Do Open Relationships Work?
Written by John Kim LMFT on Dec 9th, 2020
First, an open relationship, also known as a non-exclusive relationship, is an intimate relationship that is sexually non-monogamous. The term may refer to polyamory, but generally indicates a relationship where there is a primary emotional and intimate relationship between two partners, who agree to at least the possibility of intimacy with other people.
A polyamorous relationship means having multiple romantic partners at the same time, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.
In a nutshell, an open relationship means you still have one primary partner but both can have other sexual partners. Polyamory means you have multiple relationships that are both emotional as well as sexual. There is no primary. The terms both fall under the heading of "ethical nonmonogamy," but they are not synonymous. You can combine them or do one without the other.
Second, I have not practiced either. I have only been in monogamous relationships my entire life. I guess you can say I am a serial monogamous, which is probably why this topic brings me instant anxiety.
I think people ask me if open relationships work often due to my profession, not because they think I have personal experience with it. They may want to know from a therapeutic perspective if this kind of relationship can work. Is it healthy? Is it sustainable?
But I can not separate who I am from what I do. Well, I can but choose not to. So here's a little primer before I get to my answer.
I grew up like you. Thinking you find your "one", exchange vows, make babies, and live happily ever after. This person is your best friend and soulmate. Your forever and one and only. This is what love looks like and what everyone wants.
Then I grew up and got married. I was on the path presented in movies and novels. I got down on one knee, like you're supposed to, at a mountain top somewhere in Oregon. The marriage lasted five years and we divorced. I've been in many relationships since then. Three years here. Three years there. All of them fulfilling in their own way with colorful love arcs that change people forever.
I've learned that relationships are built and require lots of hard work, but what of value in this life doesn't? Also, you're only fifty percent of any relationship so no matter how much you've learned about love or how far you've come, you can only control half of it. Finally, I've learned that our definitions and desires change as we change. Your definition of love and what you wanted in college is probably very different than your definitions and what you want today. And that's a good thing. It means you're alive.
That's the thing about love and relationships. They are not dried cement. They are moldable and adaptive. Wet. Always changing. It's our upbringing, media, society, culture, and religion that convinces us the cement is dry and comes in a perfect square. For example, in Thailand boys hold hands and wear dresses. Sex is open and free. Ordering a sexual experience is as casual as ordering a cheeseburger with no pickles. That behavior and energy can get people physically hurt in other countries. The world you grew up in (or live in now) directly impacts the blueprints you try to trace as an adult. We are not free thinkers. We all have been programmed to a certain extent. Even if we have changed and escaped our bubbles (both internally and externally), the residue of "shoulds" we grew up with still impacts us. This explains the anxiety that comes up when I think about open relationships.
Okay, so do they work? I would like to answer by taking you through my thought process, as a therapist who has heard thousands of relationship stories but also as a person with the brief love history I disclosed above. I feel like it would be the most honest way to answer this question.
Let's start with the obvious.
I get to have sex with other people and still be in this relationship? Sure, sign me up! Wait, but she also gets to sleep with other people. Awww hell no.
Aubrey Marcus, who has publically gone from monogamy to open relationships to wherever he is now, said he literary threw up the day he found out his girlfriend slept with someone else after they decided to open their relationship. Yes, there will be feelings and the first one may obviously be jealousy and hurt.
My question is this: assuming you have opened your relationship, how many of these feelings would come from ego, control, insecurity, possession, and "shoulds?" When I think about it for me, almost all of it would. The idea of my girlfriend choosing to have a sexual experience with someone else makes me feel insecure, that I am not enough, and she will leave if she meets someone better. So if I was truly secure in self and this relationship, would I still have these feelings?
I don't know.
Still, the feelings are real and both people would need to work through them honesty for an open relationship to work. Otherwise, anger and resentment can build and suddenly it can turn into a sexual slugfest, using other sexual experiences with others to get back at each other for having sexual experiences with others, which you both agreed to. I know it sounds crazy but people are people and I've seen versions of this where people agree to something and it backfires. For example — a threesome — a common fantasy that rarely matches the fantasy we play out in our heads.
There is definitely a fantasy component to an open relationship. The idea that you can connect sexually to someone outside of your relationship may sound like a lottery ticket, especially if you have been with the same person since college. Yes, it is completely natural and normal to desire and be attracted to other people. That doesn't mean you want to build a relationship with them.
It can even be a possible solution to re-spark your relationship or prevent infidelity. Yes, being with someone else can make you closer to your partner. Many times we drift because we feed fantasies we play in our heads. Our natural curiosity of being with someone else forces us to stay in our heads instead of present in our relationships. If fantasy becomes reality, that bubble pops and we no longer have to carry that fantasy. We can be more present, and many times, appreciate our current relationship more by actually experiencing the grass and realizing it's not greener. This is why many break up, explore, then come back. And like travel, exotic locations can give you new and amazing experiences. But it can also make you appreciate your home; you start to miss your own bed.
For an open relationship to work, both parties must not only acceptance but encourage their partners to have new sexual experiences with others. Of course, you don't need to know the details but you have to get to a place where you want your partner to explore their sexuality with others. You want them to have these experiences. For them. This is not something many people have the ability to give their partner. It requires a tremendous amount of trust in the relationship but also a trust in self that is greater than self.
If I look at this through a spiritual lens (not religious), love is infinite. And as humans, we are all connected and each connection is different and unique. These connections are what make us, break us, and make us again. That's what life is ultimately about, the spectrum of our human connections and how that changes us. It doesn't matter if that connection is friendship based, blood based, or sex-based. Connection is connection. Why should we limit ourselves? Why shouldn't love also get to paint with colors? I believe we're meant to meet who we're meant to meet, and through that collision, both will be changed. That's what makes life beautiful. Why should that be different with sex and love?
If I look at this through a biological lens, we are not designed to be with one person forever. That is a social/societal construct with a shame fence that keeps us from straying. Our bodies crave diversity. We are curious creatures. We have fantasies and imaginations. We are hardwired this way.
My conclusion with "the obvious." Now, to the not-so-obvious.
Two people have to not only be on the same page but must truly be honest with themselves. They have to ask themselves if they have the ability, the inner capacity, to be completely okay with their partner having sex with others, to not just handle it but to not allow it to interfere with them loving their partner as much or even more with this new agreement. If you feel intimidated or less than because your partner experienced an orgasm with someone else, then you probably shouldn't open your relationship.
I'll tell you right now there's no way I could do this in my twenties or even thirties. I didn't have that kind of "capacity." I didn't have enough confidence or a sense of self for it to not destroy me on the inside. I would tally points, hold it against my partner, and bring a scoreboard into the bedroom. I also had very strict love blueprints. You give your all to one person and one person only. That's it. Everything else is wrong and an excuse to cheat. But most importantly, I didn't have a spiritual lens. And for me, that's the only way I would be able to execute an open relationship. If I see it through a spiritual lens, as us being sexual beings and beauty in every connection. As spiritual beings. Not as people who default to possession.
You may wonder — if you have sexual experiences with others, wouldn't you be creating space for an emotional connection as well? Wouldn't you be jeopardizing your primary relationship? Basically, aren't you playing Russian Roulette with your primary relationship? We all know our emotions are stronger than our logic. So just because we logically say we will not allow ourselves to fall in love with someone else doesn't mean we won't. How can we prevent that since love is not logic-based?
One part of me says you can't. You go in with intentions but no matter how strong they are, any kind of intimacy can lead to love. A simple kiss can draw you into thinking about that person for days, causing you to drift in your primary relationship. Those thoughts can turn into longing and real feelings. You may not be spending more time with your other relationship (non-primary) but where is your heart?
But another part of me says you can separate love and lust. It's up to you to draw boundaries so your connections are kept sexual only. You can decide who you love and how you want to love them. As long as you are honest with yourself and your partner, you can keep this in check. Of course, this is not always simple and you have to decide if you can do this kind of heavy lifting. So the question is: do you have the ability to separate love from sex?
What if one person gets many partners and the other has few or none? That wouldn't be a fair exchange.
That's a real thing to consider if you choose to open your relationship. But I also worry that if that's what you're worried about, you are already positioning this to have a scoreboard. For an open relationship to work, it can't be about how many partners your partner has compared to how many you have. Usually, open relationships are not about playing the field or how many people you can get into your rotation. It's about being free to have other sexual experiences. And that's an ebb and flow. Besides, who's got that kind of time and energy? Hopefully not you or your partner.
People think open relationships are just about having the freedom to sleep with other people. So if that's the case, why even be in a relationship? If that is your belief, opening your relationship will not work for you. Not a chance in hell. It will be the catalyst that breaks your relationship.
I believe for an open relationship to work, there has to be a foundation built first. Without this foundation, it will not work. Here are some suggestions for making an open relationship work.
- Your relationship has to be solid. If you currently have problems in your relationships, opening it and allowing others in will not fix any problems. It will make them worse. Opening your relationship will allow you to run away from instead of look at what you need to fix in your relationship. An open relationship requires a tremendous amount of trust. If you don't trust your partner, opening your relationship will only be a crowbar in your primary relationship. So you have to very clear on why you want to open your relationship. Is it to run away or toward yourself and or problems?
- Both people must be completely honest with themselves. Do you truly want this for you or are you doing it for your partner? It can't be a gift or a favor. That will only lead to resentment. That said, there are open relationships where one partner loses interest in having sexual relations outside his primary. And is completely okay with his partner continuing. But again, you have to be completely honest with yourself.
- Lay some ground rules. Without rules, opening your relationship is a very slippy slope. What's damaging is the dishonesty, not the actual act of having sex with others. Who can you see? Does your partner need to approve? How often can you see them? How much do you tell each other about who you see? These are all things that need to be discussed or people can start lying and that's the most damaging part of any relationship. You can be in an open relationship yet still be "unfaithful" and experience the consequences of cheating if you are being dishonest and/or breaking the rules.
What I find the most interesting and exciting about all of this is the fact that we're starting to have these conversations. The world is changing. We are starting to redefine what makes us happy. We are questioning old models. This is happening in every area of our lives, health, fitness, work, and now love and sex. But questioning old love models brings up a lot of resistance in people, myself included.
Marriage and monogamy have been tightly tied to religion and the foundation of who we are, what's right and wrong, how we should live, all wrapped in a lot of firm shoulds. If this is questioned, our floor is pulled out from under us. Everything is then in question. So people quickly stamp this as wrong. You may have felt that while reading this article. It's a form of protection.
I'm at a point in my life where I no longer want fear or my own resistance and insecurities to keep me trapped. I am curious about everything that's possible in this world. I'm not sure if that's because I have a baby coming and I want to wear fresh new lenses for her, one not tainted by my own story. Or because I'm getting older and I'm realizing how short life is. But I'm finally want to toss old blueprints still folded in my back pocket. And start pulling from curiosity and an unwillingness to know or put things in perfect boxes. Because if there's anything I've learned in the forty-six years I've been on this planet, no one really knows what's best for you. Except you. And "you" is always changing. I am interested in dissolving ego and entering a spiritual plane that gives me new lenses to see the world and continues my evolution.
Do open relationships work? I don't know. I haven't given myself that experience. But I am open to the conversation, something I have never been before.
At the end of the day, you have to decide what kind of relationship you want and works for you. Monogamy, polygamy, open, or a combination of everything. It's your life. It's your heart. It's your body. And know that you can change your mind and that's okay. You just have to be honest with yourself. That's the most important thing — your relationship with you.