- Open relationship
An open relationship is an interpersonal relationship in which the parties want to be together but agree to a form of a non-monogamous relationship. This means that they agree that a romantic or sexual relationship with another person is accepted, permitted, or tolerated. Every open relationship is different because what exactly the relationship entails is defined by the wishes and desires of the parties involved. Some may only allow flirting, whereas others may permit dates, kissing, or sexual acts. The term open relationship may also be used synonymously with open marriage. Both terms encompass the basic foundation of the concepts, which are honesty and each partner having the freedom to share intimacy with other people outside of their relationship with their partner’s permission and full awareness. Because of an open relationship’s structure, it is flexible enough to allow constant change. With this in mind, the relationship between one and his/her partner is always being renegotiated so that the relationship may grow.
There are many different styles of open relationships, no two being the same. One of the styles is a multi-partner relationship. These are commonly associated with a relationship between three or more partners where a sexual relationship does not occur between all of the parties involved. Another style of an open relationship is a hybrid style, which occurs when one partner is non-monogamous and the other is monogamous. Although these sometimes become complex and create issues, more times than not, these begin with both partners being aware at the start of the relationship that one partner does not want additional partners, whereas the other does. Another common form of open relationships is swinging. Despite that there are many different ways to swing, the basic definition of swinging is that it occurs when like-minded people have casual sex with each other. To a large degree, open relationships is a generalization of the concept of a relationship beyond matrimonial relationships. This is also typically referred to as polyamory; often times these two terms are used interchangeably. Regardless of the fact that open relationships consist of more than two parties, it is also crucial to classify open relationships as a relationship. In this approach relationships aid the parties involved in experiencing a connection (including intimacy), love and lust, mutual understanding, and an intense bonding. Other commonalities experienced in a relationship are a supportive partner(s) and a sense of exhilaration, healing, and magic.
Reasons for Entering an Open Relationship
People form open relationships for various reasons, but at the center of almost all of them is the fact that a difference emerges between two people in a relationship, addressing a problem, reestablishing trust, or simply focusing on resolving a significant change or crisis that has been experience. When this occurs, the partner realizes that he/she is unable to fulfill the other’s needs. Although this is the common thread between most reasons, another reason for why open relationships develop can be attributed to a person can avoid feelings of intimacy and keep others at a distance. These people can also include anyone who does not want a primary partner and anyone who thinks of himself/herself as very independent. Another reason for why some people choose this route is because it is a tool that they use for personal growth, both individually, and for their relationships. Open relationships can be challenging, and some feel that their relationship is inadequate unless they are being challenged. Due to the fact that an open relationship lacks monogamy, it often times creates a sense of jealousy, attachment, or possessiveness, all of which are challenges for a relationship to work through. These emotions can also cause an end result of a greater self-awareness which can also be seen as satisfying to those in open relationships. Others may choose to enter open relationships because it gives them a sense of freedom, respect, and generosity. Open relationships tend to help create trust and understanding because they give partners the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and emotions. This can give partners the opportunity to discuss issues including their sexual wants and desires, thus leading into another reason why some choose to enter an open relationship. If couples are experiencing a difference with their sex drives, this might lead them into an open relationship, which can aid in avoiding the alternative result, breakup. By discussing and negotiating such a topic, it is giving the opportunity to open up the relationship to others who may compliment the needs of a partner. One of the last reasons for forming an open relationship can be attributed to New Relationship Energy. New Relationship Energy is the surreal state where one’s love or lust for another seems to make the world revolve around the new partner. This excitement that is often experienced with NRE (New Relationship Energy) tends to make one focus solely on the new partner and yourself, blocking out anything else that may be occurring in the world around this new relationship.
Reasons for Avoiding an Open Relationship
Many couples consider open relationships but choose not to follow through with it; this can be attributed to many reasons. Fear can have a huge impact on this discussion. The fear of shock, specifically, play a role because for someone who I set on a monogamous relationship to discover that his/her partner wishes to identify as polyamorous, the monogamous person sees that the idea of polyamory stands against everything that the monogamous partner believes. This also can be seen from the other partner’s view. If a partner attempts to approach a monogamous partner about starting an open relationship, the monogamous partner may convince you otherwise or force you to make the decision to either stay monogamous with him/her or break up and pursue a new partner. Although some consider the possibility of it bringing a new passion and excitement into a relationship, they also see that it can test a relationship. For example, when beginning an open relationship, a partner may become only concerned in his/her personal development and forget about his/her partner. Other common reasons for avoiding an open relationship revert back to stereotypes and common perceptions that people obtain. Many believe that those involved in open relationships are less committed than those who are in monogamous relationships. This false assumption tends to be based off of the facts that there are no legal documents which commit non-monogamous people to each other. The absence of the support, acceptance, and acknowledgment from friends and family also plays a role into this misperception. The lack of the recognition from both the macro and micro realm of society forces validation of a non-monogamous relationship through the use of the parties involved words and deeds. Some other stereotypes that aid in convincing couples to avoid open relationships are statements such as you are promiscuous if you are polyamorous, you are selfish and immature if you desire to be with multiple partners at the same time. Even movies, media, and self-help books present the message that to desire more than one partner means you are not part of a true couple. Other common criticism that appear which help persuade people away from open relationships are based on some of the hybrid methods. If a couple is in a monogamous/non-monogamous relationship (one where one partner is monogamous and the other is non-monogamous), then criticisms appear on the non-monogamous partner. These often revolve around the idea that the non-monogamous partner would not be participating in an open relationship if he/she truly loved the monogamous partner. Other reasons why couples avoid open relationships include: being so in love with the partner that although you want to say yes to an open relationship to make him/her happy, you know that you would not be able to deal with it; believing that your partner likes the idea as only a concept; and thinking that the desire to start an open relationship is just a phase.
Positives and Negatives to Open Relationships
Although the beginning of an open relationship may seem that the current relationship may end, just because the relationship is entering this with the possibility of new partners does not mean that the current relationship will no longer exist. The relationship simply changes. With this comes freedom. Freedom is one aspect of an open relationship in which people view as one an important positive contribution. These people view freedom as important because whether or not they choose to act on any feelings they may be experiencing towards another, they still have that opportunity. This freedom also gives those in an open relationship the ability to create a different relationship, challenge the stereotypes and explore themselves. Freedom gives those in an open relationship the ability to stray from the typical limits that society places upon a monogamous relationship. The idea of freedom can also be looked at from an additional angle. It can be seen as the ability to make each relationship into whatever the partners decide. Each can be unique and/or different; some may be more important, while others may be deemed as less important, thus dedicating a smaller amount of time, energy, and commitment to it. This also helps with the New Relationship Energy that many couples experience. The ability to have this freedom to experience the NRE without ending an existing relationship gives those in an open relationship the chance to have multiple partners without worrying about an abrupt ending.
Another positive to an open relationship is the sheer fact of having multiple partners. Many people tend to refer to a partner as more than a partner; often times the partner becomes the other’s best friend. This shows that by having an important, intimate relationship with multiple people, one can gain multiple best friends. Having multiple partners also gives a partner the ability to express himself/herself in more ways that fulfill their needs; thus, this leads to a greater amount of satisfaction in a partner’s relationships. By having multiple partners, it makes it easier to not only deal with the emotional burdens but also the financial burdens. If multiple partners are living together, they can divide the expenses and chores of the household more evenly, reducing stress from each other. Another stress that having multiple partners eliminates is the perceptions that people form of each other. When one partner tells another about something that bothers him/her about the other’s personality, it can seem like a simple opinion, but if more than one partner states the same thing, the other is more likely to change, seeing that his/her actions causes stress on the other partners.
Psychological testing has been done and has shown that the level of dysfunctionality, narcissism, neuroticism, pathology, and psychiatry is the same regardless of whether the people in the relationship are in a monogamous relationship or a non-monogamous relationship. Another study had shown that individuals in open relationships tend to rate things as more important than those in monogamous relationships due to their independent and individualistic state of mind. Socially, it has also been proven that many in open relationships tend to be able to communicate more strongly with others and have a better sense of self.
Compersion plays a crucial role in open relationships and polyamorous relationships. It is the act of taking joy in a partner’s pleasure and/or happiness from that partner’s experience with an additional partner. For some, the act of compersion is thought of as the inverse of jealousy or the solution to jealousy. Although not everyone is built with this ability, for some it can be learned and may take practice and patience. It is believed that the first step to successfully achieving compersion is being able to let go of negative feelings such as insecurities, fears, or possessiveness over your partner. Compersion is said to also be split into categories, one of which is erotic compersion. This is said to be reached once a partner enjoys or gets turned on by watching his/her counterpart have sex with someone else. It is common for many non-monogamous people to become aroused at the sight of a partner with someone else.
One large negative of creating an open relationship is jealousy. Jealousy is commonly present in monogamous relationships, placing another partner or more into the relationship can help increase this. This emotion, jealousy, can be defined as a combination of feelings that develop from negative thoughts that are sometimes associated with fears; they can be anything from weak to strong, violent, and even simply, unpleasant. However, jealousy is not uncommon and is a normal reaction to be experienced. On the other hand, fear, another negative to an open relationship, is something that one should focus more intently upon. Because fear is a natural instinct to help us survive, we must recognize when it is alerting us to a potential threat. These two emotions can develop from a lack of trust for one’s partner, a lack of communication, and a feeling of guilt. The more people involved in a relationship, the harder it becomes to communicate among each other. Along the lines of communication, although those who enter open relationships may attempt to avoid any issues that may occur in the future, obstacles that were never discussed are bound to appear. This may lead to other negatives such as jealousy, fear, or resentment. An additional reason for why these feelings appear is because an open relationship is not insusceptible to cheating. Even though those in open relationships may develop rules and guidelines, by breaking those agreements, the relationship is at the equivalent to a partner cheating. This is also similar to the transition as a whole from a monogamous to a non-monogamous relationship. Just the logistics themselves can be difficult to deal with, especially if you reside together, split finances, own property, or even parent children.
Another negative associated with open relationships is that many community resources are developed for those who are in a monogamous relationship, and/or a relationship which people classify as a primary relationship. Community also plays additional roles in an open relationship. If those who are partaking in an open relationship are not honest and forthright with those in their community, people may assume that the partners involved are cheating, which can affect not only how people perceive those involved, but also how they treat those involved. If a couple in an open relationship is filing for divorce, custody dispute, or multiple other legal proceedings, the fact of the individual(s) can be used against him/her. Other federal laws do not protect individuals on the basis of their marital status, meaning that someone like a landlord can choose to not rent to you due to the fact that you are in an alternative relationship. Similarly, depending on the state that you reside in, it may choose to not recognize a relationship such as an open relationship. The prejudice about open relationships can also be seen in adoption. Only two adults can adopt a child; thus, if those in an open relationship choose to adopt, only two partners will have equal parental rights and the right to make important decisions for the child.
Families and Open Relationships
Although it is not dominant in society to see those in an open relationship with families, it is something that does exist. There are larger groups, which consist anywhere from 4 to 50 members that classify themselves as a family. These groups are also sometimes referred to as tribes or networks and are the equivalent to the modern day extended family. When looking at a family that is based off of an open relationship, it is also common to see anywhere from ex-lovers, to partners’ partners, and biological children to be included. With this in mind one can see that this adds a new dimension to the stereotypical family and is slightly changing the definition of family. Although some in modern day seem to disagree with those involved in open relationships as being able to classify themselves as a family, there are some positive dimensions that an open relationship brings to the family. In a family with more than one adult and a child or children, the more hands that are there, the less stress is placed on the parents. This alleviates some of the work burden because there are now more people to help with changing diapers, helping out with homework, running the children to various extra-curricular activities, helping out with the chores and the domestic realm of the living situation, etc.
One dilemma that those involved in an open relationship may discover is the proper time to explain to a child the type of relationship that the parties involved have. If the parties involved avoid the topic, it is possible that the child will form preconceived notions about the relationship, such as the child recognizes that it is an untraditional relationship and perhaps it is not accepted in society, thus proving to the child that it is a bad thing to be in a form of open relationship. Studies done on the topic have shown that in the majority of cases, the family structure barely affects how the child is raised and how the child develops. The factor that most affects the child is the quality of the familial structure, including things such as the interactions of parental units with the child, and the interaction of parental units with each other. It is also important for child to be told about their parents’ relationship(s) because it helps them to relax and understand how the parents’ relationships will affect the child and understand how the child fits into the picture. A study done by Watson and Watson in 1982 discovered that although 72 percent of the polyamorous respondents wanted to discuss their relationship lifestyle with their children, only 21 percent had actually followed through with it.
Successful Open Relationships
The most successful relationships have been those that take longer to establish. By taking the time to develop a clear idea of what both partners want out of the openness of a relationship, it allows the parties involve to self-reflect, process the emotions, and deal with possible conflicts. Using discussion as the base to start an open relationship allows for all of the parties to find ways to cope with the change from monogamy to non-monogamy, which creates a healthy and positive relationship. Some people resort to blogging, counseling, keeping a journal, and other groups to help discuss any hesitations and emotions that they may be feeling at any time, whether prior to the open relationship’s beginning, or during the relationship. This communication, as all communication in the relationship, should include honest and thoughtful self-assessment, respect, and compassionate listening to aid to a successful open relationship. The key to communication in open relationships is that it is never ending, even if a partner may not agree with the other, by always searching for a resolution which both parties can agree upon, helps the relationship continue to be strong and forth going. Negotiating the details of the open relationship is also imperative throughout the communication process. When negotiating the details, the goal that should be satisfied to create a successful open relationship, should be that nothing is left unsaid and implied. The negotiation should begin from a neutral place and with both parties in a stable place of mind. Making decisions when partners are in a fight is not the ideal time for negotiating because not all parties involved are in a clear state of mind. When beginning to negotiate both parties involved must remember to approach it with an open mind and heart and continue to see everything with honesty and trust that the partner had good intentions. Other tools that couples utilize in the negotiation process include veto power, prior permission, and interaction between partners. Here, veto power occurs when the original partner has the potential to say no to a new partner in which the decision is respected and followed through. This helps to reassure each partner in the relationship that his/her opinion is important and matters. Although veto power can be a useful tool in negotiation, a successful negotiation and open relationship can still occur without it. Some reject veto power because they believe it limits their partner from experiencing a new relationship and limits their freedom. Regardless of whether veto power is established in a relationship, it still can be abused based on if a partner rejects his/her other’s choice in an additional partner.
Another crucial aspect to communication in an open relationship is honesty. By being honest with a partner, it enables one to reassure his/her partner, which in the ends builds a stronger relationship. Radical Honesty is a type of honesty which has been proven to work with most open relationships. When partaking in Radical Honesty, a partner must tell the other everything and every detail, even if the other might react in a negative manner. Some who use Radical Honesty believe it as a necessary aspect for an open relationship to be successful. Although honesty works both ways in relationships, it is also important to be conscious of not attack one partner or letting him/her feel left out. Related to the idea of honesty, it is also important to discuss whether the partners in the open relationship wish to know the details, and whether they wish to know just the basics or all of the details. For some, knowing all of the details helps evade the jealousy factor, but for others it only contributes to his/her jealousy.
Also dealing with communication, is the discussion of boundaries. In order for an open relationship to be successful, it helps for boundaries to be discussed. The three primary types of boundaries are physical, which is along the lines of not touching someone without permission being given; sexual boundaries; and emotional boundaries, which is avoiding the discussion of specific emotions. To determine these boundaries with anyone, they should first be expressed with a partner. These help to clarify everything ranging from who, what, where, and when. This also brings up the concept of consent. If there is no consent, it is important to never pressure the partner into it, and is important to realize that the relationship will not be successful without it. For instance, it is important for the boundaries of who meaning both geographically and interpersonally (such as in the community, friends, family, etc.) can be additional partners, what types of physical limits are placed on that relationships (such as kissing, dating, or other sexual activities), and whether relations will take place in a separate bedroom or playroom. Boundaries help to set out rules, rules which help to guide partners as to what is acceptable and what is not. They help people to feel safe and that they are just as important in the open relationship as their partners. As with rules, they should not be enacted unless all parties have agreed upon them. These agreements help support that the parties involved and are reassuring them about the boundaries and the open relationship as a whole. Although there is no formal written legally binding contracts in which these agreements are found, some couples agree to create a relationship contract. These can be useful in not only negotiating, but also clearly articulating the needs, wants, limits, expectations, and commitments that is expected of the parties involved. This can help strengthen bonds between a couple and help strengthen trust. Although this aids in many successful relationships, unfortunately it does not prevent miscommunication, misunderstandings, or hurtful actions. It does however help to limit these.
Although developing boundaries aids with the idea of trust, it is crucial to keep in mind trust as being a key aspect in an open relationship. Trust can be the solution to jealousy, competitiveness, possessiveness, and fear, but it takes time to create this with a partner. When a partner trusts their partner, it can help to relieve any anxiety that the other may experience.
Other aspects of open relationships that aid in the success include time management. Even though it is common to have a serious commitment with one partner, it is still important to remember that negotiating the time spent between all partners is important. Some find that if they cannot evenly distribute their time that they forego a partner. With many people, it is common to see the desire to give an unlimited amount of love, energy and emotion to others, but the limited amount of time in a day limits the actual time spent with each partner. This is also not aided by other obligations that people experience daily such as work, school, children, and traveling time. As this is seen, one of the most successful techniques to managing time and creating a successful open relationship is to be realistic and knowing what aspects of life take precedent. Generally people who are good at open relationships have mastered this concept of time management. Another reason why time management helps in a successful open relationship is the use of communication. When a partner is feeling overwhelmed or overburdened, the ideal reaction is to communicate it to all parties involved. This however, can become confused with the argument of quantity over quality. A successful open relationship is built off of the quality of interaction between partners.
One of the most significant factors that aids a relationship in being successful is that it is about making the relationship fit the needs of all parties involved. No two open relationships will be the same, and the relationship will change due to the current circumstances at each specific moment. The style of the open relationship should mirror the parties involved values, goals, desires, needs and philosophies.
1983 study by Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz:
- 15 percent of married couples in a sample of 3,574 couples, had “an understanding that allows non-monogamy under some circumstances”
- 28 percent of cohabitating couples had “an understanding that allows non-monogamy under some circumstances”
- 29 percent of lesbian couples had “an understanding that allows non-monogamy under some circumstances”
- 65 percent of gay male couples had “an understanding that allows non-monogamy under some circumstances”
Janus report in 1193:
- Sample of 1,800 people
- 21 percent said they participated in open marriage
Oprah.com survey in 2007:
- Surveyed over 14,000 people
- 21 percent stated they were in an open marriage
Only 5% of marriages have "open marriage" agreements
About half of the committed male couple relationships are "open" relationships which gives them the ability to have sexual relations without affection with others
Types of Open Relationships
This term was coined by the Keristans and directly translates to mean faithful to many partners. It is used to describe relationships that uses an evenly distributed rotating sleeping schedule that determined who sleeps together when. In this type of relationship, no one sleeps with anyone outside of those originally involved in the group. The modern make up of a polyfidelitous group consists of three or more partners but rarely exceeds six partners. These groups tend to live together, and commonly do the actions of a typical family such as raise children, share resources, make important decisions together, etc. Although a group is often closed, meaning that no outsiders are allowed to enter, for those groups that are open, negotiations on boundaries and other important topics are discussed and agreed upon by everyone. Some of the most common reasons for people choosing polyfidelity include wanting multiple intimate and meaningful relationships, and having several partners in a committed group.
Swinging occurs when both partners in a committed relationship become non-monogamous as a couple and agree for both partners to involve themselves sexually with other couples as a social activity. Most swingers attend swinging clubs to aid them in becoming sexually stimulated. Although this is the case, some also attend just for the fun social atmosphere and put less emphasis on the sexual component. Swinging became a popular topic of non-monogamy in 1972 when many books were written on the topic, one of the most famous being ‘’Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples.’’ This book was based on interviews of people’s opinions and philosophies and sold over 1.5 million copies. Swinging in the United States, was the first documented form of non-monogamy for both bisexual individuals and heterosexual individuals. Along with the written definition of swinging, many swingers consider themselves emotionally monogamous, meaning that the sexual relationships with others outside of their primary relationship is seen as casual, and something more recreational. Although this is the case, swingers also worry about becoming too emotionally involved with others, presenting a threat to their primary relationship. Like all open relationships and polyamorous relationships, there are multiple types of swinging. Soft swinging, involves two couples having sex in the same room with their respective spouse/partner. In this type of swinging, the couples involved have no intention of switching partners, rather they watch each other. Another style of swinging is swinging with one. This involves couples playing together with one other person, often times another woman. Swinging with another couple and swinging with a group are other alternative styles of swinging. These are similar to each other in the fact that couples are having sex with another couple’s partners.
While “open relationship” is sometimes used as a synonym for “polyamory” or “polyamorous relationship,” these terms are generally differentiated. The “open” in “open relationship” usually refers to the sexual aspect of a non-closed relationship, whereas “polyamory” refers to the extension of a relationship by allowing bonds to form (which may be sexual or otherwise) as additional long term relationships. Polyamory also translates into many loves and refers to the ability to love more than a single person simultaneously. One of the key differences generally associated between polyamory and open relationships is that poly relationships usually involve emotions as well with sex, versus the open relationship, which tends to revolve around the physical sexual connection. However, there is enough overlap between the two concepts(open relationships and polyamory) that “open relationship” is sometimes used as a catch-all substitute when speaking to people who may not be familiar with polyamory. This term, along with the term “friends with benefits” are fairly newly developed and coined terms that have come about within the past few decades. Although the exact date of when the term polyamory came about is unknown, some sources have been able to place its roots back to the 1960’s. It is also said that before the term was officially coined that the basic concepts revolved around consensual, responsible non-monogamous relationships. Although this term is most commonly associated with sex outside of a monogamous relationship, it may also include friendships, companionship, support, love, camaraderie, intimacy, connection, and commitment. Polyamorous is also similar to open relationships because there are many different ways partake in polyamory. It also involves concepts such as multilateral marriages, which according to the Constantines is a relationship that consists of three or more partners who all consider to be married to each other and refer to their partners as cowife and cohusband. Multilateral marriages preceded the ideas of polyfidelity, which is a specific type of polyamory.
- Blue, Violet. "Open relationships demystified: Violet Blue gets advice on coupling with 'eyes wide open'" in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 2008.
- Gates, J. (2002). Survivors of an Open Marriage. KiwE Publishing, Ltd.
- Ramey J. W. (1975). Intimate groups and networks: Frequent consequences of sexually open marriage. Family Coordinator, 24, 515-530.
- Buunk B. (1981). Jealousy in sexually open marriages. Alternative Lifestyles, 4, 357-372.
- Rubin A. M. (1982). Sexually open versus sexually exclusive marriage: A comparison of dyadic adjustment. Alternative Lifestyles, 5, 101-108.
- Rubin A. M., & Adams J. R. (1986). Outcomes of sexually open marriages. Journal of Sex Research, 22, 311-319.
- Matik, Wendy-O. Redefining Our Relationships: Guidelines For Responsible Open Relationships. Defiant Times Press, 2002. ISBN 978-1587900150
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