How to make Open Relationships Work

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In most cultures, people claim to practice monogamy. Lifetime monogamy (being involved with only one person for one’s entire life) is rare. Serial monogamy (having a series of exclusive relationships over one’s life) is more common. And while we talk an awful lot in our culture about cheating – that is, having sex with people outside of monogamous relationships – we talk a whole lot less about open relationships or polyamory, the practice of having “many lovers”. That doesn’t mean that men and women aren’t having open relationships, though – it just means many people are silent about them.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve talked about how to make friends with benefits relationships and long term love work. This week, let’s take a closer look at open relationships with these 5 tips toward making them work:

1. Be self-aware. All too often, I hear from people who agree to be in an open relationship because they feel that it’s their only option. They fear that if they don’t, their special person (who’s into non-monogamy) will leave them. If you’re not specifically interested in having an open relationship, and you’re only doing it in order to stay attached to someone you crave, it may well be a rocky road. And it’s not the fault of open relationships – it’s your responsibility for getting into something you neither wanted nor were ready for. If, on the other hand, an open relationship appeals to you or you feel that you could learn from it or grow into it, or it feels natural or exciting to you – and you are ready to explore it, warts and all – that’s a different story.

2. Communicate with intention. More than many relationship structures, open relationships require intentional communication and rule-setting. What type of open relationship will you have? The kind where you two are each other’s primary partner but you’re allowed to have sex on the side? The kind where you go to swinger’s parties? Or would you rather form a big group relationship that involves 3 or 4 or more “primary partners” who all have sex with each other? Who can you each make out with or have sex with? What are your expectations regarding reducing the risk of sexually transmissible infections (STI) or pregnancy? Is it okay to have sex with just anyone else, or are certain people (like your best friend) off-limits? Books such as The Ethical Slut and Opening Up review various types of open relationships, the pros and cons of each, and how they can work.

3. Find support. No relationship is easy – monogamous or not. However, marriage and long term relationships have a leg up in the sense that because they are so widely accepted, practiced and discussed, there is support for them. Friends and family often have “been there, done that” stories in times of need. With open relationships, some people just don’t “get it” – and when things go wrong in your open relationship and you complain, they (or you) may blame it on the fact that you are in a non-monogamous relationship. If you are serious about wanting to be in an open relationship, try to find friends who will support you through the rough times that all relationships endure.

4. Learn to respond to jealousy. Although jealousy is common in monogamous relationships too, open relationships often provide many opportunities to experience jealousy. Sure, you may have come to accept that your partner is going to be sexual with others – but that doesn’t mean it feels good when they are out with their other partner and you are home alone upset about something that happened at work and needing a hug or a kiss (or just want sex). Learning to be aware of your jealous feelings and to deal with them in positive ways that work for you and your relationship rather than against it can be key. Again, The Ethical Slut and Opening Up provide guidance in this regard. And while not about open relationships per se, The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is Necessary in Love and Sex is an interesting read.

In spite of their often taboo place in society, open relationships can be a rich source of love, lust, passion, compassion and personal growth for many people. If an open relationship feels right to you, I hope that you will tap into these resources to make them rewarding and special in ways that are meaningful to you.

Related MSP articles:
- Sex, love and stalking on Facebook and Twitter
- Butt plugs and safer, sexier anal play
- Semen in the eye: is it dangerous? 

[Originally published in my weekly column in CheekyChicago.com]

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.

  • casandra

    I was talking the other day with a friend of mine about open relationships. He has a girlfriend and they decided to have an open relationship. And I guess for me that’s rather difficult to understand how when you love somebody, you can share her/ him with other people. Maybe it’s a matter of choice but it’s just not my cup of tea.

  • casandra

    I was talking the other day with a friend of mine about open relationships. He has a girlfriend and they decided to have an open relationship. And I guess for me that’s rather difficult to understand how when you love somebody, you can share her/ him with other people. Maybe it’s a matter of choice but it’s just not my cup of tea.

  • Debby

    People have different ways of structuring their relationships and it can be challenging to understand how someone could feel comfortable with something that you feel uncomfortable with. It’s helpful that you are thoughtful and aware of what you feel can, and cannot, work for you. That awareness can help people to negotiate the type of relationship that they want, especially through all of lifes ups and downs. Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective.

  • Debby

    People have different ways of structuring their relationships and it can be challenging to understand how someone could feel comfortable with something that you feel uncomfortable with. It’s helpful that you are thoughtful and aware of what you feel can, and cannot, work for you. That awareness can help people to negotiate the type of relationship that they want, especially through all of lifes ups and downs. Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective.

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