What Is an Open Relationship?

A couple hugging playfully in their new home
10'000 Hours / Getty Images

What Is an Open Relationship?

Open relationships fall under the larger category of consensually non-monogamous relationships. They are relationships in which one or 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 often considered a sort of the middle ground between swinging and polyamory.

While swingers tend to keep their outside 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 are not pursuing intimate, committed relationships with other partners.

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, however, has given us an idea of how many adults engage in non-monogamous relationships.

One study published in The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy discovered that about one in five adults had been in some form of an open relationship in their lifetime.

Another survey found that 31% of women and 38% 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 time, it may be for a few possible reasons including that 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.

Is an Open Relationship Right for You?

Some people know from their teenage years that they are not interested in monogamy, despite the prevalent 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 presents the possibility.

A common scenario: 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 by opening up the relationship. Often, this means breaking up or divorcing.

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

If you answer "yes" to the following questions, there's a good chance that an open relationship may be right for you:

  • Are you and your partner both genuinely interested in non-monogamy?
  • Do you and your partner have different sexual needs and/or orientations?
  • Are you considering an open relationship out of a place of trust (and not, for example, because of broken trust or infidelity)?
  • Are you able to openly communicate with your partner?
  • Do you have a relationship built on a solid foundation of honesty and trust?
  • Are you able to handle jealousy in a healthy manner?

Types

Married couples, committed couples, and casual couples alike can be in open relationships that involve consent to:

  • Casually date people outside their marriage or relationship
  • Pursue romantic relationships outside their marriage or relationship
  • Have a physical relationship outside of their marriage or relationship

Talking About an Open Relationship

How you approach the topic of open relationships with your partner(s) depends on the stage of your relationship. If you are currently single or dating casually, it may be easier. In this case, 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 how you both entered this relationship and whether there was the expectation of monogamy. Your partner has a right to expect you to be monogamous if that was what you agreed to at the time. Unfortunately, not everyone makes that expectation explicit.

Since monogamy is part of many people's social expectations about romantic relationships, many people just assume this to be a term of their relationship without ever talking it over with their partner.

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 engage in successful open relationships 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.

Pros of Open Relationships
  • Heightened communication about wants and needs

  • Pursuing new experiences and interests

  • Exciting and different sexual experiences

  • Freedom to express different sides of yourself

  • No pressure for one person to fulfill all of their partner's emotional and sexual needs and interests

Cons of Open Relationships
  • Risk of jealousy and issues with self-esteem

  • Risk of emotional pain as your partner experiences pleasure and happiness with someone else

  • Risk of sexually transmitted infection

  • Risk of unplanned pregnancy

  • Risk of sexual addiction or loss of libido from trying to please multiple partners

Potential Pitfalls

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 arise quickly as they learn to challenge that expectation while exploring non-monogamy. 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 and you to them.

Once you let go of the idea that you alone must fulfill every single one of your partner's needs, it's easier to manage feelings of jealousy—whether you're in a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship.

Negative feelings toward your partner's other 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 but still want to explore an open relationship with your partner, couples therapy with someone who understands non-monogamy can help you overcome these feelings.

Having multiple sexual partners also increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so it's important for all involved to engage in safer sex activities with proper protection and get tested regularly.

Strategies for an Open Relationship

While there are no set rules when it comes to having an open relationship. In fact, it is beneficial to work together to establish expectations and boundaries with your partner. Here are a few to consider.

Sexual Boundaries

Is sex with other partners OK and, if so, with what acts are you (or aren’t you) comfortable? Be as specific as possible, including safe-sex practices like condoms, dental dams, and getting screened for STIs.

Emotional Boundaries

Talk about what would make you jealous and how to approach each other if jealousy does occur. When talking about emotional boundaries, you can also discuss whether it’s possible to not fall for someone after having sex and what happens if that does occur.

Personal Boundaries

What’s fair game? Are friends, co-workers, or ex-partners off the table? How do you feel about strangers? You might also want to discuss topics like sexual orientation and gender identity, both for yourselves and potential other partners.

Splitting Time

You and your partner should set guidelines on how much time is OK to spend with other partners and when it's OK to cut into your time together to actively explore other relationships.

A Word From Verywell

Only you can decide whether an open relationship is right for you. Opening a relationship involves taking a closer look at your beliefs and feelings about monogamy, examining what you really expect from love and partnership, and being vulnerable with your feelings. It takes a lot of maturity and compassion.

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

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Haupert ML, Gesselman AN, Moors AC, Fisher HE, Garcia JR. Prevalence of experiences with consensual nonmonogamous relationships: Findings from two national samples of single Americans. J Sex Marital Ther. 2017;43(5):424-440. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2016.1178675

  2. YouGov. Young Americans are less wedded to monogamy than their elders. October 2016.