From a young age, we’re led to believe that a healthy relationship means two people in a serious, long-term, monogamous commitment.
Sure, that type of coupling is still the majority. But it sure seems like an increasing number of people are coming out as part of an open relationship. One study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that 20% of Americans are or have been in a “consensual non-monogamous relationship” at some point in life.
What does the term mean, exactly? Every couple has their own ground rules and navigates them differently. But here’s a broad definition. “Open relationships are any form of sexual or romantic relationship that does not require exclusivity,” says Liz Powell, PsyD, author of Building Open Relationships. “I like to think of non-monogamy as expanding from a set, limited menu to a buffer of options.”
The idea of being part of a romantic pair yet opening your bedroom to others is a hard concept for many of us to wrap our heads around. The logistics seem tricky. Does the one partner get to approve who the other sleeps with? Are these dalliances just one-time hookups or ongoing affairs? What about jealousy? To get a sense of what goes on, we asked people (most of whom asked us to change their names) who are happily in an open relationship to tell us how they work.
An open relationship is not all about sex
There’s a common misconception that the reason someone would want to open their relationship and potentially have multiple intimate partners is because one (or both) primary partners need more sex, more sexual partners, or more of a certain type of sex to feel sexually satisfied. But that’s not necessarily the case.
“People assume that because I have had many partners in my life at once, I must have a high sex drive or am not getting enough from just one partner,” says George.* “That couldn’t be further than the truth. I am not a very sexual person, and if anything I am sometimes grateful to have multiple partners so that I don’t feel pressured [by one person] to have sex all the time. It’s easier for me to say I’m not in the mood when I know my partner has another option.”
Also, having an open relationship hardly means that you’re taking advantage of the option. “Just because the non-monogamy door is open doesn’t mean it’s blown off its hinges,” says Jade. “It’s been over a year since I had relations aside from with my husband; I just haven’t been in the mood. But I like knowing that option is there for me if I need it.”
Yes, jealousy happens
“The first questions I always get asked have to do with being jealous,” says Devon Day, when people find out she’s in an open relationship. “Yes, sometimes I do. In my opinion, it’s normal to feel jealous; it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you or that you’re failing at non-monogamy. Having a successful non-monogamous relationship isn’t about being immune to jealousy, it’s learning how to work through it and communicating.”
It’s worth mentioning that a 2017 study in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that people in open relationships reported more trust and less jealousy than did monogamous partners. The researchers suggest that a non-monogamous coupling teaches partners how to handle jealousy in a healthier way.
People in open relationships are committed
“The most common misconception I hear is that we don’t want to commit,” says Jade. “But I’m married to my partner…I’d say that’s pretty committed!”
She’s not the only one who takes issue with the commitment-phobe assumption. “My relationship is the most committed one I’ve ever been in, and we’re 100% open,” says Sam. “It’s because I feel so committed to building an open relationship that we’re able to feel close and trusting in the midst of the other connections around us. We knew when we started dating that we wanted to be together, but we also wanted space to grow and explore with others. Five years ago we decided that, and we’re still together.”
Open relationships “can be just as committal or non-committal as monogamous ones,” echoes George. “I don’t want to say having an open relationship requires more commitment than monogamy, but it certainly does require an entirely new set of difficult conversations for two people to overcome.”
Marriages can be open, too
“I’m in an open marriage,” Jade reiterates. “We were in an open relationship, and then we got married and our relationship became an open marriage. And it works great for us.”
Of course, not everyone in an open relationship is also open to marriage. “How could I choose just one of [my] partners to become legally married to, or to have my health insurance, or to have visitation rights? There are a few other reasons why my partners and I are not interested in marriage for ourselves, but of course we fully support the happiness of other people,” says George.
All open relationships have their own rules
“I’ve seen open relationships defined as serious, committed relationships with multiple people, to three-plus people in a relationship, to couples that are primary partners but casually date outside the relationship, to open couples who only do casual sex outside of their relationship and nothing more,” says Taz. “How you define an open relationship and the rules of any open relationship will depend on who’s in them, and no two will be exactly the same, because the folks in them will have different boundaries, needs, and comfort levels.”
“Open relationships look as different as any closed relationship. Sometimes there are more rules, sometimes there are none,” says Sam. Adds Holly: “My relationship is sexually open but emotionally very much exclusive.” Others may be in an open relationship that is open sexually and romantically. Every couple has to find what works for them.
You’d never know if a friend or neighbor is in an open relationship
Open relationships have existed throughout history. But most cultures don’t accept the concept, and many have outright disdain for people who choose to be in one. A fear of being ostracized by friends, family, and community is a powerful reason someone may not publicize the status of their relationship. Which means that someone close to you may be in an open relationship, and you’re none the wiser.
“We definitely share our relationship ‘type’ on a need-to-know basis, and most people don’t need to know. [My husband’s] friends and our families [don’t] know, but most of my friends know,” says Jade. “We reveal it only when we’re comfortable with someone and have a good enough sense of whether they can handle it or not. I have friends who can’t really handle it because it just goes against everything our culture tells us about what sexuality and love is. And that’s okay.”
Adds Holly: “The fact that my relationship is open isn’t a secret, it’s just something a lot of people wouldn’t understand and I have no interest in explaining myself or hearing ignorant comments. I’m all for teaching people, but I’m not the poster child. My relationship works for me, and I can’t imagine being in any other type of relationship.”
*Names have been changed