Mar 18, 2021
- An open relationship happens when both people in a partnership agree to date other people while still remaining committed to each other.
- Couples in open relationships should set boundaries regarding sex and emotional connection.
- It is important to communicate honestly with your partner if you decide on an open relationship.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
An open relationship is non-monogamous, meaning that both partners agree to be intimate with other people sexually or romantically.
For an open relationship to work, you need to establish rules and boundaries, be honest about your needs, and keep up clear communication.
Here’s what you need to know about open relationships and how to make sure your relationship is healthy.
What is an open relationship?
In an open relationship, each partner is free to see other people. “This can take the form of sexual or emotional intimacy,” says Chris Leeth, PhD, LPC-S, a professor of counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Open relationships are very different from cheating or having affairs because they start with an agreement between everyone involved. “The defining feature is that both partners are aware of the nature of the relationship and agree to it,” Leeth says.
Just like closed relationships, “there are rules, boundaries, and expectations,” that define what each partner is comfortable with, Leeth says. For example, some couples in open relationships agree only to date strangers, whereas other couples are free to explore partnerships with friends.
Many people don’t realize right away that they want to have an open relationship. “Rather, the person finds his or herself stifled and frustrated, while also wanting to be in the relationship,” Leeth says.
This frustration can start if you or your partner have needs that the other can’t fulfill. Opening up your relationship can allow you to explore your sexuality or have emotional connections with other people.
Important: It’s important not to use an open relationship as a way to fix an unhealthy or unhappy dynamic. Instead, it should be a way to try something new or make your relationship stronger.
How to make an open relationship work
When you start an open relationship, you may need to make some adjustments to make sure your relationship stays healthy. Here are a few tips that can help you and your partner make it work:
1. Set rules and boundaries for the relationship
An open relationship is only healthy when both partners are on board with it, and both agree to the boundaries and expectations.
“What is important to remember is that there is no concrete, right-and-wrong, set of boundaries,” Leeth says. Each couple may have different boundaries that work best for them. For example, one couple may decide that outside relationships should only be sexual, while others may be open to emotional connections.
Open relationship rules
Leeth suggests asking the following questions to help plan out what your rules and boundaries will be:
- What are you okay doing with other people?
- What are you okay with your partner doing with other people?
- Will sex be allowed with other people?
- If sex is allowed, how do you define sex?
- Will emotional intimacy be allowed with other people?
- Do other partners need to be complete strangers, or within your social network?
2. Communicate clearly
Every relationship needs communication, but for open relationships, it’s even more important that all expectations and boundaries are crystal clear, Leeth says.
“No one is a mind-reader; if you want or don’t want something, it must be articulated,” Leeth says. For example, if you find yourself feeling jealous about a new partner, it’s important to tell your partner about this rather than hide your feelings.
If you find yourself hiding any information or feelings from your partner, this may be a sign that you need to make changes in the relationship.
Many couples may not be used to this level of communication, and it can be hard to adjust. Seeing a couples therapist can help you learn better listening skills and practice open communication.
3. Be honest with yourself
To engage in a healthy open relationship, you have to be extremely frank about your feelings. In some cases, you may be convinced that you won’t mind if your partner interacts with other people, Leeth says, but when it actually happens, you can find yourself heart-broken.
“Many times this is because one partner wants to see other people while keeping the current relationship, and the other partner agrees in order to keep the relationship going,” Leeth says.
If you’re only agreeing to open your relationship because you don’t want to lose your partner, this is a sign that your open relationship probably won’t be healthy.
“Be savagely honest with yourself about whether or not you are on board,” Leeth says.
4. Set guidelines for safety
If you decide to have sex with other people, you will need to consider how you will manage birth control and prevent sexually transmitted infections.
“For every person that enters the relationship, the risk increases, and each partner should have a plan,” Leeth says.
For example, you might agree that you both need to use condoms any time you have sex with someone besides your partner. You may also decide to use a backup form of birth control like the pill if you’re concerned about getting pregnant through an outside relationship.
5. Plan regular check-ins.
When starting an open relationship, it’s hard to predict exactly what situations and emotions will come up. For this reason, it’s important to have regular check-ins to discuss what’s working and what isn’t working in the relationship.
During a check-in, you can each share what you’re thinking and feeling and decide whether you need to make updates to your rules and boundaries. For example, you may start out allowing both sexual and emotional outside connections, but later find that you’re more comfortable with just sexual partners—or vice versa.
It can help to set a timeline for these conversations, such as once per month or every other week. This way, it’s easier to stay consistent and deal with any issues early on.
An open relationship can be a good option for partners who want to stay together and also see other people.
To create a healthy open relationship, you will need to communicate openly, be honest, and make sure you’re staying safe.
If you run into any issues in the relationship, it may be helpful to see a couples therapist to help set healthy boundaries and practice your communication.
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