Open relationships can be complicated. Before you go looking for that first extramarital hookup, see if you can answer these seven questions.
Open relationships get a lot of press these days. According to one prominent online women’s magazine, of the ten most Google-searched relationship questions of 2017, number six was “What is an open relationship?” and number four was “What is a poly relationship?”
To me, that seems paradoxical. I mean, how many couples these days have enough time and energy for even one relationship, let alone two or more?
The plain truth is that opening up your relationship—taking on more than one partner—usually creates more problems than it solves. But hey, so does having kids. So if you’ve really got your heart set on it, don’t let me stop you.
But open relationships are tricky. So before you and your partner go looking for your first extramarital hookup, I'd recommend you ask yourselves the questions below.
How many couples these days have enough time and energy for even one relationship, let alone two or more?
There aren't any right or wrong answers. But it's a good idea to make sure you’re at least comfortable with the questions.
Question #1: What kind of open relationship are you looking for?
The term “open relationship” covers a pretty wide territory, so there are lots of choices. Some couples only engage with outside partners at specifically designated “swingers’” events or in each other’s presence (a threesome is one example). Some follow the traditional European model, where extramarital relationships are permitted as long as they’re not talked about and they don’t interfere with family time. Other couples discuss these things more openly.
One big divide tends to be between open relationships where it’s just sex, and open relationships where it’s understood you might develop feelings for your outside partners. Couples who just want sex and nothing else will often try to guard against romantic feelings outside the relationship by instituting rules such as never having sex with the same person twice, or never having sex with someone you know.
As you can imagine, sometimes these rules work ... and sometimes they don’t. Rules can easily get broken in open relationships, just like in conventional ones.
Another approach is to throw the rules away and simply negotiate situations as they come up based on what you, your partner, and your other partner—or partners—might be feeling at this point in time. This is usually referred to as polyamory.
Rules can easily get broken in open relationships, just like in conventional ones.
The advantage of polyamory is it prioritizes people over rules. The disadvantage is that without rules, you don’t necessarily know in advance what kind of relationship status you’re going to be in next year, or even next month. That can be a concern for a committed couple, especially if someone still needs to pay the mortgage.
Question #2: Do you both really want an open relationship?
In an ideal world, if your partner wants an open relationship, you’d want one too. And you’d both want it equally. But that’s not how most relationships work. Usually one person wants it more. In an ideal world, the partner who wants it less—or possibly not at all—would have complete veto power, just as with any other major life decision.
But in reality, if you’re the less enthusiastic partner, you might not feel totally free to say no.
Open relationships work best if you're both good at advocating for what you need and you both know how to respect the other person’s needs, feelings, and boundaries.
Do you have the skills and confidence to do this in complex situations involving more than one partner? Some people do, and some don't.
Many people in my office who have ended up in open relationships say they felt kind of coerced into it.
Question #3: What exactly are you hoping to achieve by opening your relationship?
Open relationships attract a wide variety of people. Some just aren’t cut out for monogamy. Their pair-bonding instincts are too weak, or their need for novelty is too strong.
Others started out conventionally monogamous, but at some point they decided to be a little more adventurous.
Once you’ve had to cross one erotic boundary, the others tend to look less scary.
Unfortunately, many people seek open relationships for other reasons: because they feel unloved; or because their primary relationship is emotionally dead; or because they’re bored; or because they need a quick sexual fix; or because they have trouble asserting their needs in their primary relationship. In short, the same kinds of situations that traditionally lead people to cheat.
Just like an affair, your open relationship may offer you relief from an unsatisfying primary relationship. But it’s unlikely to do your primary relationship much good.
Question #4: Do the two of you still have good sex?
If you’re thinking of opening your relationship in order to fix your sex life, think again. Opening your relationship in order to cure an unhappy sex life makes about as much sense as having a baby to fix an unhappy marriage. It’s much more likely to complicate the situation than to improve it. It’s tempting to think that giving each other license to get sex elsewhere might breathe new life into your relationship. Sure, you might enjoy a temporary sense of adventure. But remember, you’re adding other people to the mix. If you don’t have a solid foundation as a couple, that’s asking for trouble.
Opening your relationship to cure an unhappy sex life makes about as much sense as having a baby to fix an unhappy marriage.
On the other hand, let’s say you and your partner already enjoy a really good sex life together, but you’re looking for something new. And let’s say you both have the time and energy to deal with all the emotional complexities that can accompany an open relationship. That's a much better bet. But in all honesty, it can still be a crap-shoot in terms of its eventual effect on your sex life.
Be sure to check in with each other regularly, keep the lines of communication open, and if at any point you feel you’re not happy with how it’s going, be prepared to re-evaluate whether you really want to keep your relationship open or not.
Question #5: How will the two of you handle your other partners’ needs and feelings?
Outside partners are not simply need-satisfying machines. They’re real people, with their own real feelings and problems. In a conventional, old fashioned secret love affair, the status of outside partners is simple—they’re not supposed to be there. They have no rights. Once the affair is discovered, they’re expected to vanish.
In an open relationship, it's understood that outside partners exist. But there's a wide range of attitudes about how fully their needs are going to be taken into account. In some open relationships, outside partners are understood to be just for sex. Their only legitimate status is as sexual need providers.
Other partners are not simply need-satisfying machines. They’re real people, with their own needs, feelings, and problems.
The big advantage of full-on polyamory, from an ethical standpoint, is that everyone has an equal right to assert their needs. But in practice, that can feel much riskier. Every new person you bring in has other priorities besides the well-being of your primary relationship.
Question #6: How jealous are you?
People in open relationships get jealous just like everyone else. But in the ideal open relationship, you also feel happy for your partner because they're experiencing love and pleasure—even though it's with someone else.
Like any personality trait, there’s a range in how vulnerable people are to experiencing jealousy. So it's good to know something about your own tendencies in this area.
People in open relationships get jealous just like everyone else.
People also differ in how naturally generous they are. As my colleague Tammy Nelson points out, people in open relationships tend to argue about four things—time, attention, affection, and sex—all of which can occasionally feel like they’re in short supply. Are these discomforts worth it? The only one who can decide that is you.
Question #7: Are you both willing to accept the risks of an open relationship?
Any open relationship is an experiment. You don’t know in advance how it’s going to turn out. So it’s best if you’re both wholehearted about it. That way, you both share equal responsibility for the outcome—good or bad.
Any open relationship is an experiment. You don’t know in advance how it’s going to turn out.
If you find that you don’t like being in an open relationship, you can always go back to the way things were before. But your relationship will probably have been changed in some way—for better or worse—by the experience of being non-monogamous.
Life is a balance between safety and adventure. No two people balance these things in exactly the same way.
Opening a relationship to outside partners is a major life decision. First, make sure you know yourself as well as possible. Then, be as clear with each other as you can about exactly what you need, and what you want.
GET MORE RELATIONSHIP DOCTOR
Do you have relationship questions? Email the Relationship Doctor at email@example.com. You might hear your question on the show!
Please note that all content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.