Polygamy is a topic of TV shows. Swingers captivate our attention in headlines and meet-up boards. The world of open relationships feels secretive. But the truth of the matter is that open relationships are both the focus of academic research and fairly common: According to research published in The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, more than one in five people in the U.S. engage in an consensual non-monogamy at one point in their lives.
Of course, the term “open relationship” is a broad one. “It doesn’t have a univocal meaning really. It can mean many things,” says Nicolle Zapien, PhD, dean of the School of Professional Psychology and Health at California Institute of Integral Studies.
Here, more about what open relationships are, how they work, and what to consider if you’re thinking of entering one.
What is an open relationship?
An open relationship is a stance that people take when they want to explore intimate, erotic, or sexual experiences outside of their main coupling, says Zapien. “There are as many different agreements and constellations as you can imagine,” she adds.
Relationships can be open both in terms or love and sex and they can be long- or short-term. But generally speaking, an open relationship usually consists of a couple discussing an arrangement, agreeing to review it, and continue having conversations about it, Zapien says.
“I generally let people tell me what they mean by ‘open relationship,’” says Elisabeth Sheff, PhD, one of a handful of global academic experts on polyamory, recognizing that the broader category of an “open relationship” is a consensually non-monogamous union.
How do open relationships work? Are there rules?
People usually enter open relationships to get more of their needs met—a relationship might have a sexual desire mismatch, for example—but every pair is different. Poly is also a stance or, to some, an orientation, says Zapien.
People in polyamorous relationships, for example, seek the emotional element. “They’re looking for love and a deeper ongoing relationship,” says Sheff, adding that polyamorous couples tend to emphasize communication and honesty.
Swingers, on the other hand, are generally consensually non-monogamous and often have rules about only allowing sex or sexual activity—and not allowing emotional entanglement, says Sheff. The swinging community can also have more of a fleeting, “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality, she notes.
But specific rules and parameters always vary. Some couples only date other couples, says Sheff. Other times, couples might agree on guidelines, such as: “don’t bring anyone home,” “don’t have intercourse but you can fool around,” “don’t fall in love,” or “only on Tuesday nights,” notes Zapien.
Are open relationships healthy?
The quick and dirty: “Open relationship are as healthy as the people in them,” says Sheff. “Just like monogamous relationships, some of them are amazing, fantastic, life-affirming, and really wonderful. Others are abusive, horrible, and the worst thing that ever happened to someone. Open relationships are exactly the same.”
How healthy a relationship is usually boils down to how it is handled—hopefully with love, integrity, and kindness to one another, Sheff says.
When things err on the side of not so healthy? “If there is coercion or if one or more parties don’t have all the information and therefore aren’t consenting in an informed way, the relationship(s) could be said to be unhealthy,” says Zapein.
But often, with proper care and dedication, research suggests open relationships do have their benefits. One study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that swingers report higher sexual satisfaction than monogamous people, and that those in open relationships were just as satisfied with their relationships as people in monogamous relationships.
What to consider before entering an open relationship
First and foremost, think about how things might play out in the long run. “Don’t assume just because you want more sex that polyamory or an open relationship is for you,” says Sheff. “A lot of people get excited about the prospect of having multiple partners but then get upset when the tables are turned and their partners have other partners.”
You also have to consider how your partner might react. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Sheff says. And while you might be open to the idea, they might be devastated by the fact that you feel the way you do. A good therapist or sex therapist can help with negotiations and help both of you anticipate situations you may not have considered, says Zapien.
“Don’t assume just because you want more sex that polyamory or an open relationship is for you.”
Also, your initial relationship must be healthy to begin with, says Sheff. “Consensual non-monogamy is kind of like a stress test or a jetpack—whichever way the relationship is headed, it just really zooms it in that direction.”
If you’re happy, in love, and excited to try new things, being open can be exciting and fun. If you’re headed for a breakup? Opening up the relationship will likely speed that process up, she says. “Trying to go into an open relationship as a way to salvage a dying relationship very rarely works,” she says. “It’s like having a baby to save a marriage.”
Think you might be interested in an open relationship? Look at the bigger picture first: If you feel uncomfortable, realize your relationship isn’t as great as you thought it was, or can’t even stomach the thought of your partner with someone else, an open relationship might not be right for you, says Sheff.
How to ask for an open relationship
If you do decide to have the conversation, Sheff often tells people to use something in the media—an article you read or a show you saw—as a jumping off point. Ask your partner what they think about the topic or if they’ve ever heard of it to test the waters, she says.
Be vulnerable, clear, and tenacious—and be able to regulate your feelings, too, if you don’t get the response you expect or want, says Zapien.
If you both decide that it is worth exploring, make sure to check in with yourself and your partners from time to time to make sure the arrangement is still working, says Zapien, who also recommends practicing safe sex.
Often, couples have to renegotiate terms as non-monogamy doesn’t always work as you expect, notes Sheff. After all, what if you don’t intend to fall in love, but then you do? Or what if you think you won’t be jealous, and then you are? “These are the unanticipated issues that arise,” says Zapien.
Having a game plan—and being able to be flexible and open about conversation—helps in the long run.