There are many different types of relationships, and if you’re currently in one that’s committed and monogamous, you may have questions about how to proceed if your partner wants an open relationship.
To better understand, process, and proceed, it’s important to know what an open relationship actually entails. Both polyamory expert Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., and sex therapist Isadora Alman define an open relationship as one in which partners are free to engage in sexual, emotional, and/or romantic endeavors with other people outside the relationship. In 2016, it was estimated that 4–5 percent of North Americans were involved in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship. Although nonmonogamy 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 and happy as those in monogamous relationships.
Meet the Expert
- Isadora Alman, MFT, CST, is a relationship therapist and sexologist with over 35 years in the industry. She is the author of the syndicated sex column Ask Isadora.
- Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., is an academic expert on polyamory and polyamorous families. She is the author of When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous: Understanding Poly People and 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. 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.
Read on to determine if an open relationship is the right kind of relationship for you.
Know Your Partner's Reasons
If your partner wants to have an open relationship, they should clearly explain the reasons why this is the case. Perhaps they've failed at monogamy in the past and would rather be upfront and open about their endeavors rather than having to sneak around. Or perhaps they feel as though their needs aren’t currently being met and want to look outside your relationship to fulfill these desires.
"Most often, one of the two is simply feeling confined," says 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.
Understand Open Relationships Versus Cheating
An open relationship is distinctly different from cheating in that there is no secrecy, dishonesty, or subversion. By definition, an open relationship requires a consensual agreement by both partners to engage in relations with people outside the primary relationship.
Evaluate Your Interest 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. 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 Sheff 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."
Weigh the Possibility of One-Sided Monogamy
If you’re not interested in being with other people, 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."
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. If you’re someone who tends to get jealous, then having to share your partner with others may not be the best choice for you.
Assess the Pros of an Open Relationship
Open relationships allow people to open up to new experiences and satisfy any curiosities they may wish to explore without sacrificing the bond of the primary relationship. A consistent sense of novelty, increased opportunities for connection, chances to try different fantasies, and introductions to desires they hadn't considered are all possible with open relationships. They can also be a positive alternative for partners that want to explore their sexualities, lack sexual compatibility, or experience arousal from their partner engaging in sexual acts with others.
Be Aware of the Cons of an Open Relationship
The negative aspects of an open relationship mainly arise from pre-existing issues in the primary relationship. If partners enter an open relationship without truly being comfortable with the arrangement, they will most likely end up being dissatisfied with the relationship. Similarly, if partners aren't fully honest with themselves or each other and fail to adequately communicate expectations and boundaries, the arrangement could deteriorate quickly. Most importantly, if the reason for entering an open relationship is a desperate Hail Mary attempt to fix an already-unstable relationship, those efforts may be in vain.
Consider the State of Your Current Relationship
If you're considering an open relationship, it’s critical that the relationship you have with one another at this very moment is strong. Many people mistakenly believe that opening up a relationship can be beneficial if they’re currently facing challenges as a couple, but, again, 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." 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.
Set Rules and Boundaries
As in all relationships, honesty and open communication are necessary for success. Evaluate your personal expectations and needs with yourself first, and then have a conversation with your partner to set boundaries to protect those needs. These can include things like how much information should be disclosed about secondary relationships, sexual risk management (use of protection, getting tested for STDs, etc.), and allocation of time spent between secondary (or tertiary) partners and you. For example, you may need a certain amount of one-on-one time with your partner, block off special dates, or ensure that they aren't communicating with secondary partners when you are together. "There are as many possible outcomes to an open/closed relationship as there are rules and agreements around one," points out Alman.
Be careful of rules surrounding emotions. While it may feel safer to have a hard stop on developing romantic feelings for someone else, emotions can be difficult to control. Have regular check-ins to ensure that both parties are satisfied with the agreements, which can always be renegotiated if necessary.
Decide If This Is 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 them with all of your heart, you have to think about your own wants and needs when making this important decision.
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. 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