What to Do When Your Partner Wants An Open Relationship—and You Don't

Man and woman having a serious conversation about the future of their relationship, sitting on a bedroom bed, dressed in casual clothes and staring at each other.

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If you’re in a monogamous relationship with your partner, you may wonder what to do if they tell you they want to be in an open relationship. It’s natural to feel confused, hurt, angry, and insecure in this position, particularly if non-monogamous relationships are new to you. 

Your first reaction may be to say no, but you may fear losing your partner. Or, you may consider agreeing in order to save your relationship, although you may not be entirely comfortable with the concept.

Before you decide, it can be helpful to take some time to explore what open relationships entail, what your partner is seeking, and what your boundaries are. Being honest with yourself and keeping an open mind when you communicate with your partner can help you navigate this situation and decide how to proceed.

What to Do If Your Partner Wants An Open Relationship

These are some steps you can take to discuss an open relationship with your partner and determine whether it would work for you.

Keep an Open Mind

You may find yourself feeling shocked and caught off guard if your partner suggests an open relationship, particularly if you’ve only ever been in monogamous relationships. However, while monogamous relationships are more traditional, it’s important to remember that there are many different types of relationships.

“Monogamous marriage is an age-old institution with religious underpinnings. This tradition is being contested and even redefined over time by society” says Claudia de Llano, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and author of “The Seven Destinies of Love.”

It is estimated that over 5% of people living in North America are in some form of consensual non-monogamous relationship. Furthermore, research suggests that people in non-monogamous relationships are as happy and satisfied as those in monogamous relationships.

In fact, a 2020 study notes that one-third of people in monogamous relationships fantasized about being in open relationships and 80% of them said they would like to act upon this fantasy in the future.

Unfortunately, non-monogamous relationships continue to be stigmatized.

However, it’s important to keep an open mind while you consider your partner’s suggestion. During this process, think about what you actually want in a relationship, rather than worrying about the kind of relationship society thinks you should have.

Understand What Your Partner Wants

Once you’re feeling ready to keep an open mind, talk to your partner and try to understand what they want from this arrangement. De Llano says it can be helpful to discuss the following questions with them:

  • Why are they considering an open relationship?
  • What are they looking for in this arrangement?
  • What would the boundaries, limits, and rules around the arrangement be?
  • Would there be a time frame for this arrangement?
  • Would you keep this part of your relationship public or private?
  • If you would keep the arrangement private, what would the potential risks of carrying this secret be?
  • If you would disclose the arrangement to others, what would the rules be around discussing it with close friends, family members, work colleagues, and other people in your lives?
  • What would the potential impact on other people (such as your children, if you have any) be?

Reflect Upon What You Want

Once you have a better idea of the kind of arrangement your partner wants, it can be helpful to take some time to reflect on what you want.

De Llano suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are you interested in being with other people?
  • Are you comfortable with the idea of your partner being with other people?
  • Are you willing to openly discuss your feelings on your extramarital or extradyadic encounters with your partner, and hear about theirs?
  • How will this arrangement affect your self-esteem?
  • What would you tell your 10-year-old self about this arrangement and why?
  • Do you feel like you are getting the love you want and deserve?

Work Out the Rules

If you're interested in exploring the idea an open relationship, you can decide the rules with your partner. If you're not comfortable with an entirely open relationship, you could choose to open it up partially, with rules in place:

  • Choose a cadence: You and your partner could decide to open the relationship only once a year. That way, both of you can test out what it feels like.
  • Decide whether one or both of you want to see other people: If you don't want to see other people but are fine with your partner seeing other people, you can agree to that kind of arrangement.
  • Approve each other's external partners: An open relationship may be more comfortable if you know who your partner is dating and feel comfortable with their choice. You and your partner can agree to only see people that both of you approve of.
  • Decide which activities are off-limits: You might be OK with your partner being physically intimate with another person but not OK with them going on dates with others. You can choose a boundary that works for both of you. You can also decide whether or not you or your partner can have multiple interactions with the same person.

There are myriad ways that you can set up your open relationship, so feel free to get creative when determining what you want your relationship to look like. And, remember that you can always make changes if you feel the need to.

Decide Your Boundaries

Based on your discussion with your partner and your own reflections, you can decide whether you would be open to exploring this type of arrangement or whether it’s a no-go for you. In order to have a successful open relationship, you and your partner both need to be on board.

Open relationships depend upon an understanding and agreement between the couple regarding the parameters of the relationship beyond monogamy, says de Llano. “This means that you and your partner must both be equally certain, consenting, and in agreement of the relationship values, meaning, purpose, rules, boundaries, and co-created culture.”

If you’re not open to a non-monogamous relationship, you can draw a boundary in your relationship with your partner. “Have the strength to say no to your partner and be firm where you stand,” says de Llano.

Claudia de Llano, LMFT

Above all, you must respect your needs, your boundaries, and your heart.

— Claudia de Llano, LMFT

Consider Couples Therapy

It can be helpful for you and your partner to go to couples therapy while you navigate this discussion and explore whether you’re open to a non-monogamous relationship. A couples therapist can help both of you explore your motivations and fears related to an open relationship in a safe space.

Therapy can also be useful if you’ve reached a position where you don’t want an open relationship but your partner does. This can be a difficult spot because you may be hurt and angry that your partner wants to be with people outside your relationship; your partner may be dismayed that their needs may go unfulfilled. Both of you would have to decide if and how you would proceed with your relationship.

At this juncture, couples therapy can help you and your partner work on defining and strengthening your values, beliefs, and purpose around your relationship, says de Llano.

Reasons Why Your Partner May Want an Open Relationship

These are some of the reasons why someone may want an open relationship, according to de Llano:

  • Fear of intimacy or commitment
  • Negative associations with monogamous relationships (often due to childhood experiences of parental relationships)
  • Trauma from a past relationship
  • Issues with the present relationship that need to be resolved
  • Perceived lack of freedom in the relationship
  • Positive exposure to open relationships
  • Interest in someone outside the relationship

There may also be other reasons your partner might want to explore an open relationship. Maybe they just think it would spice up your relationship. It's important to ask your partner all of the reasons why they want an open relationship.

If you're struggling to have these communications, therapy can help you and your partner explore motivations for wanting an open relationship and address any underlying issues that need to be resolved.

Does My Partner Actually Just Want to Cheat on Me?

Wanting an open relationship doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner wants to specifically be with someone else; however, it could mean your partner is seeking to gain something they need or want outside of the relationship dynamic, says de Llano.

While an open relationship is a consensual form of non-monogamy, cheating is a non-consensual form of non-monogamy. By asking your permission, your partner is making it consensual and hopefully taking an ethical approach to non-monogamy instead of going behind your back and cheating on you. 

It’s up to you to decide whether this arrangement works for you and what is or isn’t acceptable to you. Understanding your partner’s motivations can help you make this decision.

If it seems like they are asking for an open relationship in order to be with someone else while also being with you, you can choose to draw a boundary around your relationship in order to protect yourself.

Does My Partner Think I'm Not Enough for Them?

Wanting an open relationship could indicate your partner has needs that are not being met within your relationship. However, they could also want an open relationship for reasons that don’t have anything to do with you. 

Though it can be difficult, it’s important not to personalize your partner’s desire for an open relationship and think there’s something wrong with you. Remind yourself that no matter what, you are enough and you deserve to be loved fully for who you are.

When an Open Relationship May Be a Good Idea

An open relationship can be a good idea if:

  • You are interested in exploring outside of your relationship
  • You are comfortable with the idea of your partner being with someone else
  • You and your partner have varied needs that cannot be met by one person alone
  • You and your partner are secure in your relationship with each other
  • You and your partner have good communication skills and are able to openly discuss your feelings, needs, and boundaries
  • You and your partner have similar relationship goals
  • You and your partner can decide and agree on the rules and boundaries of the arrangement
  • You and your partner both have a strong sense of self and are secure in your own identities
  • You or your partner travel frequently or have long periods of separation

When Is an Open Relationship Not a Good Idea?

An open relationship may not be a good idea if:

  • You are not comfortable with the thought of non-monogamy
  • You feel angry, jealous, anxious, or depressed at the thought of your partner with someone else
  • You suspect that your partner is asking for an open relationship in order to cheat on you
  • Your partner has a history of dishonesty or infidelity that makes it difficult for you to trust them
  • You have unresolved trauma that may be triggered non-monogamous experiences
  • You and your partner have different expectations or goals for an open relationship (e.g. one partner wants to explore non-monogamy as a way to enhance the relationship, while the other partner wants to use it as a way to escape the relationship)

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should I be in an open relationship to save my relationship/marriage?

    You should explore being in an open relationship if that’s something you’re interested in. However, you shouldn’t do it if you’re not comfortable with the idea of you or your partner being with someone else.

    If you and your partner love each other and want to work out a way to stay together despite your differences, couples therapy can help you work on your relationship/marriage and determine the way forward.

  • Will my partner leave me if I don't want an open relationship?

    Perhaps, although sometimes even just the permission to openly entertain a fantasy or desire in the relationship takes the heat off of what’s boiling underneath, says de Llano. “This can help you discover why such feelings are surfacing and allow you to connect compassionately with each other.”

4 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.
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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.