I always begin my workshops on open relationships the same way. I read a list of statements and ask everyone to put their hands up when I say something that would qualify as cheating or non-monogamy. Play along with me.
“Is masturbating and thinking about someone other than your partner cheating?”
“Is watching porn is cheating?”
“Is having a close friendship with someone you are attracted to but not physically intimate with cheating?”
“Is making out with a stranger when your partner is out of town cheating?”
“Is having sex with someone who is a different gender than your partner cheating?”
Although most hands are up by the end of the list, every time I’ve done this experiment, there is mass disagreement regarding what qualifies as cheating. In monogamous relationships, monogamy is often implied but rarely discussed. As a result, we may be operating on different definitions of monogamy than our partner is.
The plight and magic of opening up your relationship are that suddenly nothing is implied. It is up to you and your partner to figure out your boundaries and create your own rules.
Let’s start with the big question—what is an open relationship?
An open relationship is an umbrella term that includes all forms of non-monogamy. Open relationships can consist of couples who have threesomes together but don’t engage without both parties present. Some couples may decide to have sex with others only when their partner is out of town. Others may explore their fetish or kink with other people but only have intercourse with their partner. Many may consensually create other long-lasting emotional and sexual relationships (known as polyamory). There are a seemingly endless number of options, so you can experiment to find the type of relationship that works for you and your partner.
Is an open relationship right for me?
The only solid reason for opening up your relationship is genuinely wanting to open up your relationship. I’ve worked with several couples where one partner wanted an open relationship, and the other didn’t want to lose their partner, so they went along with it. Forcing an open relationship because it’s hip or because you don’t want to lose your partner will only cause pain in the long run. Before taking the plunge, take some time and think about if this is genuinely something you are interested in exploring.
Open relationships are well-suited for folks that enjoy analyzing their feelings and communicating them to a partner. They’re also for folks that have the time and energy to challenge themselves by trying something new—opening up your relationship may cause some strain on your relationship as you find your groove.
The first step of opening up your relationship is discussing boundaries with your partner to establish ground rules. The specifics will depend on each person and the reason for opening up your relationship. However, I really recommend you discuss the minutia.
If you are opening up your relationship to explore your queer identity—does that mean you can only sexually engage with folks of certain genders? Suppose you open up your relationship because one partner has a high libido. Does that mean that partners will only explore sexual relationships and not have sleepovers or create emotional bonds with new partners? What are the rules on safe sex? What are the rules about new partners meeting your friends or family? Are you open to inviting partners to the house if you live together? Spend some time exploring and discussing several potential situations and creating as much understanding as possible so that you don’t accidentally cross a boundary.
I also recommend creating concrete rules instead of having rules that have to do with feelings. For example, the rule could be “no sleepovers,” rather than “don’t you dare fall in love.” Take your time and think about what you need to feel safe and happy in this new dynamic. Of course, you may not know precisely what you want or don’t want until it happens, which is why this is such a dynamic and changing process.
Sharing specifics vs. “don’t ask, don’t tell”
Are you the type of person that wants to know every detail of your partner’s sexual escapades or does the thought make you feel a bit nauseous? If you don’t know the specifics, are you going to assume your partner is getting laid every time they go to the supermarket to get some avocados? Some folks may not want to know details but may wish to know milestones. For example, you might want to know if your partner has penetrative sex or started to develop feelings. It’s important to respect your partner’s boundaries regarding how much they want to know, as unwanted information can be painful to process.
Hierarchy vs. non-hierarchy
For those that are more open to having sustained romantic and sexual relationships, you may want to discuss if your relationship will be a hierarchy or not. In other words, will the partner you are with always have precedence over other partners, or will all partners be treated equally? If you are in a hierarchical relationship, you may have a primary partner, a secondary partner and even tertiary partner. Folks who are not the primary partner, may spend less time with their partner and have fewer expectations when it comes to living together or having kids. In my experience, it is challenging to shift from a monogamous relationship to a non-hierarchical relationship. However, it can be challenging for folks entering a relationship to feel inherently “less” than their primary partners.
Shifting your relationship style is a malleable process. It might be worth it to have a weekly check-in to analyze how you are both feeling and how the ground rules are working. It often takes a bit of renegotiation to find the dynamic that works for both partners. It is best to take notes of how you are feeling throughout the week instead of sending panicked texts while your partner is out on a date. You need to make space for flexibility and renegotiation as you explore into the great unknown.
Take it slow
If you are new to an open relationship, it’s important to take it slow. For example, perhaps you first open up your relationship by having one partner dress up to go out to flirt with others. This doesn’t even have to include any physical activity, but it will let you assess how other partner feels about having their partner “out” without them. Then, depending on your reason for opening up the relationship, it can escalate to more explicit sexual activity.
Opening up your relationship can be a life-altering experience. Work on genuinely communicating with your partner about how you feel throughout the process. Sometimes, the rules may change and challenging conversations may have to be had. However, creating a dynamic that works for you is so so worth it.
For polyamory: More Than Two
For all forms of open relationships: The Ethical Slut
For dealing with jealousy: The Jealousy Workbook: Exercises and Insights for Managing Open Relationships.
For exploring the fascinating evolutionary basis of non-monogamy: Sex at Dawn
About the author
Niki Davis-Fainbloom (MA) is a sexual educator, writer, and researcher who has facilitated over 500+ workshops and published 60+ articles. She received her Master's Degree at New York University studying the Psychology of sexuality. Since then, she has developed a niche writing content that normalizes and educates about typically taboo topics such as fetishes, polyamory, and pleasure. She has been featured in over thirty magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Mind Body Green, and Refinery29.