The term “open relationship” is extremely broad. From swinging to polyamory, there are plenty of subcategories that fall under the larger umbrella term. But how do you know if any of them are right for you? First, you can consider the experiences of people already in open relationships, who have shared their stories with the Cut: Open marriage taught one man about feminism. Another writer found that dating apps are full of people in open relationships. One woman wondered if having threesomes with her boyfriend was like a gateway to non-monogamy.
Or, you can turn to the experts. Below, Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist who has written several books on polyamory, and Courtney Watson, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in sex therapy, share the ten things to know about open relationships, including how to decide if one is right for you, and then how to make it work.
1. There are many open relationship options available to you.
“Open relationship is the umbrella category,” explains Dr. Sheff. “There are different types of open relationships like swinging, monogamish, polyamory, relationship anarchy, and then just open — people sometimes choose to identify that way.”
Watson adds even more “configurations,” as she calls them: “There can be [an open relationship] where one person has two partners and those two partners aren’t related. There can be a triangle where one person has two partners and those two partners mess around, too. And then there can be all sorts of tree-of-life–looking branches from different people.”
In order to learn more, Dr. Sheff recommends finding people in different types of relationships and asking them about it. On online communities such as meetup.com, you can use search terms such as “polyamory,” “sex positive,” and “open relationship” to find couples and get in touch with them.
2. You get to determine what you’re comfortable with.
After you talk to people in different types of open relationships, “see which one appeals to you,” Dr. Sheff advises. “If you have a partner already, discuss it in depth.”
Watson agrees. “Know what you are and are not comfortable with,” she says. “In terms of opening up your relationship, do you just want to have sexual relationships? Do you want to have a boyfriend? Do you want to have another long-term relationship? Are you comfortable with your partner coming over to your house? Are you comfortable with other partners having sex in your bed? Are you comfortable with your partner having sex with other partners? Are you comfortable with your partner’s other partners having sex in your bed? Get really familiar with what feels good to you and what you’re not comfortable with.”
3. If you want an open relationship for the wrong reasons, it won’t work.
“If you’re opening up your relationship to fix the issues in your current relationship, that’s not going to work,” says Watson. “You need to work on the issues in your current relationship and not expect your new relationship to just change that.” If you’re both open to trying it out, that’s great.
4. An open relationship should have a set of guidelines.
Once you know your boundaries and feel confident in why you want an open relationship, sit down and make a three-column list detailing: (1) what you want, (2) what you’d prefer, but isn’t essential, and (3) what you’re not okay with.
“I have couples write something they absolutely must have in a relationship; something they would like, but are willing to flex on; and something they absolutely will not allow in a relationship,” explains Dr. Sheff. “So it’s three columns of your boundaries and where they fall. Each person does that independently. Then come back and compare lists just to give yourself a baseline of, What do I want?” Within the list, she suggests addressing questions like, What kind of safe sex will we practice? What happens if someone gets pregnant? What about living with other people? Comparing your answers in the three columns will help you see how your values align.
5. Make sure you leave other people out of your decisions.
“If people make all sorts of plans about how it’s going to be and how other people will or will not react, that’s a recipe for disaster because you can’t make rules for people and how they’re going to feel,” says Dr. Sheff. “Realize that people’s boundaries change, and you’re not carving these in stone. This is the beginning of the discussion.”
6. The rules of your open relationship might change and evolve.
“It can be a document that evolves as you get more into opening your relationship and understanding what fits and what doesn’t fit,” adds Watson. “It should be a document that you regularly revise, but it’s helpful to write it down so that people don’t get confused. You’re dealing with so many different parts, pieces, and people, you need to be able to talk really openly about what your boundaries are and your wishes and desires.”
7. Having regular check-ins with your partner is key.
“Communication is key for these relationships because without it you can’t talk about how you’re feeling, and if you can’t talk about how you’re feeling, often those feelings become a booby trap,” says Dr. Sheff. “If you just act out of jealousy instead of communicating, that just creates a lot of drama and pain for everyone.”
If mystery causes anxiety for you or your partner, Watson suggests making a calendar so everyone is on the same page. “You can share your calendar digitally with your different partners or one or two partners — however you want to do it. The more organized you can be about it, the less opportunity there is for hurt feelings and misunderstanding.”
8. Remember that disagreements will happen, and are normal.
While pursuing your own relationships is great, Dr. Sheff says, “It can be really challenging to allow your partner that same leeway. So be prepared for that, be ready to talk about it, be ready to own up to it. And that it doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, that was a failure, now we have to stop, this was a disaster.’ You can say, ‘We kind of expected this. Here it goes — how are we gonna handle this?’”
9. Therapists and relationship coaches can help you succeed.
“Sex therapy is always an option for you and all of your partners when you hit rough patches,” Watson says. “I’m a sex therapist and I will see as many partners as people want to bring in, and we work together to figure out what’s going on.”
People like Dr. Sheff provide relationship coaching and can help if one person feels differently about non-monogamy than a partner. Dr. Sheff says there is great advice and supportive information online, especially in polyamorous communities.