Having an open relationship means you’ve mutually agreed to explore sexual relations outside of your primary partnership. Creating a successful open relationship requires top-notch communication, trust, and clear boundaries.

Not everyone craves the traditional monogamous relationship. For some people, relationship satisfaction requires more diversity.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to explore your sexuality with multiple people. When you care about your primary partner and don’t want to lose that connection, creating an open relationship becomes an ethical option for both people.

But in order for open relationships to work clear communication, boundaries, and expectations are essential.

On the surface, an open relationship is one where you and your partner agree to allow sexual encounters with other people.

“Open relationships are sometimes referred to as ‘monogamish,’” explains Ashera DeRosa, owner and licensed marriage and family therapist at Whole Stories Therapy, Buffalo, New York. “They fall under the ENM (ethically non-monogamous) umbrella.”

ENM, or consensual non-monogamy (CNM), relationships are those where multiple partners are mutually agreed upon and allowed, under various relationship structures, like swinging or polyamory.

The honesty in an open relationship is what sets it apart from infidelity, or cheating, where other intimate connections are kept secret.

Consensual non-monogamy is more common than most people realize. According to research from 2017, approximately 1 out of every 5 single adults in the United States have participated in a CNM relationship at some point in their lives.

Polyamory vs. open relationship

According to DeRosa, what sets an open relationship apart from polyamory is the relationship hierarchy.

“An open relationship is generally a couple that maintains a strong emotional bond with one another that may explore sexually with others, often under certain circumstances,” she says. “With polyamory, we tend to see emotional and sexual relationships with multiple partners.”

In an open relationship, your primary partner has the majority share of your emotions and commitment.

In polyamory, you may develop the same deep level of emotional and physical intimacy with multiple people.

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There’s no clear evidence to suggest open relationships fail more than monogamous ones, even though that’s the common assumption.

You can feel secure, valued, and loved in an open relationship just as you can in a monogamous one.

“How are we measuring success? The vast majority of relationships fail,” DeRosa points out. “Relationship structures are only as healthy as the participants. If everyone involved is communicating effectively and being proactive, I see no difference in outcome when it comes to structure.”

Just like monogamous relationships, open relationships work through clear communication, boundaries, and trust.

They can be successful when both partners understand the rules and there’s no sense of inequality.

Why do people seek open relationships?

In the right open relationship, you may be able to obtain the perfect balance of emotional fulfillment and sexual fulfillment.

Nicolle Dirksen, owner of Clover Counseling and sex and couples’ therapist from Owatonna, Minnesota, explains, “Much like any relationship structure, folks choose an open relationship for all kinds of reasons. Some people may be attracted to multiple genders and feel more fulfilled when they can explore relationships with genders different from their current partner.”

In addition to sexual diversity, an open relationship may be appealing if you feel constrained by the cultural norm of monogamy, or if you have sexual fantasies your primary partner isn’t comfortable with.

The pros and cons of an open relationship

According to a longitudinal study from 2020, people are just as happy in CNM relationships as they are in monogamous ones. But an open relationship may have some specific relationship benefits, including:

  • greater sexual satisfaction
  • fundamentally strong level of communication
  • expanded social network and connections
  • enhanced sense of newness or adventure in the relationship

An open relationship isn’t without its pitfalls, especially if boundaries aren’t clear or both partners aren’t as invested in the idea of sexual intimacy with other people.

Potential cons of an open relationship include:

  • feelings of relationship anxiety or fear
  • jealousy
  • risk of sexually transmitted infections or disease
  • time management/partner commitment challenges
  • increased expenses for other partners
  • coping with secondary partners who decide they want more out of the relationship

There’s no universal test that can determine if an open relationship is where you should be.

To start, if you can’t stand the thought of sharing your primary partner or engaging in extra sexual encounters yourself, CNM might not be the right choice.

Sophia Turner, a relationship and sex therapist from Chicago, Illinois says, “If you can check these boxes, an open relationship might be for you:”

  • The concept of multiple sexual partners excites you.
  • You’re curious about exploring different relationship dynamics.
  • You want to be challenged to communicate openly, honestly, and
    compassionately with your partner.
  • You have enough time to dedicate to these various relationships.
  • You feel equipped to navigate the expected jealousy that arises in
    open relationships.

Clear, honest communication is the backbone of a successful open relationship. Taking the first step to discuss this relationship structure is a good indication of whether your communication skills can hold up in the long run.

To help this conversation along, DeRosa, Dirksen, and Turner recommend the following tips:

  • Come to the conversation knowing what you want and why.
  • Pick a time and a place where you can both feel safe, relaxed, and comfortable.
  • Be as transparent about your intentions as possible.
  • Approach the conversation without judgment.
  • Remain calm.
  • Be prepared to outline your boundaries as to things like the number, age, and gender of partners.
  • Be clear about the relationship structure you’re seeking (e.g., open vs. polyamory).
  • Listen and focus on being empathetic.

“If your partner says no, you may have to do some soul searching to determine how you want your future sex life and/or love life to look and begin having some tough conversations,” says Dirksen.

Remember, an open relationship requires both people to be satisfied with the relationship structure.

An open relationship is one where both parties agree to allow sexual relationships outside of the primary partnership.

Like all relationships, an open relationship requires good communication, trust, and a clear understanding of what multiple sexual partners entail.

If you feel you’d be happiest in an open relationship, talking about it honestly with your partner is the unavoidable first step.