First, an open relationship, also known as a non-exclusive relationship, is an intimate relationship that is sexually non-monogamous. The term may refer to polyamory, but generally indicates a relationship where there is a primary emotional and intimate relationship between two partners, who agree to at least the possibility of intimacy with other people.
A polyamorous relationship means having multiple romantic partners at the same time, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.
In a nutshell, an open relationship means you still have one primary partner but both can have other sexual partners. Polyamory means you have multiple relationships that are both emotional as well as sexual. There is no primary.
The terms both fall under the heading of “ethical nonmonogamy,” but they are not synonymous. You can combine them or do one without the other.
Second, I have not practiced either. I have only been in monogamous relationships my entire life. I guess you can say I am a serial monogamous, which is probably why this topic brings me instant anxiety.
I think people often ask me if open relationships work due to my profession. Not because they think I have personal experience with it. They may want to know from a therapeutic perspective if this kind of relationship can work. Is it healthy? Is it sustainable?
But I can not separate who I am from what I do. Well, I can but choose not to. So here’s a little primer before I get to my answer.
I grew up like you. Thinking you find your “one”, exchange vows, make babies, and live happily ever after. This person is your best friend and soulmate. Your forever and one and only. This is what love looks like and what everyone wants.
Then I grew up and got married. I was on the path presented in movies and novels. I got down on one knee, like you’re supposed to, at a mountain top somewhere in Oregon. The marriage lasted five years and we divorced. I’ve been in many relationships since then. Three years here. Three years there. All of them fulfilling in their own way with colorful love arcs that change people inside.
I’ve learned that relationships are built and require lots of hard work, but what of value in this life doesn’t? Also, you’re only fifty percent of any relationship so no matter how much you’ve learned about love or how far you’ve come, you can only control half of it. Finally, I’ve learned that our definitions and desires change as we change. Your definition of love and what you wanted in college is probably very different than your definitions and what you want today. And that’s a good thing. It means you’re alive.
That’s the thing about love and relationships. They are not dried cement. They are moldable and adaptive. Wet. Always changing. It’s our upbringing, media, society, culture, and religion that convinces us the cement is dry and comes in a perfect square. For example, in Thailand boys hold hands and wear dresses. Sex is open and free. Ordering a sexual experience is as casual as ordering a cheeseburger with no pickles. That behavior and mindset can get people physically hurt in other countries. The world you grew up in (or live in now) directly impacts the blueprints you try trace as an adult. We are not free thinkers. We all have been programmed to a certain extent. Even if we have changed and escaped our bubbles (both internally and externally), the residue of shoulds we grew up with still impacts us. This explains the anxiety that comes up when I think about open relationships. It doesn’t match the blueprint I was given.
Okay, so back to the question. Do they work? I would like to answer by taking you through my thought process, as a therapist who has heard thousands of relationship stories, but also as a real person with the brief love bio disclosed above. I feel like it would be the most honest way to answer this question.
Let’s start with the obvious.
I get to have sex with other people and still be in this relationship? Sure, sign me up! Wait, but she also gets to sleep with other people. Awww h*ll no.
Aubrey Marcus, who has publically gone from monogamy to opening his relationship to where ever he is now, said he literary threw up the day he found out his girlfriend slept with someone else after they decided to open their relationship. Yes, there will be feelings and the first one may obviously be jealousy and hurt.
My question is this: Assuming you opened your relationship and had the same feelings, which most people would, how much of these feelings would be coming from ego, control, insecurity, possession, and “shoulds”? When I think about it for me, almost all of it would. The idea of my girlfriend choosing to have a sexual experience with someone else makes me feel insecure, that I’m not enough, and she will leave if she meets someone better. So if I was truly secure in self and this relationship, would I still have these feelings?
I don’t know.
But the feelings are real and both people would need to work through them honesty for an open relationship to work. Or anger and resentment can build and it can suddenly turn into a sexual slugfest, using sexual experiences with others to get back at each other for having sexual experiences with others, which you both of you agreed on. I know it sounds crazy but people are people and I’ve seen versions of this where people agree to something and it backfires. For example, a threesome. A common fantasy that rarely matches the fantasy we play in our heads.
There is definitely a fantasy component to an open relationship. The idea that you can connect sexually to someone outside of your relationship may sound like a lottery ticket, especially if you have been with the same partner since college. Yes, it is completely natural and normal to desire and be attracted to other people. That doesn’t mean you want to build a relationship with them.
It can even be a possible solution to re-spark your relationship or prevent infidelity. Yes, being with someone else can make you closer to your partner. Many times we drift because we feed fantasies we play in our heads. Our natural curiosity of being with someone else forces us to stay in our heads instead of present in our relationship. If fantasy becomes reality, that bubble pops and we no longer have to carry that fantasy. We can be more in the here and now. We can appreciate our current relationship more by actually experiencing the grass and realizing it’s not greener. This is why many break up, explore, then come back. Like travel, exotic locations can give you new and amazing experiences. But it can also make you appreciate your home. You can start to miss your own bed.
For an open relationship to work, both parties must not only accept but encourage their partners to have new sexual experiences with others. Of course, you don’t need to know the details but you have to get to a place where you want your partner to explore their sexuality with others. It’s not something you tolerate. You’re not giving this to your partner because you also want to sleep with other people. You want this for them. Because sexual connection is a part of life and you want your partner to experience all different kinds. This is not something many people have the ability to give their partner. It requires a tremendous amount of trust in the relationship but also a trust in self that is greater than self.
If I look at this through a spiritual lens (not religious), I feel like love is infinite. And as humans, we are all connected and each connection is different and unique. These connections are what make us. Break us. And make us again. That’s what life is ultimately about -The spectrum of our human connections and how that changes us. It doesn’t matter if that connection is friendship based, blood base, or sex-based. Connection is connection and why should we limit ourselves from it? Why shouldn’t love also get to paint with colors? I believe we’re meant to meet who we’re meant to meet, and through those collisions, both will be changed. That’s what makes life beautiful. Why should that be different with sex and love?
If I look at this through a biological lens, we are not designed to be with one person forever. That is a social/societal construct with a shame fence that keeps us from straying. Our bodies crave diversity. We are curious creatures. We have fantasies and imaginations. We are hardwired this way.
My conclusion with “the obvious.”
Two people have to not only be on the same page but must truly be honest with themselves. They have to ask themselves if they have the ability, the inner capacity, to be completely okay with their partner having sexual intimacy with other people. And to not allow it to interfere with them loving their partner as much or even more with this new agreement. If you feel intimidated or less than instead of happy that your partner experienced an orgasm with someone else, then you probably should not open your relationship.
I’ll tell you right now there’s no way I could have made an open relationship work in my twenties or even thirties. I didn’t have that kind of “capacity.” I didn’t have enough confidence or sense of self for it to not destroy me on the inside. I would tally points, hold it against my partner, and bring a scoreboard into the bedroom. I also had very strict love blueprints. You give your all to one person and one person only. That’s it. Everything else is wrong and an excuse to cheat. But more than my capacity, I didn’t have a spiritual lens. And for me, that’s the only way I would be able to execute an open relationship. If I see it through a spiritual lens, as us being sexual beings and beauty in every connection. As spiritual beings. Not as people who default to possession. Then I can see it being a possibility. Kinda.
The not so obvious.
If you have sexual experiences with others, wouldn’t you be creating space for an emotional connection as well? Then wouldn’t you be jeopardizing your primary relationship? Basically, aren’t you playing Russian Roulette with your primary relationship? We all know our emotions are stronger than our logic. So just because we logically say we will not allow ourselves to fall in love with someone else doesn’t mean we won’t. How can we prevent that since love is not logic-based?
One part of me says you can’t. You go in with intentions but no matter how strong they are, any kind of intimacy can lead to love. A simple kiss can draw you into thinking about that person for days, causing you to drift in your primary relationship. Those thoughts can turn into longing and real feelings. You may not be spending more time with your other relationship (non-primary) but where is your heart?
But another part of me says you can separate love and lust. It’s up to you to draw boundaries so your connections are kept sexual only. You can decide who you love and how you want to love them. As long as you are honest with yourself and your partner, you can keep this in check. Of course, this is not easy and you have to decide if you can do this kind of heavy lifting. So the question is do you have the ability to separate love from sex?
What if one person gets many partners and the other has trouble getting any? That wouldn’t be a fair exchange.
That’s on you and a real thing to consider if you choose to open your relationship. But I also worry that if that’s your concern, you are already positioning this to have a scoreboard. For an open relationship to work, it can’t be about how many partners your partner has compared to how many you have. Open relationships are not about playing the field or how many people you can get into your rotation. It’s about being free to have other sexual experiences and wanting the same for your partner. And that’s an ebb and flow.
People think open relationships are just about having the freedom to fuck other people. So if that’s the case, why even be in a relationship?
If that is your belief, opening your relationship will not work for you. Not a chance in h*ll. It will be the catalyst that breaks your relationship.
I believe for an open relationship to work, there has to be a foundation built first. Without this foundation, it will not work.
1. Your relationship has to be solid AF. If you currently have problems in your relationships, opening it and allowing others in will not fix any problems. It will make them worse. Opening your relationship will allow you to run away from instead of look at what you need to fix in your relationship. An open relationship requires a tremendous amount of trust. If you don’t trust your partner, opening your relationship will only be a crowbar in your primary relationship. So you have to very clear on why you want to open your relationship. Is it to run away or toward yourself and or problems?
2. Both people must be completely honest with themselves. Do you truly want this for you or are you doing it for your partner? It can’t be a gift or a favor. That will only lead to resentment. That said, there are open relationships where one partner loses interest in having sexual relations outside his primary. And is completely okay with his partner continuing. But again, you have to be completely honest with yourself.
3. There needs to be rules. Without rules, opening your relationship is a very slippy slope. What’s damaging is the dishonesty. Not the actual act of having sex with others. Who can you see?
Does your partner need to approve? How often can you see them? How much do you tell each other about who you see? These are all things that need to be discussed or people can start lying and that’s the most damaging part of any relationship. You can be in an open relationship yet still be “unfaithful” — experience the consequences of cheating — if you are being dishonest and / or breaking the rules.
What I find the most interesting and exciting about the question, “Do open relationships work?” is that people are asking it. This means they are willing to have conversations. The world is changing. Very fast. We are starting to redefine what makes us happy. We are questioning old models. This is happening in every area of our lives, health, fitness, work, and now love.
But questioning old love models brings up a lot of resistance in people. Me included. Because marriage and monogamy have been tightly tied to religion and the foundation of who we are, what’s right and wrong, how we should live, all wrapped in a lot of firm shoulds. If this is questioned, our floor is pulled out from under us. We don’t know who we are anymore. Everything is then in question. So people quickly stamp this as wrong. You may have also felt discomfort or resistance while reading this article. It’s a form of protection.
I’m at a point in my life where I no longer want fear or my own resistance and insecurities to keep me trapped. I am curious about everything that’s possible in this world. I’m not sure if that’s because I have a baby coming and I want new eyes, so hers aren’t tainted by my story. Or the stories that came before me. Or maybe I’m just getting older and realizing how short life is. But either way, I’m finally want to toss old prescriptions still folded in my back pocket. And start pulling from curiosity and an unwillingness to know or put things in perfect boxes. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned in the forty-six years I’ve been on this planet, no one really knows what’s best for you. Except you. And “you” is always changing.
Do open relationships work? I don’t know. I haven’t given myself that experience. But I am open to the conversation, something I have never been before.
At the end of the day, you have to decide what kind of relationship you want and what works for you. Today, not yesterday. Monogamy, polygamy, open, or a combination of everything. It’s your life. It’s your heart. It’s your body. And know that you can change your mind and that’s okay. You just have to be honest with yourself. Because that’s the most important thing.
Your relationship with you.
This post was originally published here and is republished with permission from the author.