What Makes an Open Relationship a Healthy One?
Written by Douglas LaBier Ph.D. on Jul 12th, 2021
As our culture becomes increasingly diverse, some of that diversity is reflected in the kinds of intimate relationships that people seek. For example, we see a more open acknowledgment of polyamory, serial monogamy, and commitment without marriage.
I’ve written previously about how people describe and experience these varieties of relationships, and how they might reflect on our evolving society. Such forms of relationship have always existed, of course, though surreptitiously, and often castigated as immoral or unhealthy. But nevertheless, they’ve become more visible in popular culture. And so has another type of partnership, also traditionally condemned: the “open relationship.”
Some time ago, I wrote here about research that found open relationships to be, in fact, pretty healthy—in terms of people’s reported experiences with them. I also cited a New York Times article that explored open relationships from the “inside" from participants in them who discussed their views and experience with this form of relationship.
Now, a new study from the University of Rochester contributes more detailed information about how and why open, consensual nonmonogamous relationships can be psychologically healthy and satisfying for the partners. The study examined what the specific conditions and features are of open relationships that appear to promote the health and satisfaction of its partners.
A 2016 study suggests that about 1 in 5 individuals in the U.S. engage in open relationships at some stage of their lives. But a culture that favors monogamy can present a challenge to nonmonogamous couples looking to introduce new sexual partners into the relationship. That is, as the lead researcher Ronald D. Rogge described in this summary, “We know that communication is helpful to all couples. However, it’s critical for couples in nonmonogamous relationships as they navigate the extra challenges of maintaining a nontraditional relationship in a monogamy-dominated culture." Such couples would need, for example, to protect each other from potential feelings of jealousy and judgment from others.
The current study looked beyond previous studies that tended to focus only on one or two dimensions. For example, either monogamous or nonmonogamous. To do that, they focused on three dimensions of the open relationship: mutual consent, communication, and comfort.
They defined mutual consent as a condition in which both partners agree explicitly about the nature of their relationship. For example, is there to be sexual exclusivity? Would this decision also apply to emotional exclusivity? And what types of other sexual partners would be allowable?
The communication dimension covers the ongoing discussion about the relationship and its boundaries. The researchers emphasized that communication specifically about sex with other people has a central role in open relationships. For example, communication allows couples to negotiate rules about sex outside the relationship "while maintaining high levels of respect and consideration toward the feelings of each other."
Comfort includes whether partners feel that they have to agree to an open relationship even though they really want it to be monogamous. Here, the study looked at how upset the individual would be if they knew that their partner was having sex with other people, or how upset their partner might be if it were the other way around. Both partners not being very upset would signify high levels of mutual comfort.
The researchers studied 1,658 people in relationships, including:
- Monogamous relationships, in both early and later stages
- Consensual nonmonogamous relationships, in which neither partner is interested in staying monogamous, and there are high levels of mutual consent, comfort, and communication about sex with other people
- Partially open relationships: mixed views on monogamy and lower levels of mutual consent, comfort, and communication
- One-sided relationships: one partner wants monogamy, while the other engages in sex with other people. There is low mutual consent and comfort, and hardly any communication about sex outside the relationship.
Overall, the findings revealed that monogamous and consensual nonmonogamous groups appeared to be high functioning both in their relationships and as individuals. But the partially open and one-sided relationship groups demonstrated lower levels of functioning.
Both monogamous groups and the consensual nonmonogamous group reported levels of distress and loneliness that were similarly low. In addition, these groups reported high levels of satisfaction relating to their needs, relationship, and sex. Sexual sensation seeking was lowest in the monogamous groups and highest in the three nonmonogamous groups.
The bottom line of these findings, published in The Journal of Sex Research, appears to be that mutual consent, comfort, and communication are crucial ingredients—regardless of the type of open relationship. Lacking those, sex outside the relationship can be felt like a betrayal and can put an enormous strain on the couple. As lead author Rogge pointed out, “Secrecy surrounding sexual activity with others can all too easily become toxic and lead to feelings of neglect, insecurity, rejection, jealousy, and betrayal, even in nonmonogamous relationships."
The research emphasizes that these are important considerations, not only for people engaging in open relationships but in any relationship that the couple hopes to be sustainable and rewarding, long-term.