Free to be you and me.
Monogamy is our society’s default relationship model. Once you find the one, you get engaged. Then you get married. And voilà! You’re with one person for the rest of your life. This might be a comforting happily ever after for some. For others, it can sound and feel like a trap. Good news: There are alternative options for those who feel limited by monogamy, one of which includes open relationships.
As it happens, more than 20% of people in the United States who participated in a 2016 study reported engaging in some form of consensual non-monogamy (CNM). “Open relationships can fall within a broad spectrum that depends on a couple's needs and their comfort level,” explains dating coach and founder of The Broom List Tennesha Wood. “The term open generally refers to the practice of ethical non-monogamy [ENM] in which couples open their relationship to the possibility of including other people in some way; emotionally, romantically, and/or sexually.”
While open relationships are certainly becoming less taboo and more widely understood in the present day, there are still tons of misconceptions surrounding them. Wood says the most common include:
- They’re all about sex.
- People in open relationships are unable to commit.
- People in open relationships are confused and don’t know what they want.
- These types of arrangements mean one or both parties no longer want to be with the other.
None of the above are accurate. Open relationships don’t have to be purely physical. Commitment issues aren’t always the case, either. There doesn’t have to be confusion to have a more free-wheeling arrangement. And you can want to be with your partner while wanting others, too. So why would a couple choose non-monogamy? And why is it worth it for them to make their open relationship work despite the challenges that can arise?
TZR tapped Wood for her tips on how to navigate open relationships and interviewed individuals on why they choose to be in one and what they do to make it work.
Set Clear Boundaries
“Open relationships should not be entered into casually or without clear boundaries,” Wood says. “Each person should have a clear vision of what they want outside of their primary relationship. From there, they can decide which form of [ENM] best fits their needs.”
Wood lists four popular types of open relationships to choose from:
- Monogamish: having occasional strictly sexual encounters with other people
- Swinging: having sex with another couple or swapping partners
- Polyamory: having multiple sexual and romantic relationships simultaneously
- Relationship anarchy: having multiple relationships without a hierarchy; no relationship is “primary” and everyone is considered equal in terms of priority
She recommends couples discuss individual and shared boundaries by asking each other the questions like: How much do you want to know about who your partner is involved with sexually or romantically? Do you want to be there or participate in your partner's sexual activities? Are there sexual acts that are off-limits?
“No matter where on the spectrum couples decide to land, open relationships will involve trial, error, and flexibility,” she says. “Open relationships can change and evolve and it’s important that couples openly communicate at every stage of the process and allow room for change.”
Prioritize Open Communication
Before opening up your relationship, Wood suggests ensuring your reasons and goals align. “For couples who have a healthy partnership, allowing others in can foster exploration, honesty, and communication,” she says. “Opening a relationship that has existing trust or communication issues will not solve those issues. In fact, it makes them worse.”
“I’m in an open relationship because, in my current partnership, this translates to radical honesty with ourselves and each other,” says Dez*, 26. “The sexy and difficult conversations strengthen my relationship and bond with my partner in a really intense way that wouldn’t manifest otherwise, and that’s why I prefer the ‘open’ paradigm we’ve created.”
For Gina*, 29, sharing feelings and needs is key within her open partnership (where she’s the only one who actively engages in non-monogamy). “Since I grew up religious, I always told my husband I wanted to know how it felt to be with someone else. I’d [spend] late nights talking about it and he wasn’t bothered or scared,” she recalls. He eventually told her he’d give her a hall pass, especially because having another partner could help to relieve her anxiety while he’s out of state for work for days. “He’d see that when he was gone days at a time, I’d have another partner and that’d help me a lot to be calm [before] he’d come back home.” She’s been with other people ever since.
While Gina’s husband is not choosing to engage in other relationships for himself, the two have figured out how to make the open dynamic benefit them both. “[Opening our marriage] strengthens us because we have no secrets and there’s no fear of cheating. I’ve always had a bad temper and when he allowed me to continue outside marriage relationship(s), it has made me be more patient. I’d get angry for very small things and now I think, ‘If he can allow me to have another partner and be so mature about it, why do I get upset about little things?’”
Remember That Jealousy Can Be A Factor
Don’t be fooled: Jealousy still exists in open relationships. And it takes a ton of self-awareness and openness to process it in a healthy way together in order to keep things from going awry.
“I’m lucky to have an extremely patient partner who’s willing to be really gentle and caring with me when jealousy and insecurity arise in me,” adds Dez, who feels prone to jealousy due to tumultuous past relationships. “He’s more able to hold jealousy as an emotion equal to any other emotion, and alchemize the feeling into something more sensual, rather than an ugly thing to be feared. This is something I admire in him and that I strive toward, because being controlled by an emotion, for me, feels like being in prison, and the door’s wide open,” she explains. “I want to be free! And I can, just by choosing not to cling to jealousy.”
Set Rules That Honor Your Needs
Some partners want to know every detail about every date. Others have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Aaliyah*, 24, has a sugar arrangement and additional casual partners outside of it. “[My sugar daddy and I] originally had an open [relationship] where we talked about our other partners, and this made him too jealous, so he didn’t want to talk [about them] anymore,” she says, noting that she personally loves hearing about his experiences.
As for Gina, what she “can and can’t” do changes with each partner outside of her marriage, but it’s always discussed and agreed upon with her husband. Some of the rules within her partnership over the last few years include:
- Share your body but not your love.
- Call when you arrive at a date.
- Her husband has to be on board with each relationship.
- Each new partner has to know and accept the fact that she has a husband and he is aware of the arrangement.
- Make sure you feel safe, and call ASAP if not.
Breaking Free From Societal Norms
“What I like most about being in an open relationship is saying ‘f*ck you’ to the deeply entrenched religious institutions and misogynistic ideals I was born into,” says Nikki*, 28. “These institutions say that I’m fulfilled as a woman only when I enter marriage, that I must remain subservient and docile, that I must feel ashamed of any sexual encounter that lies outside of reproduction. These institutions (heteronormatively) tell me to hate other women who threaten my bond with my partner.”
For her, non-monogamy destroys those rules and offers space to get curious and explore ideas that make the most sense to her and her partner. “Being in an open relationship, for me, is about exploration, playfulness, and the diminishing of fear of the dark, messy feelings,” she says. “I’m aware of the journey ahead — to unravel many years of programming/conditioning that I didn’t have a say in and I’m ready for this hard work, for this opportunity to set fire to the shame that was never mine to carry.”
Embrace A World Of Endless Opportunity
Aaliyah personally enjoys having the freedom to explore her feelings to the fullest: “I don’t have to worry about if it’s OK or not. It should be OK!”
“If somebody gets jealous, we’ll generally talk about the value of the relationship,” she says. “If they’re OK with just not talking about it and keeping it under the table, that usually works. If not, it’s just not compatible.” It’s up to you and your partner(s) to decide which dynamics and rules work best for you. Openly communicating about your wants and needs will help you get there.
She also loves being able to experience other people’s worlds and lives. “I believe relationships are something to be explored and enjoyed, and they’re one of the most exciting parts of life,” she says. “I don’t believe in only one person forever. Yes to a life partner, but no to a one and only. It allows me to experience things outside of my normal realms of possibilities.”
Ultimately, it’s up to you and your partner to decide which rules work best for your relationship. Each partnership is different. But if these stories teach anything, it’s that open relationships are worth the effort if maximum freedom, pleasure, joy, and opportunities are your priorities.
*Last names have been omitted for privacy.