It used to be that non-monogamy just meant cheating. It was basically assumed by everyone that being in a relationship meant being monogamous, and to do anything else was to break the rules. But something’s changed.
Sure, most relationships are still monogamous (or at least trying to be), but it’s no longer assumed in quite the same way. Monogamy remains the default, but couples are increasingly aware that it’s a choice they make, and that there is another option: the infamous open relationship, where the rules get blurred, cheating changes, and the bedroom doors sometimes open up to other people.
To people brought up to cherish the straightforward values of the monogamous marriage, an open relationship can seem like a horrifying betrayal, or proof of a pairing gone wrong. But for advocates, it’s a progressive way to devote your life to someone while staying open to others—a new, potentially more forgiving, way to express love. So which is it? And is an open relationship for you?
So what is an open relationship?
First up, some definitions. If monogamy is having an exclusive sexual or romantic relationship with one person, then non-monogamy is having a non-exclusive relationship. But that can come in a few forms.
The open relationship is the simplest and most accessible. Most people take it to mean a relationship between two people who are committed to one another, but are each allowed to have sex with other people. Generally it’s expected that sex will remain pretty casual, without serious emotional attachments, and couples will likely set their own rules for what’s permitted and what isn’t.
Then there’s swinging, a.k.a. your parents’ generation non-monogamy. For better or worse this is definitely associated with an older generation and those terrible sounding key parties. Swinging typically involves a couple who has sex with other couples, either in the form of group sex or partner swapping.
Another common setup is one no doubt familiar to the fantasies of most young men: the threesome. Apps like Feeld (formerly 3nder) have supported the rise of couples looking for an extra person to join the bedroom, usually as a one-off or on an ongoing casual basis. With Feeld boasting over 500,000 monthly users it’s clear that there’s an appetite for this beyond the fantasies of teenage boys, and tech advances have made it easier than ever to find a willing third.
Finally comes polyamory, which involves maintaining serious relationships with multiple people at a time. That could mean a group of three people all seeing one another, or where one is seeing each of the other two but they’re not dating each other. It can even expand into intricate webs of different relationships between different people. There are as many different configurations as you can come up with, and just as much to say about it all, but it’s probably fair to say that anyone toying with opening up their relationship isn’t really looking to go down the full polyamorous route just yet or head to any key parties, so I’ll stick to the more simple open relationship from here on out.
Who’s doing it?
Well, if we look at non-monogamy broadly: a lot of us. Studies estimate that around 50% of married people have had an extramarital affair at some point, with men slightly more likely than women to step outside the relationship.
Cheating isn’t the same as consensual non-monogamy, of course, but you might be surprised by just how common that is. A study published this April found that more than one in five single adults in the U.S. had engaged in a consensually non-monogamous relationship at some point in their life. Again, men were more likely to than women, while people who identified as LGBT were more likely to than those who didn’t.
It also looks like non-monogamy is growing in popularity. “There’s no doubt open relationships are becoming more popular and the change is part of what we describe as a second sexual revolution,” say Patricia Johnson and Mark Michaels, who’ve co-authored a number of books on relationships, open or otherwise. “There’s a lot of data, both anecdotal and statistical, to support the idea that cultural attitudes are changing.”
Past data on this is a bit sketchy, so it’s hard to be sure, but Johnson and Michaels point to a recent Gallup poll that found that more than twice as many people thought polygamy wasn’t morally objectionable in 2015 than in 2001—though it still only went as high as 16%. Another recent study found that even if we can’t prove more people are engaging in open relationships, it does look like more people are interested in them, as there’s been a significant growth in web searches for open relationships and polyamory over the past 10 years. Americans are at least more curious about non-monogamy than they ever have been before, whether they’re going ahead and trying it out or not.
Perhaps the most important question of them all: why would you put your relationship at risk by opening it up? Is it just about getting laid?
Inevitably, you’ll get different answers from different people. Some will argue it’s about respecting the idea that humans didn’t evolve to be monogamous and have a natural desire to have multiple partners. Monogamy is going against human nature, so the argument goes, and non-monogamy will thus make us all happier in the long run.
Other arguments are more pragmatic. Relationship columnist Dan Savage has long argued in favour of what he calls the ‘monogamish’ relationship. It’s pretty broadly defined, but usually comes down to allowing occasional infidelities in a relationship, as long as both partners are totally honest about it. He argues that it’s a way of recognizing the fact that monogamy is really, really hard. We all face near constant temptation to sway, and while some can resist that temptation for good, plenty of others can’t (see: those infidelity stats from earlier). On that basis, he argues it just makes more sense to admit that the occasional infidelity doesn’t signify a failed relationship, but is instead to be expected. What matters is being honest about it, taking it in its stride, and prioritizing the relationship as a whole above and beyond any single sexual encounter.
“Folks on the verge of making those monogamous commitments,” Savage told The New York Times, “need to look at the wreckage around them — all those failed monogamous relationships out there (Schwarzenegger, Clinton, Vitter, whoever’s on the cover ofUS magazine this week) — and have a conversation about what it’ll mean if one or the other partner should cheat. And agree, at the very least, to getting through it, to place a higher value on the relationship itself than on one component of it, sexual exclusivity.”
On that reading, an open relationship—or at least a monogamish one—begins to look like a pragmatic response to a very common problem. Staying monogamous over the long haul is tough, so the reasoning goes, and the love and commitment you share should be worth more than just keeping it in your pants. So, either be forgiving of affairs when they happen, or actively build the permission to have them in the relationship. You each get to work through your temptations, and maybe explore sexual preferences and fetishes your partner doesn’t share, but know that they’ll be there for you to come back home to.
Still, there’s one very good reason not to open your relationship up: to fix existing problems between the two of you. If you’re struggling to keep things working between the two of you, bringing in a third, or a fourth, or more isn’t likely to help any—especially as a response to infidelity, which is a common time to consider it. It opens up a raft of potential issues around trust and insecurity, and your relationship needs to be in a strong place from the start to survive opening things up. If you’re teetering on the edge from the get-go, non-monogamy is likely to push you over the edge.
“Consensual non-monogamous relationships are not a good idea for partners who are hoping to move through a rough patch in their lives by experimenting sexually with open relationships,” agrees Dr. Michele Kerulis, a Counseling@Northwestern Clinical Lecturer. “It is important to first address the issues within the partnership before bringing others into the relationship. Trying a new lifestyle is not the answer to saving a relationship.”
How does it work?
Inevitably, no two open relationships are likely to look exactly the same, and everyone’s rules and expectations will be different. Here are some common stipulations though:
- Don’t sleep with anyone else more than once, to avoid forming serious attachments.
- Don’t sleep with any of your mutual friends or acquaintances.
- Save certain sex acts for just the two of you—they’re off limits with anyone else.
- Don’t stay the night with other people.
- Don’t date—casual hookups only.
- Stay honest and communicative, and tell your partner whenever you do sleep with someone else.
- Or the opposite—some couples would rather out of sight, out of mind. They don’t want to know the details of each other’s sex lives outside the relationship.
These are just a few common examples, and there are plenty other ways people have established ground rules. The idea isn’t that any open relationship has to follow these rules, but that there have to be some—open relationships work best when there’s clear communication from early on about exactly what’s OK and what isn’t.
In fact, arguably one of the real strengths of non-monogamy is exactly that it encourages this kind of discussion. “Monogamy remains the cultural default,” argue Johnson and Michaels. “As a result, many people who identify as monogamous have not thought through and discussed their relationship agreements and may not even have defined monogamy for themselves.”
Read more on cheating:
By contrast, because it’s a break from the norm, non-monogamy demands the kind of ongoing, frank and open discussions between partners that foster trust and stability. Monogamous couples often find themselves arguing over whether or not a single kiss counts as cheating, or even whether watching porn does, because we all tend to assume everyone shares our view of what monogamy entails. Opening things up requires new rules—and they have to be set in advance.
Once you do go down this path, these rules have to be just as important as monogamy itself would be in a traditional relationship. Cheating hurts so much in part because it’s a breach of trust, and so is betraying any of the ground rules of an open relationship, which means it’s important to have a clear understanding of them from the get-go, and for both partners to be totally happy with what they’re signing up for.
But can it go wrong? Well, yes. Obviously. Any time you introduce a third party into a romantic relationship there’s a serious risk—plenty of couples who’ve struggled in the wake of trying a threesome could tell you as much. So introducing a fourth and fifth and who knows how many more brings obvious risks.
“Emotions and jealousy are real,” warns Kerulis. “Successful consensual non-monogamous relationships include clear and constant communication about feelings, boundaries, and expectations. If you are a jealous person, this lifestyle is probably not for you.”
The one most likely to strike people is the fear that one partner will find themselves falling for one of the other people they have sex with. No doubt this happens—but doesn’t the same risk always apply to any relationship? Again, see the above infidelity statistics. The only difference here is that they might have sex first—but then there’s a chance that will diffuse the sexual tension, and make them realize that what might have felt like love was really no more than lust.
Another risk, not often spoken about, is the fear of competition between you. What if she finds it much easier to have other partners than you do? You likely don’t want to open up the relationship just so she can go out and hook up with guys while you keep striking out on Tinder, and introducing an extra level of insecurity and competition into the relationship isn’t likely to end well. To some extent you can manage this with ground rules—say by limiting encounters to once per month—but otherwise you both need to decide in advance if this is something likely to bother you, and steer clear if it is.
The bigger threat is a simpler insecurity: sexual inadequacy. If your partner is having sex with other people on the regular, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to worry that they might find themselves between the sheets with someone who’s bigger than—or better than—you. To be honest, if you keep an open relationship up for long enough, that probably will happen; it’s just the law of averages.
What matters is whether you can handle that idea. If you’re comfortable with the idea that they might have amazing one-off sex with someone else, but then come back to you and your relationship, then you’ll be fine. But be honest with yourself: if the idea of your partner having any sex with anyone else immediately makes you feel sick, angry, or inadequate, this just isn’t likely to work. There’s nothing wrong with that; this isn’t for everyone. Just try and figure that out before you give it all a go, and end up doing something you’ll both regret.
So does it work?
Yes. And no. The unhelpful answer is basically: it depends. There are plenty of couples out there (Dan Savage and his husband included) who report that opening things up has made them stronger than ever, bringing them closer together, de-emphasizing the importance of sex relative to their love, and allowing them to satisfy urges they just couldn’t within the bounds of monogamy.
But there’s no shortage of others who’ve tried it and regretted it. If they’re lucky, they can return to monogamy and continue as they were, but for some it can mean the end of the relationship. It can trigger dormant insecurities, worsen pre-existing trust issues, and leave partners feeling inadequate or even unwanted.
There’s no easy answer as to whether alternatives to monogamy are right for you. It’ll take a bit of tricky self-examination, and it’s not a decision to be rushed—or pressured into because it’s what your partner wants. If you can’t handle it—or even just if you’re worried that you can’t—then steer clear. But if the both of you are tempted, and your trust is rock-solid, it could just take your relationship to the next level.