What is an Open Relationship? Boundaries and Pleasure

More and more Americans are opening their relationships and reaping the rewards. When it’s done right, ethical non-monogamy brings pleasure, connectedness, and trust. What is an open relationship, what are the benefits, and is it right for you?

If you’re considering ethical non-monogamy but you’re not sure where to start you’ve come to the right place. Here are the answers to your most-asked questions about open relationships.

Couple in bed with close up of their hands entwined

What is an open relationship?

The term open relationship doesn’t mean one thing. It’s an umbrella term that covers any relationship that isn’t a “closed” monogamous one. These can include polyamorous relationships, couples who practice swinging, and many others.

But the term is commonly used to refer to a specific relationship type. One where two primary partners agree to have sexual, not romantic, relations with other people.

What are the benefits of an open relationship?

Where do we start?

Whether it’s polyamory or an open relationship of a different sort, there are obvious benefits: Sex, pleasure, novelty. This part of ethical non-monogamy is great and makes life more exciting and satisfying.

Open relationships can benefit couples who have mismatched libidos or different sexual desires. Non-monogamy allows partners to feel fulfilled in a way they might not if their relationship remained closed.

By experiencing sex with other people, partners get to know their sexuality better, develop more sexual confidence and positive attitudes around sex. But there’s more to open relationships than sex.

Romantic couple holding hands on a train

When open relationship rules are done right, partnerships get stronger. How can sleeping with other people make a relationship stronger? Good question. Succeeding at ethical non-monogamy requires trust, communication, care for your partner’s happiness and needs, and faith in your relationship.

Ethical non-monogamy also requires you to be vulnerable and honest about personal feelings. All these factors mean that people in open relationships are more emotionally connected to their partners.

Plus, some people are aroused by knowing their partner has been with someone else.

What are the downsides of an open relationship?

Jealousy is one of the biggest things people worry about. If you’ve never experienced it before, knowing your partner is with someone else, even when you’ve given them permission to be, is often upsetting and confusing.

If your relationship isn’t stable, you’re bad at communication or tend to be jealous and insecure, an open relationship might be painful.

There are also logistical downsides worth considering. More sexual partners means more relationships to manage and more time to devote to different people’s needs.

Woman looking jealous watching a couple across the room

It also means more STI checks - and more money spent on protection! What is an open relationship all about? Time management, organization, and people skills.

Polyamory vs open relationship: Are they the same thing?

Not the same thing, but there is overlap. Polyamory is the practice of having multiple romantic partners at once. So someone who is polyamorous, if they were in a poly relationship, would be in a type of “open relationship”. But someone in an open relationship isn’t necessarily polyamorous.

As we said, the term open relationship usually describes two people in a partnership who give each other permission to be sexually involved with other people. They will agree on the specific open relationship rules they’re both happy with.

So, regarding polyamory vs open relationships, what's the main difference? Polyamory is about having multiple romantic partners. One partner isn’t necessarily prioritized over another.

Do open relationships work? Why do some of them fail?

What is an open relationship? Something that can be scary and risky. We’ve all heard open relationship horror stories. It’s true that open relationships sometimes don’t work. But most of the horror stories we hear are when people don’t know what they’re doing and aren’t prepared for the change in their relationship. Or when the relationship wasn’t stable to begin with.

Couple in bed having relationship troubles

Sometimes one partner is more “open”, leaving the other with negative feelings.

For the most part, open relationships fail when there isn’t good communication. If partners don’t share their desires and boundaries and make agreements to fit both their needs. If partners aren’t honest about jealousy or sadness or don’t ask for what they want.

But many of these relationships can and do work. Just ask all the people in successful ones right now!

What open relationship rules do I need to know?

Each relationship, whether it’s polyamory or an open relationship of a different sort, will have different “rules”. Every person and couple has specific needs, boundaries, and things that will work for them.

General open relationship rules

  • Before you open your relationship, discuss what the concept means to both of you. Discuss why you want it, what you want to get out of it, and what you’re worried about.
  • Communicate! Communicate when you feel jealous, sad, betrayed, aroused… anything! When you do, problems get solved. When you don’t, resentments stick around and neither of you is happy.
  • Have regular check-ins about your relationship, what’s working for both of you, and what’s not.
  • Check-in with your secondary partners and anyone you have sex with. Make your situation clear to them before anything happens. They deserve respect and honesty too.
Couple's feet in bed next to condoms and lingerie

Rules you should discuss with your partner

  • Sexual boundaries. Will you have limits to what you do sexually with other people? Is penetration allowed? Kissing? Kinky stuff?
  • Emotional boundaries. Will you have limits to what you do emotionally with other people? A no date rule? What about hand-holding?
  • Will you have a time limit on the number of times you see one person?
  • How much do you want to know about each other’s other partners? Everything, nothing, or only if it becomes more serious?
  • How will you make sure you have safe sex? How regularly will you get tested?
  • What will you say to your secondary or outside relationship sexual partners?
  • How much time will you spend with other lovers? How many of them will you have? Will specific people be off-limits, like people you both know?
  • Any other specific boundaries or desires. Will you agree not to text other lovers when you’re with each other? Will you agree only to be with other people when you’re out together at a swingers party, for example?

Yes, there are lots of things to consider before taking the dive. But once you talk these things through, what comes next will be so much easier. What is an open relationship if not a chance to get to know ourselves better?

Are open relationships healthy?

As we said, open relationships can be one extreme or the other. Bad ones where partners don’t communicate or regard each other’s feelings will be unhealthy. Good ones are often the healthiest relationships you can be in.

How to ask for an open relationship

You’ve read all the advice you can and you’re ready to take the plunge. And to talk about your feelings until you’re sick of your own voice. What next?

Woman smiling at her partner outside a cafe

Asking a partner to try non-monogamy can be tricky. If they’ve never done it before and don’t know much about it, they might take it to mean you aren’t happy in the relationship or they aren’t “enough” for you. This can make them scared, sad, and worried that they’re losing you.

You’ll need to assure them that you still want to put your relationship first. And that this is something that could make your relationship stronger.

Tell them it’s something you’ve been curious about, ask them what they think about open relationships, and ask if you can talk about it in relation to your own.

It’s a good idea to start a conversation about what commitment means to both of you. Most of us are programmed to think having sex with someone outside a relationship means the relationship is broken. Ethical non-monogamy has a different perspective on this.

Why can’t two people have a loving, lasting relationship while enjoying sex with other people? If you both agree this is possible, you’ve opened yourselves up to the idea of ethical non-monogamy. And you’re ready to discuss it as a reality and come up with open relationship rules. Don’t forget to listen to your partner. If they’re not into the idea, don’t push them. What is an open relationship not about? Suffering in silence to keep another person happy.

Two couples dancing at home

The open relationship isn’t working unless both people feel happy and heard.

If they are into it, great! Put your talking hat on, throw your protection in your bag and head out that door. A world of sensual and emotional pleasure awaits you.