As society progresses along and we begin to leave behind the regressive social norms that we’ve lived by for many years, relationships are looking less and less like a 1950’s nuclear family and much more diverse and open-minded. This includes who is involved in the relationship as well as the boundaries that make up the relationship.
You may have heard of one of your friends being in an “open relationship”.
But... What is an open relationship?
An open relationship is an intimate relationship that is sexually non-monogamous, while invested romantically and emotionally exclusively with one partner.
There is still a lot of discussion about relationships that are not strictly within the boundaries of absolute monogamy. But monogamy is not as universal or natural as many assume.
To many people, monogamy is considered ancient and a part of the natural world - but actually only 3% of mammalian relationships practice monogamy. Monogamy in nature has a lot less to do with love or even two animals co-parenting offspring together (after all, in over 40% of monogamous animal relationships, the male will take no part in any raising of offspring) and for most species has more to do with how spread out the species is and far apart they are. It’s a practical decision, ultimately.
As for human beings, it’s a little more complicated —particularly with our innate habit of coming up with social institutions such as marriage and contracts.
Across the world, in most societies, having one partner for one person is considered the default setting of a pair-bond of humans. However, monogamy is rarely considered cut-and-dry.
In some cultures, husbands in monogamous marriages may have multiple partners - in others, wives in marriages may have multiple partners instead. Many cultures also happily engage in wife-swapping or husband-swapping. It’s actually quite common and normal for people who are devoted to a single other person to have relationships with other people at different points in their lives - sometimes even for long-term periods of time.
In other words, even in societies where monogamy is considered the norm, people are likely to have relationships with other people as well, completely within the knowledge and consent of their partner.
Open relationships are not new nor are they trendy (although it may seem like it). However, they are becoming more and more socially acceptable in contemporary Western culture.
There may be a time in your dating experience when you consider either hooking up with someone who is a part of an open relationship, or you may want to be a part of an open relationship yourself. Before you make this decision, you may want to consider some pros and cons.
Contrary to popular belief, when two people are enthusiastically and willingly partaking in an open relationship, it can actually strengthen the partnership.
You can open up channels of communication that you did not have before, by being upfront about desires that exist outside of the relationship. Instead of repressing any attraction you feel to other people, you can be open about it with your partner. It can also be a new way to get to know different aspects of your partner if they’re also exploring other relationships.
It goes without saying, but by being with other people you can experience things that maybe you wouldn’t with the one partner. This can be bedroom experiences as well as different adventures and lifestyles that wouldn’t happen with you and your significant other
For those of us who want to explore our sexual orientation, this can be a great avenue to do just that without hurting the person you love.
Being in a relationship with someone can take a considerable amount of emotional labor and time. By letting in other people, it can ease off some of the strain of taking care of your partner’s needs and wants, and vice versa. It can be particularly helpful when your sex drive doesn’t match your partner’s.
And of course, by engaging in an open relationship, you can end up meeting new people that you otherwise would not have in a monogamous relationship. You can also get to know people who are already in your life in a new context, enriching both yours and their lives (and maybe satisfy some curiosity).
However, open relationships are not always smooth sailing.
It would be to no one’s surprise that there is going to be a chance of insecurity and jealousy getting in the way of a happy open relationship. Instead of seeing this as you or your partner’s shortcomings, try to understand that jealousy is an opportunity for another conversation. By being upfront about our feelings, we can explore not only why we feel the way we do, but also if it’s a sign of something else happening in the relationship.
While many open relationships may play their cards close to their chest, sooner or later someone in your life may find out that you and/or your partner have flings with other people. There’s still a lot of prejudice against people who aren’t strictly monogamous and it’s up to you and your partner to decide how open you want to be about your practices, as well as the importance of an outsider’s opinion. At the end of the day, you both know that no one knows your relationship as much as the people in it.
Unfortunately, this can also rear up if you’re dating other people — even if you are completely up-front about your committed open relationship. It’s important to practice some vigilance in regards to who you want to enter your dating world and only let in people who respect your choices and your main relationship partner.
Whenever someone new enters the bedroom, there is always going to be some risk of STDs and, depending on the partner, there may be a risk of unplanned pregnancies. The best strategy to minimize these risks is of course to practice safe sex, have open conversations about sexual health before engaging in intimacy, see a doctor for regular check-ups, and be open with your main partner about your engagement with other people. Always remember that any possibilities you take upon yourself is something that can also affect your other partner(s).
Now after thinking about the pro’s and con’s, naturally you might be wondering if there are some strategies to navigate an open relationship smoothly. Are there open relationship rules?
The answer is yes.
But any rules can be adjusted to fit your relationship because every relationship is different. That’s why it’s so important to have these conversations in an open and honest way with your partner. That being said, here are some conversation topics that you may want to consider:
Relationships are built on trust and intimacy. Some people may be OK with their partner having hookups and purely physical encounters but would feel hurt if they went on romantic dates and gave gifts to those same people. Other partners may feel differently. There may also be things that may not be obvious to some people - for example, someone may be okay with their partner having dates but not feel good about that partner spending the night at the other person’s home. Everyone is different so it’s important to be specific, open, honest, and thorough when discussing how far you want to take your open relationship.
Another area where it’s absolutely important to be specific - sex. Of course, make sure your conversation includes the topic of safe sex, and what strategies to safe sex you are going to use. But outside of the STD risks, you want to make sure you and your partner are on the same page as to what sexual practices, if any, you are okay with the other person participating in, as well as kinks and fetishes that you or your partner will want to explore with others.
Know that your partner might not be comfortable with something you wish to engage in. It’s important to respect each person’s boundaries within the open relationship. If you disagree about these boundaries, you might need another conversation or you might know this person isn’t the right person for where you are today.
Any relationship will require time and resources. Time spent with another person may well be time that you are unavailable to your partner and by being upfront with what kind of expectations you have can help prevent anyone from feeling neglected. You may also want to discuss what kind of money you're comfortable with being spent on dates and encounters if you are in a relationship that has a joint bank account and has shared financial obligations.
Another topic to discuss is who you’re willing to let in. This is both in regards to what kind of partners you’re comfortable for you and your significant other having fun with, as well as who in your social circle you want to be open about your relationship with. Some people may be enthusiastic about letting their open relationship be public and others may want it to be very private - either way, it’s important to know.
And remember - this isn’t a one-time conversation. At any point, you and your partner should feel comfortable opening up discussion about the particulars of the open relationship, because people are fluid and people don’t always know what they want ahead of time. It’s perfectly natural to change your mind about a boundary that you’ve set, as long as the topic is brought up in a way that’s mutually respectful.
There’s a lot of discussion these days about polyamory and open relationships and it may be easy for the lines to blur. But open relationships and polyamory are two separate things that exist outside of strict monogamy.
Open relationships are relationships that have a core partnership - typically, two people who are committed to each other - but will engage in physical and/or romantic encounters with other people as well.
Polyamorous relationships, on the other hand, are relationships of three or more people who are committed to each other. They may or may very well not be open relationships as well - but it’s not fair to assume that because three people are dating each other, that they’re open to a fourth as well.
The path to having a happy and healthy open relationship can seem like it requires a lot of work - there’s much conversation to be had and the idea of having rules in a relationship may seem like it’s taking the fun out of it.
But the key to having an open relationship is always going to come back to this - the importance of being open and honest with your partners.
And maintaining that level of honesty is going to mean having conversations that are sometimes difficult, awkward, or uncomfortable. By laying it all out and being transparent with your partner, you get rid of any assumptions that you or your partner are making and you can make the transition into a healthy, thriving open relationship. Countless intimate, long-lasting, fulfilling partnerships have been open relationships. You just have to have an open mind and an open heart.
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