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Experts Explain What They Are & Why They Work


Does it seem like everyone is talking about open relationships lately? It’s not just you — interest and acceptance of open relationships has been on the rise over the last few years. It’s a trend that experts speaking to the BBC trace back to about 2016, and as of 2023, a full third of Americans believe open marriages are acceptable, according to a Pew survey. And that number is set to keep growing; though monogamous relationships are still the norm, 51 percent of the younger generation (adults ages 18 to 29) approves of open marriages.

Of course, there’s still a lot of stigma and stereotypes around open relationships: that they’re just a guilt-free way to cheat, a soft launch for a break-up, an excuse for horny monogamous partners (usually men, the stereotype goes) to step out. It doesn’t help that most of the stories we hear about open relationships seem to go one way: one partner pushes for it, the other reluctantly gives in, then the instigator immediately gets jealous when they see just how popular their partner really is. There are dozens of Reddit posts (and, until recently, a whole forum) dedicated to this seemingly common experience. Spoiler alert: the primary relationship doesn’t usually survive.

The good news is that not all open relationships follow this pattern. “Open relationships can be incredibly fulfilling for many individuals,” Lauren Consul, LMFT, a therapist specializing in open relationships, tells SheKnows. Consul believes that lingering social stigma dissuades people from talking about their positive experiences, which feeds into this “skewed perspective,” she says. “The narratives we often hear tend to revolve around relationships that didn’t work out, possibly because they were not approached in a constructive manner.”

It’s clear that we still have a lot of work to do around truly understanding and accepting open relationships. That starts with learning what an open relationship really is, whether it can work (it can!), and what it’s really like to be in one — from women who are actually doing it.

What is an open relationship?

The definition of open relationship varies, but generally speaking, it refers to an established couple who agrees to “have more than one romantic or sexual partner at a time,” therapist and behavioral analyst Laurie Singer, LMFT, BCBA, tells SheKnows. One or both partners might be involved in outside relationships, and those relationships themselves can range from purely sexual to dating to deeply emotionally intimate — it all depends. “An open relationship encompasses a myriad of possibilities,” Consul says.

To add to the confusion, there are also multiple different words used to describe open relationships, including open marriages (if the couple is married), consensual or ethical non-monogamy (ENM or CNM), and polyamory (more on that later). “As the landscape around non-monogamous relationships is continually evolving, it’s important to avoid assumptions when someone labels their relationship,” Consul says.

As for why people choose to try open relationships, well, there are a variety of reasons for that too. People may be looking for:

  • Variety or novelty
  • Different kinds of emotional connections
  • Broader sexual experiences
  • A solution for intimacy challenges or sexual compatibility issues with their primary partner

Couples may also look to open up their relationships due to a lack of communication, Singer says, which usually comes from fear. For example, if a partner in a long-term relationship isn’t satisfied sexually, “they may not want to hurt their partners feelings yet still seek out a way to fill what’s missing without doing it behind their partners back,” she says.

Polyamory vs. open relationship: What’s the difference?

Polyamory and open relationships often get confused with each other, but they’re two different types of non-monogamy, licensed mental health counselor Daniel Rich of Clarity Therapy tells SheKnows. “While an open relationship is usually one where partners are still emotionally monogamous, polyamory allows partners to have sexual, emotional, and romantic relationships with multiple people,” Rich explains. In polyamory, Consul agrees, there is “an assumption that love or emotional connections are integral to the additional relationships.”

Another difference: in an open relationship, there’s a primary couple. Within that couple, either one or both partners may be seeing other people, typically (but not always) with an emphasis on physical rather than emotional connections. In polyamory, meanwhile, “someone may enter in to two separate relationships at the same time and see them each as equal,” Singer notes.

Polyamory is where you also tend to hear about different relationship structures, Rich says, of which there are many. Some common ones include:

Triads or quads: three or four people all dating each other

Kitchen table polyamory: all partners know each other and share social spaces, even if they aren’t dating

Parallel polyamory: someone may have multiple partners who do not know each other or share social spaces

“The idea is to find a relationship structure that meets the relational, sexual, and emotional needs of both you and your partners,” Rich explains.

Do open relationships work?

Consensual nonmonogamy isn’t for everyone, but open relationships can “absolutely” work, says Consul. “When approached with respect, trust, and open communication, open relationships can create a space for personal growth, exploration, and deeper connections among partners,” Consul explains. As with any relationship, you’ll need to put in some work and prioritize communication, boundaries, and creating an environment of trust and understanding.

It’s also important that both partners are fully onboard. “If one person in the primary relationship is not open to the idea then a negative outcome is almost certain,” says Singer. “No person should feel bullied into agreeing to an open relationship and if pressure exists, there will most likely be resentment down the road.” It’s also worth noting that if you’re considering opening up your marriage as a way to ignore, cover up, or repair underlying issues, that won’t work either. “Some may think an open relationship will fix whatever deep-seeded issues they may have, but more than likely, they will carry over into any relationship,” Singer explains.

It’s all about creating safety and trust, our experts say. If you rush at the beginning of an open relationship (which is common when one partner is pushing for it), you’re sowing “impatience, pressure, and unintentionality” right when you need the exact opposite of those things, Rich says. “That being said, a rocky start doesn’t mean an open relationship cannot become fulfilling for both partners in the long term,” he adds. “Slowing down, addressing any pain that may have been caused, and moving forward intentionally can lead to a better, more fulfilling outcome.”

In the same way, just because one partner is initially more interested in an open relationship than the other, doesn’t mean the relationship can never be opened successfully. In a healthy partnership, being open to being influenced by your partner is a good thing, explains Consul. She stresses that “influence” does not mean coercion or manipulation. “Being open to being influenced by your partner means you respect your partner so much that you want to hear and are curious about their ideas and thoughts, even if they are different from your own,” she says. Oftentimes, one partner might present the idea of non-monogamy to a partner who hadn’t previously considered it, but after “collaborative and respectful discussion with their partner, they decide they are open to exploring different aspects of it,” Consul says.

What’s it like to be in an open relationship?

Every open relationship is different, but there will always be pros and cons to deal with. Feelings of jealousy, doubt, insecurity, and rejection can be common in open relationships, especially at the beginning, Rich says. People in open relationships might also find it hard to juggle multiple emotional connections, time commitments, and societal perceptions, Consul adds.

That said, an open relationship is also an opportunity for excitement, self-discovery, and deepening your connection with your primary partner, Rich says. “When open relationships are approached and maintained in a proactive, supportive way, the experience is one of greater fulfillment, pleasure, and living in a way that feels more authentic to each person,” he explains.

Open relationship stories from real women

Of course, there’s no better way to find out what it’s really like to be in an open relationship than to talk to people who’ve actually done it themselves. Here’s what six women have to say why they opened their relationship and some of the pros and cons of being open.

Long-distance love

“Crazy travel schedules and long months apart led to our open relationship. At times, it’s hard to avoid getting jealous, and it can be challenging to sustain communication across the miles and time zones. Missing each other doesn’t help, either. When one of us gets back to home base and we’re together for the first time in a long time, we spend a night discussing everything: who we’ve been with, how many partners, how long, was it serious at the time, whether the other person knew about our relationship and finally, are we able to put it behind us and move forward and never bring it up again, even if we have a scuffle? What works with our open relationship is experiencing different partners without guilt. Another good part is that the open communication leads to communication about everything.” — Sloane, 45, Los Angeles, California, has been in an open relationship for four years

Seeing other women

“My husband knew when we started dating that I was bisexual, but I fell in love with him and he was the one I chose as my life partner. We’ve been married for two years, and despite him being my husband, we’ve had an understanding that I can see other women outside the marriage. We don’t see it as cheating because he knows it’s a part of who I am and a part that doesn’t get satisfied within our marriage. Some of the challenges that have come up are that at times, he can feel neglected since he doesn’t see anyone else. Even though we agree that I put him and the relationship first, he can get jealous. Many may wonder how our open relationship could possibly make our marriage strong, but it does. Everyone’s needs are always met, which I think makes us both happier.” — Valerya, 29, New York, New York

Bisexual boundaries

“My husband and I have been married almost three years. We were both raised Mormon and we met while attending BYU. My husband is bisexual, but almost exclusively dated women before we got married. Because of our conservative upbringings, we felt there were some formative experiences we missed as young people. Neither one of us had much opportunity to explore our sexualities. One day, my husband was confiding in me that he wished he had felt freer as a teenager and young adult to explore his interest in men. I felt this sincere regret on his behalf, and before I knew it, I was telling him he had my blessing to explore his sexuality outside our marriage.

“Opening our marriage felt so incredibly right and natural, but we are not without our challenges. I don’t feel comfortable telling others about the dynamic of my marriage. And of course you have to consider the fact that maybe your partner finds a lot of opportunities outside your marriage. Assuming that an open relationship means no rules would be a huge danger. You have to trust each other, but part of that trust is establishing boundaries. For me, opening our relationship has deepened my commitment to my husband, and it has helped me confront my insecurities. Somehow, seeing that my husband has the option to be with anyone he wants but still chooses to make a life with me has helped me realize how much he loves me.” — Jillian, 35, Portland, Maine

Just about sex

“We just opened our marriage up to dating other people three months ago, and so far, so good. We got married right out of college, and while we do still love each other, there is that sexual aspect that died years ago. And trust me, we’ve tried everything from marriage and sex therapy to scheduled date nights, and nothing seemed to bring that spark back. For us, the other partners are just about sex. Right now, it feels like we work better as friends and partners trying to raise our two kids, although to be honest, I’m starting to get a little jealous. I worry that he might fall in love with someone else even though we agreed it was just to satisfy our sexual urges. We are also careful about what we say in front of the children. They’re still pretty young. In time, we may tell them if we’re still open. We decided not to share details about who we were meeting and what we were doing with each other, but would be transparent if one of us had questions.” — Santita, 36, Chicago, Illinois

From open to over

“Attempting an open relationship was the worst thing for my relationship. I was the one who convinced my boyfriend of eight years that we should try it. We were both very into our careers at the time, and it was very hard for both of us to prioritize our relationship. Since we knew we couldn’t put as much into the relationship as we could when we first started dating, we agreed that we would be together, but allowed to see other people at the same time. We thought it would ensure all our needs were being met and we wouldn’t be disappointing one another. Looking back, we should’ve just broken up and saved ourselves all the trouble.

“Even though I talked him into it, I was the one who got so jealous, I couldn’t take it. I found myself spending more time interrogating him about the girls he was seeing than I ever did working on our own relationship. I had a single one-night stand, and I felt awful about it. He, meanwhile, slept with at least six other girls. After only seven months of attempting an open relationship, we decided it would be best if we split up. I haven’t heard from him since then. That was over a year ago.” — Bianca, 30, Miami, Florida

Filling a temporary void

“I was in a short-term open relationship with my husband of 17 years for four years. He’s an engineer and when he got promoted, he started traveling often for long stints of time. He was the one who suggested the concept because he knew how hard it was for me to be alone all the time. We don’t have kids, so I would often get bored and lonely, missing that companionship. We agreed that I could ‘hang out’ with other men as long as there was no actual sex. We called it ‘hanging out’ rather than dating because I wasn’t looking for a new relationship, just male companionship.

“It was weird at first, going out with another man, and I kept feeling like I was going behind my husband’s back. A few times, I ran into friends while out with someone I was casually seeing. I often had to lie to them about who the other man was because my husband and I didn’t tell any friends or family about our agreement. Regardless of the social taboo, an open relationship helped fill a void and I completely stopped seeing others when his travel stopped. I really think an open relationship can work and help couples, but it depends on their personalities and the strength of the relationship. Make sure both of you are 100 percent OK with it, or I could see how jealously could easily destroy the relationship.” — Marilyn, 53, Long Island, New York

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