Open Relationships and How to Make Them Work

Rita

Last Updated: March 12, 2024

Relationship Advice

Open relationships are becoming more widely accepted in today’s dating scene. So, you might be wondering what this kind of relationship really entails.

In this article, we’ll talk about what open relationships can look like and some best practices for keeping everyone satisfied. Then, we’ll share some experiences from people in open relationships!

What is an open relationship?

An open relationship is an established romantic relationship in which one or both partners are welcome to date other people.

Every open relationship can establish its own rules, but here are some common characteristics:

  • Everyone within the established relationship is fully aware and on board with opening their relationship
  • Relationships outside of the established relationship are generally more casual than the established one
  • Relationships outside of the established relationship can include physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, or both

Is an open relationship just polyamory?

The line between polyamory and an open relationship can get kind of blurry, and definitions for dating terms tend to change over time. But here’s a boiled-down explanation of the difference between the two.

In general, an open relationship is characterized by one central relationship. From this “home base,” partners can explore sexual relationships. But the idea is that they continue to be committed to their main partner. It’s also unlikely that either partner will be involved in the other’s explorations (which falls more into “swingers” territory.)

Polyamory is a bit more decentralized. In this set-up, a person can have multiple romantic relationships which each hold equal weight, even if they take on different forms. In polyamory, one household may be home to multiple partners, or one partner may share their time between different households.

Common misconceptions about open relationships

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There are a few things that society tends to get wrong about open relationships. For example, open relationships are not:

  • Less serious than monogamous relationships. There’s a tendency to write off open relationships as frivolous or fake. But, they’re just as real, emotional, fulfilling, and complex as traditional relationships.
  • Unnatural. We tend to see monogamy as the norm, but it hasn’t been that way for our entire history. Evolutionary biologists continue to argue whether humans are naturally monogamous, while research on primates suggest that polygynandry (both male and females having multiple partners during the mating season) predates monogamy.
  • For people who can’t commit. An open relationship is a committed relationship. Each partner remains emotionally and romantically involved in their relationship while exploring experiences with other people.
  • Essentially cheating. In an open relationship, both partners are aware and in agreement about being able to pursue experiences outside of the relationship. If this consent is missing, it’s not an open relationship—it’s cheating.
  • Easier than monogamous relationships. Being in an open relationship is absolutely not an “easy way out” of a monogamous relationship. This dating configuration takes a lot of effort to be successful, which is why it’s not right for everyone.

What do these types of relationships need to work well?

There are a few essential elements that are present in successful open relationships:

  • Open communication. Honesty is the first building block of a healthy open relationship. Each partner must feel comfortable and welcome to express their thoughts, desires, and emotions.
  • Willingness from everyone involved. As we mentioned, pursuing experiences outside of your relationship without consent is cheating. Everyone needs to be on board.
  • Understanding that jealousy may pop up. Jealousy doesn’t mean that an open relationship is destined to fail. Instead, the most successful partners understand that jealousy is a natural human emotion that can be worked through together.
  • A strong sense of self. To be sure, we’re all working on becoming more confident, self-sufficient versions of ourselves. But if this is an area that you really struggle with, being in an open relationship may be more painful than pleasurable. Some jealousy, as we said, is normal. But an open relationship shouldn’t send you into an identity crisis.
  • Boundaries. Partners who want to pursue an open relationship should sit down and discuss boundaries that will make them feel safe and supported.
  • Trust. Each partner must be able to trust in the stability of the main relationship as well as their partner’s commitment to the boundaries they’ve established together.

Common boundaries in open relationships

Every relationship has boundaries, whether they’re explicitly stated or not. But in an open relationship, it’s always better to make these boundaries crystal clear. If you’re not sure where to start, consider these topics:

  • Prioritization of the main relationship. Many partners in open relationships have a rule that the main relationship always has first priority. That means that if given the choice between a date with someone new and a standing commitment with your partner, you will choose your partner.
  • Sexual safety. If your open relationship includes physical intimacy, it’s important to talk about how to keep yourself and potential partners safe.
  • Emotional connections. Unlike polyamory, open relationships tend to limit the amount of emotional connection with people outside of the main relationship.
  • Sharing of details. Even when two people are engaged in an open relationship, they may not want to hear all about the experiences that their partner is having.
  • Check-ins. Successful open relationships often include regular or occasional check-ins to make sure that things still feel positive.

What should you do if you decide you don’t want an open relationship?

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If you are not wild about the idea of an open relationship, that’s okay. This dating style is not for everyone, and you should never feel pressured into a situation that is hurtful or uncomfortable for you.

Remember that feeling compelled to enter into an open relationship for fear that you’ll lose your partner is not enthusiastic consent. In this situation, it may be better to end or pause the relationship instead of settling for a relationship that will cause you emotional harm.

Experiences from people who have had open relationships

Curious to know what these kinds of relationships look like in action? Here are a few stories from people who have tried them!

  • Samantha: My partner and I decided to open our relationship over two years ago, after having been together for five years. I’ll admit it was a bit rocky at first. I had to really check my ego and we both made a lot of mistakes about not communicating enough at the beginning. But now, I think it’s made our relationship stronger. We might not be open forever, but I’m happy with where we’re at now.
  • Connor: Maybe this is not what people want to hear but I’m one of the people who decided I didn’t like being in an open relationship. I wouldn’t say that I’m old school. Like, I’m fine being friends with benefits with more than one partner. But when feelings get involved, I guess I just can’t put my ego aside enough to be okay with having an open relationship.
  • Dee: When I met my husband, I had already been in a few open relationships, so I think he was kind of shocked when I told him I wanted to continue with this lifestyle. Actually, I think that really helped him, having someone who had been in open relationships before and could dispel a lot of the myths. For example, the first time he felt jealous, he didn’t expect me to be understanding about it so he hid it for a while. But, inevitably, it became obvious and I was able to walk him through how to deal with it and not feel bad about it.

What kind of relationship is right for you?

Whether you’re interested in monogamy, monogamish, polyamory, or open relationships, the important thing is that you get to decide what is right for you!

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