From a young age, society trains us to believe that monogamy is the only relationship model that’s available – or accepted. You know the story: you find the one, get engaged and get married. You’re with this person – and only this person – for the rest of your life.
While this might be the perfect fairytale for some, it can certainly sound intimidating for others. But if you fall into the latter category, rest assured that monogamy is not the only option.
Enter: the open relationship.
What is an open relationship?
An open relationship refers to freely having multiple lovers. Before you get the wrong idea, it’s very different to cheating or having an affair as it starts with a mature agreement between both parties involved.
The nature of an open relationship will be unique to each group, depending on the boundaries, guidelines and expectations you’ve agreed on. Some open relationships might look more like swinging, and others more like polyamory or monogamish.
Isn’t an open relationship just like… cheating?
There’s no doubt that the idea of fantasising about someone other than the person you’re supposedly in love with can definitely come off as taboo – especially if you need to account for family traditions and cultures.
But, despite the bad rap the concept of open relationships has received in the past, thankfully, more people are starting to warm up to the idea of being intimate with more than one person. They’re also becoming more accepting of others in these kinds of relationships.
Contrary to stereotypical societal views, an open relationship is not just about sex. It also doesn’t mean you’re unhappy in your relationship, nor does it mean one party is more inclined to cheat, as relationship expert Alina Rose pointed out during out chat.
“A 2016 study on alternative relationships found that couples practising consensual non-monogamy are just as emotionally and physically fulfilled as couples in monogamous pairings, provided those strong foundations are in place.”
If you think about it, cheating can happen in non-monogamous relationships, too. “The difference in an open relationship is that all the parameters are negotiated, so any activity within the norms established is welcome and safe,” Rose explained.
Because of this, an open relationship can be seen as a more progressive model as it forces both parties to develop self-awareness, emotional intelligence, transparency and solid communication skills.
“You don’t get to coast through and do whatever you want, or take the relationship(s) you have for granted,” Rose stressed. “There is an ever-evolving discussion around what is OK, with whom and how often.”
Essentially, it’s built on the basis of being present and willing to engage, participate and show up. Or, as Rose puts it, the three Cs: consent, comfort and communication.
“These are the foundation for any healthy relationship in our lives.”
Can an open relationship be good for your mental health?
While there isn’t any hard evidence to support the mental health benefits of an open relationship, Sokarno mentioned that a common result of having more open and honest conversations in a relationship generally paves the way to better mental health.
“Discussing the idea of an open relationship often means many topics are all of a sudden out in the open and talked about,” she explained. “This can extend to other areas of the relationship as well, meaning the parties can become great communicators with each other.”
Additionally, other mental health benefits can include the thrill of pursuing new experiences or fantasies, freedom to express another side of themselves or less emotional pressure to fulfil the physical or sexual needs of a single partner.
Furthermore, a 2020 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that couples who engaged in consensual non-monogamy could associate it with some increases in sexual satisfaction. While sexual satisfaction alone can’t be the only determent for a successful relationship, it does raise a good point.
Is an open relationship right for you?
Every relationship has its own strengths and weaknesses, so if you’re thinking about dabbling into the idea of an open relationship, unfortunately, there’s no set guideline that will help you determine if it could be suitable for you and your partner.
However, Rose recommended asking yourself the following questions to see if it’s worth exploring:
- Does the thought of my partner being with another person devastate me or arouse me?
- Am I scared to explore open relating? If so, what are these fears about?
- Is there a kink or sexual orientation that is unmet in me that my partner just can’t provide?
- What stimulates or intrigues me about being with other people?
- What are some things that would be a hard no for me, even in an open context?
- How would opening up the relationship with my current partner actually enhance our connection and personal growth?
How to begin opening up your relationship
Be honest with yourself
How on board are you with the idea? Are you agreeing because you don’t want to lose your partner? Remember, an open relationship is a two-way street – that means a 50/50 decision – and if you’re entering one just for the sake of your partner’s happiness, then that’s a sign your open relationship will be unhealthy.
You might enter this agreement convinced that you won’t mind if your partner interacts with other people, but when it happens, you can start second-guessing your decision and even be left heartbroken.
On the other hand, if you’re the one enabling the idea, ensure you give your partner plenty of time to think about it.
“This is a conversation, not a coercion or sales pitch,” Rose said. “If your partner is uncomfortable but curious about the idea, allow them the space to do their own reflection and research.”
“A one-sided non-monogamous relationship will never work – nor can you convince your partner to try it either,” she added. “They have to feel it, heart, mind and loins!”
Set boundaries and rules
What are you okay doing with other people? What are you okay with your partner doing with other people? Will emotional intimacy be allowed with other people? What about sex? Do these other people need to be complete strangers or familiar acquaintances?
These boundaries will likely evolve over time, and with each experience, so regularly sit down to have honest conversations with your partner where you check in, reevaluate and negotiate.
Opening a relationship that has existing communication issues will not be resolved but will only worsen. So, once you’ve both agreed to your own unique set of boundaries and rules, make it a top priority to communicate honestly with each other throughout the process. You might touch base once a week, month or after every interaction with another person.
How to chat to family and friends about it
It goes without saying that sharing the idea of open relationships with the people who love and care about you may come with a lot of criticism. However, you should never, ever feel like you need to convince people of your truth. Approach each conversation with the sole intent to simply ask for their respect for your choice and nothing else.
Choose who you’ll be sharing this information with
Don’t feel pressured to tell everyone. Does your grandma really need to know the ins and outs of your love life?
Decide how much detail you want to reveal
“Don’t be afraid to let them know that you and your partner both prefer not to discuss all the details – after all, it’s an intimate side of your relationship that you may not want to share,” Sokarno said.
Focus on the benefits
Firstly, start by making it clear that it was a mutual agreement. Then, you can delve into all the benefits of an open relationship.
“Whether that be a sense of sexual freedom, a chance to explore another side of yourselves or the way it has/can strengthen your relationship by building on trust and communication, there are plenty of benefits to be celebrated,” Sokarno said.
If your family and friends are really curious or need more information, Rose suggests “offering some research and statistics about relationship satisfaction in open versus monogamous couples, and the skills and attitudes that are required to succeed in this form of relating.”
Keep in mind that a lot of people have trauma about being cheated on and betrayed, so open relating may trigger some wounds.
“If your loved ones push back or project their hurt on you by getting aggressive or judgemental, give them some time to come to terms with your choice, and be available if they have any questions,” Rose warned.
In this case, Rose suggests saying something along the lines of: “I am really sorry that you have been hurt in the past and that this happened to you. However, this is nothing like the experience I am having. If you have any questions or concerns, I would be happy to clarify them. And while this is a consensual, comfortable choice I am making with my partner, I agree this relationship pathway is not for everyone.”
All relationships – whether open or monogamous – will come with advantages and disadvantages. Whatever your setup, the key is to focus on healthy communication, consent and comfort for it to work for both parties.
Just remember that entering an open relationship depends on you and your partner — and no one else’s opinion matters.
Juna Xu is a freelance writer with a passion for all things health, wellness and beauty. Follow her on Instagram @juna.xu.
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