There are many different types of relationships, and if you’re currently in one that’s committed and monogamous, you may have many questions and be wondering how to proceed if your partner decides that they want to have an open relationship. With this in mind, if your partner is pushing for an open relationship, it’s up to you to decide if you’re comfortable with it or if you should close the door on your time with this person.
To better understand your partner’s desire to have an open relationship as well as determine the best way to process and proceed with this type of information, it’s important to know what an open relationship actually entails.
What Is an Open Relationship?
An open relationship is one in which you and your partner are free to engage in sexual and/or romantic endeavors with other people. In other words, you and your partner aren’t monogamous, and one and/or both of you are able to look outside of your relationship and have physical as well as emotional connections with others.
In 2016, it was estimated that 4–5% of North Americans were involved in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship. Although nonmonogamy still remains widely stigmatized in its social perception, a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggests that partners in open relationships are equally as satisfied, happy, and at the same level of well-being as those in monogamous relationships.
If nonmonogamy is a new concept to you, your head might be spinning. Spend some time reflecting on your romantic goals and what you want out of your relationship. Being honest with yourself and your partner could save you time and heartache in the future, or open the door to a new level of fulfillment.
In order to determine if an open relationship is the right kind of relationship for you, answer these five critical questions as honestly as possible.
Should You Agree to an Open Relationship?
1. Why does your partner want an open relationship? If your partner wants to have an open relationship, then they should clearly explain the reasons why this is the case. For example, has your partner failed at monogamy in the past and would rather be upfront and open about his endeavors rather than having to sneak around? Does your partner feel as though her needs aren’t currently being met and wants to look outside your relationship to fulfill these desires?
"Most often, one of the two is simply feeling confined," says relationship and sex therapist Isadora Alman. "Sex within the couple is dull; one is not getting his or her needs met, not only for variety but perhaps for a certain predilection the partner won’t indulge." Once you fully understand why your partner is interested in having an open relationship in the first place, you can make a more informed decision regarding if or how to continue.
2. Are you interested in being with other people? Upon hearing your partner’s reasons for wanting an open relationship, it’s important to ask yourself if you also feel as though you’d like to pursue other options outside of your current relationship. And if the answer is “yes,” then an open relationship may be something worth trying, especially since you and your partner can both be with other people while being totally open and honest with one another.
When one person has agreed to consensual nonmonogamy under duress…the challenges become far more intense than they would be if everyone involved was truly consenting.
But polyamory expert Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., shares a word of warning: "When one person has agreed to consensual nonmonogamy under duress—either they have been bullied or badgered until they give in, or they feel like they can’t say no but really do not want to be in an open relationship—the challenges become far more intense than they would be if everyone involved was truly consenting."
3. Are you okay with one-sided monogamy? If you’re not interested in being with other people, you then have to ask yourself if you’d be okay with your partner going outside of your relationship while you remain monogamous. "That is where one wants or expects a monogamous relationship, is happy within those bonds, and the other partner isn’t," explains Alman. "If some sort of settlement can be negotiated—only casual outside sex and no love affairs, or only when out of town, etc.—there can be a truce."
It's important to keep in mind that there are open relationships where this is the case, and you have to be honest with yourself if this is something that you’d be able to handle. For example, if you’re someone who has a tendency to get jealous, then having to share your partner with others may not be the best choice for you.
4. What is the state of your current relationship? If your partner wants an open relationship, it’s critical that the relationship you have with one another at this very moment is strong. In fact, many people mistakenly believe that opening up a relationship can be beneficial if they’re currently facing challenges as a couple, but a rocky relationship will likely crumble.
Given the complexity of negotiating and maintaining consensual nonmonogamous relationships, it is not a surprise that choosing it as a strategy to mend a damaged relationship generally does not end well.
As Sheff puts it, "Given the complexity of negotiating and maintaining consensual nonmonogamous relationships, it is not a surprise that choosing it as a strategy to mend a damaged relationship generally does not end well." In a word, an open relationship isn’t a quick-fix or guaranteed remedy for a relationship that’s failing, so it shouldn’t be used as a crutch for an already broken connection.
5. Is this a deal-breaker? In the end, it’s up to you to decide if you’re okay with having an open relationship. And while you may love your partner very much and care about him or her with all of your heart, you have to think about your own wants and needs when making this important decision. "There are as many possible outcomes to an open/closed relationship as there are rules and agreements around one," points out Alman.
If you're not totally comfortable saying "yes" to an open relationship but you're also not quite ready to call it quits, Sheff floats an alternative idea: "When couples consider shifting from monogamy to consensual nonmonogamy and find it challenging, seeking some assistance from a professional counselor, therapist, or coach can help them to consider and negotiate alternatives."
Remember, you get to determine the kind of relationship that you have with a partner. And if monogamy is a requirement for you, then you should find someone else who shares this requirement as well—just as your partner should find someone who’s totally on board with an open relationship.
Wood J, Desmarais S, Burleigh T, Milhausen R. Reasons for Sex and Relational Outcomes in Consensually Nonmonogamous and Monogamous Relationships: A Self-Determination Theory Approach. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2018;35(4):632-654. doi:10.1177/0265407517743082