allow that, the natural feeling of jealousy can arise.
Knowing what to do with that feeling and how to accept it and overcome it is what Kishner emphasizes is key to self-growth. “Part of being in an open relationship means being willing to confront your own issues and working through them, without trying to control your partner so that you can avoid looking at yourself,” he says.
“When feelings of jealousy arise, you have the opportunity to challenge a scarcity mindset, and trust that there is enough love to go around, that your partner sharing pleasure with another does not take away from your own."
Besides jealousy, what other points of contention should my monogamous partner and I consider when seeking an open relationship?
Don’t forget about the impact of your actions! Dr. Warren reminds her clients who are in polyamorous relationships to remember other people in their relationships.
“Like in any other relationship, polyamorous partners can have conflicts, and can sometimes feel like they need more attention or time than they are getting – and this not only affects two people, but can affect all of the people in a given polyamorous group.”
So, ultimately, what defines a “successful” open relationship?
Dr. Warren says in her experience working with polyamorous clients, being open with one another is key.
“One of the major tenets of successful polyamorous relationships is the intention and the ability for honest, open and transparent communication between all of the individuals engaged in that relationship,” she says. The same applies to any type of open relationship!
I think I need some guidance – what should I look for in a therapist for open relationships?
If you’re considering pursuing an open relationship and are looking for a therapist for guidance, Warren recommends looking for a therapist who is aware of the societal norms that do not align with polyamorous relationships – and finding someone who can help you through that.
“For therapists who are going to work with a person or persons in polyamorous relationships, it is important for the therapist to be aware of their own sometimes unconscious biases about how healthy these relationships are and can be, emotionally and sexually, especially because our society still values and pushes monogamy as the norm and the moral choice.”
The one golden rule, as is in all relationships, is to be honest and upfront with your partners. If a rule you’ve created no longer is working for you, revisit it and make edits. If you think seeing a therapist will allow you to push past some uncertainties, reach out and make an appointment. You are in charge of your happiness and creating a life that fulfills you, so approach any and all relationships with that mindset.
Lauryn Higgins is a copywriter and freelance journalist who believes self-empowerment comes through owning and telling your story. She has a masters in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she works as an adjunct professor.