Monogamy is the preferred M.O. for most people in relationships, right? Well, not exactly. Research conducted by social psychologist Dr. Justin Lehmiller revealed that one of the most common things that people in the United States fantasize about is being in an open relationship. And now that our society is increasingly embracing the nuances of sexuality and sexual preferences, more couples are choosing to open up their relationships.
“Open relationships can give you the chance to date different kinds of people,” says sexologist Megan Stubbs. “Maybe your new partner is nothing like your current one and that is exciting. You can also have different needs met with multiple partners whether that is emotionally or physically. And there’s also the opportunity to have a more vibrant social calendar!”
While fantasizing about it and actually acting upon it are two different things, if you’re thinking of giving consensual non-monogamy a try, there are a few keys to making it successful. Here’s what to keep in mind.
Do it for the right reasons.
“A common misconception about an open relationship is that somehow one partner is getting 'the better end' of the deal,” says Stubbs. “In an ideal situation, both parties want this type of relationship and don't feel coerced into going along with it just because one partner wants to.” She adds that another misconception is that opening a relationship can help with relationship problems, but that’s not usually a good idea. “Adding more variables like multiple partners is not the way to deal with issues in a relationship. In fact, it can exacerbate current ones, or even cause new ones.”
Commit to communication.
The “open” aspect doesn’t just apply to the relationship itself, but also your communication with each other. Since consensual non-monogamy can require a great deal of trust in one another, it’s important that you discuss everything openly and honestly to prevent any misunderstandings. Be honest about your emotions, needs and boundaries—and how they might change as the relationship progresses.
“Chances are that you've already discussed things at length when opening your relationship, but that doesn't mean that you've talked about everything,” says Stubbs. “Sometimes even with the best preparation, mistakes can happen. Keep communication open and talk through the issues that came up. Remember, that your partner should be your primary concern, so make sure you're on solid ground with them before moving forward.”
Set guidelines, but not rules.
Before you get started, make sure you’re on the same page about what having an open relationship means. You might like to discuss things such as dating mutual friends and how much detail you share with each other about your encounters with other people.
But while having mutually agreed-upon guidelines is important, the idea of a set of strict rules might not work for everyone. After all, part of the whole open relationship thing is exploring what you want and what feels good for you and your partner—and having too many rules can feel like the opposite of that. So start by focusing on what you each are hoping to get out of the relationship rather than what is forbidden, and leave room for flexibility and revision.
Another thing to agree upon from the outset is that it’s OK for either of you to decide that being in an open relationship isn’t working for you. You might think that it was what you wanted but, after putting it in practice, you realize that it’s not your thing.
To make the conversation easier, it can be helpful to determine a certain timeframe—say, every six months—to check in with each other and make sure you’re both still comfortable with the situation. Of course, if you realize sooner than that timeframe that open relationships aren’t what you want after all, you should both have the freedom to say so.
Take care of yourself.
We’re not just talking about using contraception and protection (which are definitely important). A big part of a successful open relationship is when both partners feel comfortable in themselves and know their needs and desires. Think about why you are seeking an open relationship in the first place—if it’s to fill an emotional void in your current relationship, or within yourself, it may not be the healthiest course of action.
And make sure that the open communication extends beyond just your current partner. Be clear with everyone about the situation and what you are hoping to experience or explore. Likewise, be respectful of your new partners—while some people are comfortable with dating someone who is already in a relationship, others are not and so it’s important to give them the choice.
Approach the idea tactfully.
So how do you broach the possibility of an open relationship with your partner in the first place? “A great way to bring it up with your partner is to say that you read an article about open relationships and to ask their opinion,” suggests Stubbs. “That will start off the conversation neutrally and you can get an honest answer from them without the pressure of them thinking they have to respond in a certain way. If they seem open to it, you can continue the conversation. And if they say it isn't something they'd be into pursuing, you can just say 'Oh OK, just wondered what you thought!'” The main thing to remember is no one should be pressured into having a relationship.
Read about what we can learn from polyamory.