What Is an Open Relationship?

Why some feel they're missing out with monogamy

A couple hugging playfully in their new home
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Open relationships are part of the larger category of consensually non-monogamous relationships. They are relationships in which both partners can pursue sex, and sometimes emotional attachments, with other people.

Open relationships differ from swinging, in which partners have sex with other people at parties and where the relationships are purely sexual. They also differ from polyamory, where partners can pursue more than one committed relationship at a time. Open relationships are sort of the middle ground between swinging and polyamory.

While swingers tend to keep their extramarital relationships to the realm of sex with other established couples, and polyamory is all about having multiple committed, romantic partners, people in open relationships can usually have sex with others they feel attracted to—with the caveat that these other relationships remain casual. In other words, you can have sex with whomever you want, but you can't fall in love with them.

Who Chooses an Open Relationship?

Since there is still a lot of stigma around non-monogamy, not everyone is willing to admit that they participate in open relationships, swinging, or polyamory. Research by academic and non-profit organizations have given us a range. One study discovered that about one in five adults had been in some form of an open relationship in their lifetime.

Another survey found that 31 percent of women and 38 percent of men would prefer a non-monogamous relationship. In general, younger respondents were more likely to prefer non-monogamy than the older crowd.

If we've seen numbers of non-monogamous relationships grow over the past few years, it may be for two possible reasons: people feel more comfortable being open about the topic, or more people are willing to try it. Open relationships being less stigmatized in the media can contribute to both.

Do You Want an Open Relationship?

Some people know from their teenage years that they are not interested in monogamy, despite the expectation that everyone will, one day, be in a monogamous relationship leading to marriage. Others dip into open relationships because of circumstances, like having a crush on someone new, or because a partner brings it up.

A common scenario goes as follows: a couple that has been together for a few years feels a lack of passion. One or both partners get a crush on someone else, or one begins an affair. To resolve the issue, they decide to open up their relationship.

This, sadly, is not often the best way to open up your relationship. Especially when infidelity is involved, it is better to solve the underlying issue in the relationship first rather than try to mask it with opening the relationship up. Often, this means breaking up or divorcing.

Sometimes, however, it does allow both people to go towards an open relationship with a positive outlook based on trust, love, and commitment.

How Do I Bring It Up?

How you approach the topic with your partner(s) depends on the stage of your relationship. If you are currently single or dating casually, it's simpler. Bring up your ideal of non-monogamy at the dating stage. If you make it clear that you are not willing to be sexually and/or emotionally exclusive, the other person can make a clear choice as to whether they want to pursue the relationship further.

If you are in a committed relationship already, things are a little more complex. First, you need to acknowledge that you entered this relationship with the expectation of monogamy. The other person has a right to expect you to be monogamous if that was what you agreed to at the time. Sadly, not everyone makes that expectation explicit.

Since monogamy is part of our social expectation around romantic relationships, many people just assume this to be a term of their relationship without ever talking it over.

Ask yourself what has changed. Maybe you were always interested in non-monogamy but attempted to stay monogamous due to social pressure or family expectations. Your open relationship discussion does not need to come about as a result of a new crush—indeed, it is better if it comes while you have no other attachment. It can simply be part of personal or therapeutic work.

If, however, you approach your partner about an open relationship because you want to pursue a crush, or after having been unfaithful, be prepared to face difficult times in your primary relationship. Your partner will likely feel betrayed and hurt, and you will need to deal with that before you actually open up your relationship. You want to open up your relationship with a positive outlook rather than out of spite or boredom.

In other words, opening up your relationship to fix it when it appears to be failing is likely a bad idea. It will likely make things worse in the long term, even if it seems to work at first.

Benefits

When done with respect and the consent of all involved, open relationships have plenty of benefits. The first obvious one that many people think of is sexual satisfaction. Humans enjoy novelty when it comes to sexuality, and we all crave it at one point or another. A new partner is a great way to satisfy that craving for new sexual experiences.

People who do open relationships well also share strong communication skills, a deepened sense of trust, and thoroughly negotiated roles and expectations. It's much easier to fulfill a partner's needs if they tell you what they want, rather than making you guess. Open relationships allow partners to put all their cards on the table.

Open relationships also allow non-monogamous people to express their needs and identity without fear. They don't need to hide their crushes or extra-marital relationships, at least to their partner, and this leads to a lot less emotional distress.

Possible Issues

Aside from those already mentioned, open relationships have potential problems all their own. Jealousy is the first. For people raised in an environment where monogamy is expected, jealousy can rear its ugly head quickly. Remember, though, that jealousy is rooted in feelings of not being enough, which is itself based on the idea that your romantic partner should be everything to you. '

Once you let go of the idea that you need to fulfill every single one of your partner's needs, it's easier to manage jealousy.

Negative feelings towards extra partners can also stem from increased vulnerability. As you learn to negotiate your relationship more explicitly, you will need to explore and express feelings you may not have examined before. This can make people feel anxious, angry, or make them retreat emotionally.

If you are having these kinds of problems, couple therapy with someone who understands non-monogamy can help you overcome these feelings.

Finally, multiple partners increase the risk of STIs. Engage in safer sex activities with proper protection and get tested regularly. Take care of your sexual health and that of your partners.

A Word From Verywell

Only you can decide whether an open relationship is right for you. Opening a relationship involves questioning the ideal of monogamy, examining what we really expect from love, and being vulnerable with our feelings. It takes a lot of maturity and compassion.

On the other hand, being in an open relationship isn't for everyone—it doesn't show a lack of maturity or compassion to decide that you prefer monogamy. In the end, being honest with yourself and your partner(s) is most important for happiness in your relationships.

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