Everything You Need to Know About Open Relationships

Here, I revisit an issue addressed many blogs ago regarding the prevalence and nature of nonmonogamous relationships. Information comes from the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (n = 2,270) (Levine & colleagues, 2018). Of those currently in a relationship, 8 percent were in a nonconsensually nonmonogamous relationship, and 4 percent were in an open relationship — that is, a consensual nonmonogamous relationship (CNM). Compared to the monogamous couples, those in open relationships were more likely to be male; gay, lesbian, or bisexual; an ethnic minority; condom users; and dissatisfied with their relationship. However, counter to expectations, they were not more highly educated or from higher social classes.

The authors noted that the two nonmonogamous percentages are likely to be an undercount, given the hesitancy of some individuals to report that their relationship is not monogamous — especially if they haven’t told their partner it is nonmonogamous. I also wonder if the percentages of open relationships will increase considerably once younger generations become involved in relationships — at least given youths’ greater proclivity to endorse open relationships.

The authors’ primary point is that the two nonmonogamous relationship types should not be confused with each other. It matters whether the partners agree that their relationship is open, or whether one partner is simply “cheating” about his/her sexual and romantic affairs and contacts. They concluded, “Identities, experiences, and behaviors within open and other consensually nonmonogamous populations should be regarded as unique and diverse, rather than conflated with those common to other relationship structures.” Medical professionals, social workers, therapists, and other providers should “educate themselves about open relationships and other forms of CNM,” they wrote. That is, one should not merely group all nonmonogamous relationships into one category as if they shared similar understandings and structures.

It's nice to believe in education, but I wonder if that instruction is likely to happen given our negative cultural attitudes about open relationships. Will sex education courses for youth include material that supplies information about open relationships — and their benefits? Will they offer the observation that open relationships are potentially an appropriate and healthy alternative for some couples?

In my clinical practice, I have worked with many couple types, and because they’re coming in for assistance, by definition they’re all having problems — but they’re not the same problems. The most difficult, as you might imagine, are the nonconsensually nonmonogamous couples. Can their relationship be repaired? Should they stay together, work it out, or part company? If they had been educated about the benefits of a consensual open relationship, would they be seeing me at this point?

Then there are the couples who want to move from monogamy to open. Though frequently one partner is more enthusiastic about this prospect than the other, they don’t know how to do an open relationship such that both are satisfied. What are the rules? Here are a few of the issues I most frequently discuss with them — that is, after sessions exploring their motivations and basic information about open relationships (including potential benefits and problems):

  • How frequently can the sexual activities occur — once a week, month, year?
  • Where can they occur — must it be in their home or elsewhere?
  • Can they only occur when one partner is traveling alone, or only when they are together — that is, incorporating a third person or another couple?
  • What activities are permissible — cuddling, oral, manual, anal, kink? Are overnights allowed?
  • Do they freely share details of the extramarital sexual activities with each other — for example, making videos of the sex so that the other partner can observe or enjoy? Does one partner volunteer the information, or must they be asked?
  • Is sex limited to one time per extra person, or can one do it multiple times with the same person?
  • When should the “rules” and “conditions” be re-assessed?

This can be a series of trying sessions, especially if the enthusiasm factor is hugely discrepant between the two partners.

In the study noted above, the authors had a cautionary addendum: Contrary to their expectations, those in open relationships reported lower levels of happiness and sexual satisfaction than those in monogamous relationships. They hypothesized that this was possibly due to the way in which open couples defined satisfaction or because they had higher standards than those in other types of relationships. Perhaps when monogamous couples realized that their relationship was problematic and attempted to move it from monogamous to open, it was not the panacea that they had hoped, because the relationship problems persisted. That is, maybe they expected open relationships to be utopian — they get to have multiple sex partners and a romantic relationship. This assumes (without evidence) that the open couples began as monogamous, there were problems or dissatisfactions, and they moved to open their relationship up (usually sexually and not romantically). The key might be less the type of relationship that one has and more the level of communication, affection, and personality mix of the couple.

How many relationships begin as open and stay that way or move to monogamy, and how many monogamous couples move to open? What issues are critical to evaluate relationships? Is it satisfaction, happiness, self- and other-fulfillment, longevity, or what? It’s easy to agree with the authors that “future research should explore variation in relationship happiness and sexual satisfaction in greater detail.” Perhaps a return to in-depth qualitative research is in order to address more fully the unknowns of relationship types.