What’s An Open Relationship?
There’s no official definition as to what constitutes as an open relationship and like all intimate connections, it can differ from person to person. Some people use it as an umbrella term to describe all forms of non-monogamy. This could include swinging (generally understood to mean casual group sex or swapping partners), attending sex parties, or dating outside of your primary relationship, either together as a partnered unit or separately.
For some people, they may establish boundaries around being sexually intimate with people outside of their primary relationship but not emotionally close. And for other individuals who align themselves more closely with polyamory, it could mean having consensual relationships with more than one person at a time that are sexual and emotional in nature.
Everyone deserves to have a fulfilling sexual and romantic life, and perhaps for you this looks like an open relationship of some description. The success of an open relationship can depend on being on the same page as one another, however many others there may be, and finding ways to communicate honestly.
What’s a primary relationship?
Already used twice in this article, the phrase “primary relationship” or “primary partner(s)” refers to a central relationship, in which two or more people merge significant commitments such as housing, finances, childcare, in something resembling a spouse-like arrangement.
Exploring non-monogamy can open up new doors of intimacy and opportunity within your relationship(s). If this is completely new to you or you are feeling like you’d like to shift a current relationship dynamic that is currently not operating non-monogamously it may be helpful to think about what being open means to you before you approach your partner.
Gia is 31 years old and her last two serious relationships have been open. She explains; “Non-monogamy works for me but this wasn’t a decision I came to quickly. I still live in a society that frowns upon multi-partner relationships and approaching being open with former partners has always been quite tough.”
Gia says that intimacy with people outside of her primary partnership released her from the pressures and expectations of monogamy, which she finds stifling. “It’s been a massive learning curve. I always found it easy to communicate my sexual and emotional needs but I had to develop the language to explain that being non-monogamous doesn’t mean that there’s something lacking in my relationships,” she says. “In the past, I’ve avoided serious conversations about non-monogamy with my partners because I’ve found them to be awkward. However, those relationships ended with both myself and my partners feeling isolated and jealous.”
Gia says one of her former partners consistently checked her phone and broke off a connection with another person because he felt jealous. “This isn’t a part of my life that I’m shameful of. I love connecting with like-minded people,” she says, “However, I now see the warning signs that we never talked enough about what being open meant to me.” It may be that things would have been different had Gia and her former partner been able to communicate with one another. Sometimes communication is easier when facilitated by a coach, counsellor, or therapist: two great places to start would be the peer support options offered by both Leanne Yau of Poly Philia fame or writer and ethical non-monogamy resource Gabrielle Smith.
Rather than having one big conversation, 29-year-old Allana and 28-year-old Alex have been thinking and talking about being open for the last year. “Swinging and attending sex parties is something I’ve always been curious about but a little bit shy to try. I wanted to do this with Alex but my main concern was that I was pressuring him into something he didn’t want to do,” says Allana. “We’ve had conversations on numerous occasions, some sexy and some about the logistics of being open. I feel secure that we’re a team, we have similar boundaries, and he knows that I love him.”
Set boundaries that allow for flexibility and amendment
So many things in life aren’t clear cut. There are very few distinctly correct and incorrect answers. And crafting a new way of approaching your romantic relationship could be the best example of this. “Initially we sat down together and wrote a huge list of do’s and don’ts. Then we started to explore being open and that went out of the window,” laughs Alex. “There are defining principles like always having safe sex, we tell each other everything, and we have a limit on the number of partners we’re comfortable with each of us having. But life happens sometimes – there needs to be flexibility and continued conversations.”
You may have some clear deal-breakers when entering an open relationship. You may want to tell each other everything, or you may decide you only want to share some specific information. Protecting the health of yourself and your partner is crucial. In alignment with that notion of health and safety, I would recommend that you have a conversation with your partner(s) where it is clearly determined what types of sex and the degrees of which everyone is comfortable. There might be different agreements for different types of relationships (the type of sex you have with a partner vs the type of sex you might have with a first date for example). Whenever it is possible and accessible, regular STI testing, especially when bringing new dates or lovers into the picture, is a great way to help protect all of the involved parties.
How much you want to disclose and how much you want to hear from your partners is also something to negotiate and come to a consensual agreement on. You may want to know all about your partner’s other sexual encounters or to know nothing at all or something in between. Maybe you want to know an overview, but spare the details. Maybe you just want to know a name and let that be it. Will you date together as a couple, or separately? When will you see each other for one on one time? While you may not know how you feel about being open until you’ve tried it, it’s good to express how you feel early on.
“We joke that our love life has never been more organised,” says Allana. Allana and Alex are in the first few weeks of opening their relationship. They’ve spent time on dating apps together and grown closer as a couple. “One thing that’s been glaringly obvious to us is that we want to do this as a team. This means being totally honest with each other but also really honest with the people we are talking to online,” says Alex. “We don’t want any miscommunication or secrets or for it to seem like we are cheating on one another.”
“It’s about practising consent from everyone involved,” says Allana.
Where to begin
Once you’ve spoken to your partner about opening or shifting the dynamics of your relationship in a way that feels right and comfortable for both of you, you might wonder how you actually start an open relationship.
Firstly, be compassionate with yourself. If the thought of putting on your best underwear and attending a sex party for the first time scares you then that’s totally fine. You don’t have to dive in at the deep end, and if you are feeling nervous, maybe take some time to do a little homework first. Take the time to identify what draws you to emotional or physical relationships in general, and examine how those draws might work in an open or non-monogamous setting. For instance, if you hated one night stands prior to your current relationship, was that because you were always hoping for a repeated connection or was it something else about the one night stand set-up itself you didn’t like? If it’s the latter, then incorporating one night stands into your open relationship may not prove as satisfying as you’d hope. If it’s the former, there may be a place for them in your life. Again, be open and flexible, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you try something that you discover you don’t like. It’s all part of learning what works for you, and building a bespoke relationship model that satisfies you and enhances your life. And every single relationship and date will be different so allow them to feel differently! What feels pleasurable with one person may feel uncomfortable in a different setting or with a different person.
Sonny and Lucy have been together for 8 years. Both identify as polyamorous and have been on the swinging scene in their city for six years. “I knew I wanted to open our relationship long before we actually brought someone else into the bedroom. We spent a few months chatting and reading books and listening to podcasts, working out what set-up would be right for us,” says Sonny. “It was actually pretty hot. We were working up to something we both really wanted.”
“When we were first looking into non-monogamy we didn’t know who to turn to. We had a lot of questions and it felt like we were putting a lot on the line by exploring this shared desire,” says Lucy. “By immersing ourselves in books and podcasts we dipped our toes into the world on non-monogamy and we’ve never looked back.”
Books like Opening Up, The Ethical Slut, More Than Two, and Sex At Dawn all explore how non-monogamy can manifest in many different ways, and they may be helpful if you’re looking for more information or a different perspective from your own.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that there’s no one correct way to conduct your relationship, and the only person who can tell you how you’re feeling is you. Take your time, and communicate with your partners to build something that works for everyone involved.