Navigating an open marriage with your partner is no small feat but, if you’re both willing to put in the work, it can ultimately bring you two closer than ever. It takes two to make a thing go right—right? That math might just have some nuance in this scenario.
What Is an Open Marriage?
An open marriage follows guidelines of agreed-upon emotional and/or physical relations outside the primary (wedded) partners.
When asked how to actually define an open marriage, therapist Gwen Lotery laughs and says, “That’s the fun part! There’s lots of variation.” She then follows up with a more tactile definition to build from, adding, “My personal definition is ethical non-monogamy, meaning practicing non-monogamy consensually between two or more partners.” Lotery emphasizes how “consent” is the keyword to take in here (and what separates a healthy open relationship from infidelity), but what exactly that consent encompasses is hyper-individualized. “Each couple gets to make up their own rule book,” she explains, “and most importantly, you get to revise your rules at any time.”
Meet the Expert
Gwen Lotery is an MFT and nationally certified Sex and Couples Therapist. She has been practicing psychotherapy in Santa Monica/WLA for 20+ years.
Below, Lotery shares her most eye-opening, approachable, and even humorous tips for taking the leap into a non-monogamous love story that lasts.
Is an Open Marriage Right for You?
“When people come into my practice wanting non-monogamy, it’s usually because they had a pivotal moment,” explains Lotery, but they need help clarifying and communicating it with their partner. “I realize this is coming from a therapist,” she laughs, “but counseling can really help with that!”
For couples that do come to her wondering if an open marriage is the right path, she empowers them to ask each other exciting, sometimes uncomfortable, and crucial questions such as, “Is your idea purely sexual, or more of another relationship? Do you play [outside the marriage] together, or do you play separately? Both?” Then, based on those answers, the pair can decide if and how they want to move forward.
Additionally, while Lotery believes there really are countless healthy ways and reasons to open up a marriage, she doesn’t sugarcoat when and why it probably isn’t the best idea: “Look,” she says, “if your relationship is in a rocky place and you decide to go non-monogamous in order to save it, 99 percent of the time it’s just not gonna work.”
How to Have a Successful Open Marriage
“The biggest mistake a couple can do is jump in,” warns Lotery. She compares opening up a marriage successfully to training for a marathon, saying, “You wouldn’t buy tennis shoes on Friday and then run the marathon Sunday—you won’t make it!” What does work, in her professional opinion, is “a lot of talking, a lot of listening … and most importantly, only going as far and fast as the slowest partner is ready for.” Below, we’ve broken down her advice into three core components:
Create an agreement.
Establishing clear boundaries for what is and isn’t okay ties directly back to Lotery’s comment early about successful open couples defining (and regularly revising) their own personalized “ethical non-monogamy rule book.” While she’s not talking about a literal, written set of rules, the point here is that how you and your partner decide to open up your marriage “has to be an agreed-upon decision,” and every single boundary set needs to be respected.
Additionally, if you open your marriage and one partner decides it doesn’t feel right at any point, Lotery reminds us a couple can (and should) “step back, renegotiate, or stop completely.” She adds, “Think about baking cookies: crunchy or soft, with nuts or without—you can always change the recipe!”
Spell out safety.
Beyond respecting emotional boundaries, getting specific on honoring physical ones is just as crucial to cover. “The STI conversation needs to come up every single time,” Lotery says, “[and] if you are not willing to have that conversation, you are absolutely not ready to be non-monogamous.”
Prioritize your partnership.
Remember the rush of falling in love? “That’s called NRE (new relationship energy) [and] bringing that erotic energy from ‘out in the field’ back home to your primary partner is a really necessary part of non-monogamy,” she shares. “It fuels excitement [to] make your own new memories together and keep creativity alive!”
Open Marriage Questions
How can I learn more about ethical non-monogamy if counseling isn’t an option?
“There are so many great books out there now,” says Lotery. Her top recommendations include Opening Up by Tristan Taramino, More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, and The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. Lotery also adds how, if you’re not seeking counseling due to limited local therapists with relationship expertise in your area, consider virtual counseling. From the privacy of your own home, you can now easily work with her or another specialist.
How do I bring up the idea of having an open marriage with my partner?
“You hope for an already strong foundation of communication,” says Lotery, “and approach the topic gingerly [as] a conversation and not an ultimatum.” One way to frame it, she adds, is telling your partner, “This is possibly a fantasy of mine—do we keep it as fantasy, or look into getting more educated on the subject?”
So cheating is definitely still a thing in an open marriage?
“It is 100 percent possible to cheat in an open marriage,” explains Lotery. “People break their agreements all the time, [and] often not intentionally.” How? “It’s easy to let holding hands turn into making out or more, but [if your agreement is holding hands and you get ‘caught in the moment’] that’s non-ethical and that’s not consent. If you want an open marriage (or any relationship for that matter) to work, Lotery emphasizes, “You have to be responsible, be true to your word, and honor your agreement.”
How do my partner and I know if we’re really ready to open up?
“I see couples and they talk and talk and at some point, you know what? You’ve just got to do it!” she advises. “Go on that date, come home at the agreed time, and then decide if it felt okay, or if you’d rather readjust your agreement.” Remember her baking cookie analogy—you can always change the recipe.
Any extra secret sauce to making an open marriage work?
Lotery does have one final piece of advice: “More important than learning how to communicate, hands down, is listening.” In her own practice, she regularly “really [teaches] people how to listen well because, if you understand what your partner is saying or wanting or desiring, there’s bound to be more compassion and a willingness to stay curious and connect.”