Ask A Sex Therapist: Do open relationships actually work?


It’s complicated.

Laura Miano is a sex and relationship writer and sex therapist based in Melbourne. Her mission is to help those with sexual concerns as well as support individuals who might like to enhance their sex lives beyond cultural norms. To learn more about her, follow @lauramianosexology or contact her here.

“Do open relationships actually work?” – Open Relationship Sceptic

Hello Open Relationship Sceptic,

Thanks for your question, although I wish it were a simple answer. Like many sex-related questions I’m asked in my line of work, the answer is… well, it’s complicated. This is because open relationships take many different styles, and within these, partners can set different rules and boundaries.

One form of open relating is called polyamory, where partners have a primary relationship and then one or more secondary relationships. Another is swinging, where couples sleep with other couples. There’s also monogamish, a newly termed relational style that might involve having threesomes, group sex or occasional (consensual) hookups outside the relationship.

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While these categories might seem like open relating can be simplified, it’s really not that straight forward. Open relating will look different for every couple (or throuple). Some have clearly defined boundaries, while others prefer a more free-spirited approach.

Open relating is also not static – couples can go between monogamy and non-monogamy whenever they please. They can also modify their non-monogamy or decide to phase-in or out of their non-monogamy too (think a flirting to fucking continuum). The point I’m trying to make here is that open relating is versatile.

So, if you’re wondering exactly how open relating is done (and done well), I suggest doing some self-reflection first. One of the hardest and most destructive emotions to navigate in open relationships is jealousy. But it’s not all bad news, and you actually have a lot more power over it than you think. That’s because jealousy is a projection of your insecurities and it involves a deep inner conflict that you direct outward and onto your partner.

Think about it – are you jealous because your partner is doing something with another person, or jealous because your partner hasn’t done that something with you? Probably the latter. Doing the inner work will give you a deeper understanding of your needs, so you can communicate these to your partner and then take the necessary steps to address them.

It’s a big one to think about because you might have more needs than you think! These might be a minimum amount of time or days you’d like to spend with your partner per week to feel close to them, or perhaps certain places, words or acts you want to keep exclusive to your relationship. This is also why I generally recommend against using non-monogamy as a band-aid or quick-fix for a bigger relational issue.

If you want to be with other people because you’re dissatisfied with something in your primary relationship, I’d suggest addressing those issues before opening up. Tackling any relational challenge is always going to be easier when you and your partner are at your strongest. So, in addition to working on yourself, I’d also suggest putting in some real effort with your partner before opening up. It will pay off!

One really great way to do this is to increase your communication. Not only will this help you when you’re monogamous, but it’s also essential when you become non-monogamous. So you might as well get started early. Ideally, when you’re sleeping with other people, it would be great to schedule a weekly or fortnightly time, when you and your partner can de-brief. Do it over a nice lunch or dinner if you will. Make it cute.

I’m not talking about one of those divorce meeting scenes in movies where the partners are sitting beside their lawyers discussing who gets the family home. No, no lawyers here. Just you and your partner being mature and pragmatic about your sex lives. Take your adulthood to the next level and even set an agenda of topics to discuss – what went well, what didn’t go well, issues regarding safe sex, and your feelings toward each other, your other partners and open-relating in general. A sex therapist can also help with this.

When you get this communication really going, it paves the way for open-relating success. Use these de-briefs to set your boundaries. You might think that open-relating throws faithfulness out the window, but that’s quite incorrect. All relationships have boundaries and it’s important to set them so you know how to be faithful to your partner. These might include anything that is off-limits to sexual partners, such as your bedroom or friends’ gatherings.

They might also include a certain time frame between sleeping with another sexual partner and the primary partner or a limit on how many partners you can sleep with on any given day, week or month. Most importantly, your boundaries talk must also include a discussion on safe sex practices. My advice – use condoms, use dental dams and get tested regularly. It’s so incredibly important.

As you can see, open relationships take a lot of consideration. Whether they work comes down to the way you and your partner approach them. At this point, I’m sure you are wondering what the research says. Well, great question! However, it’s hard to determine because open relating looks so different between each relationship, making it hard to study empirically.

One great finding of a recent 2019 study was that monogamous and consensually non-monogamous relationships are more satisfying, less lonely, and more emotionally involved than non-consensual non-monogamous relationships. Translation – don’t cheat on your partner, either stay monogamous or have an open, consenting relationship. Obviously. Whether you just want a one-night stand or one or two ongoing sexual partners, cheating should never be an option. Grab yourself a copy of The Ethical Slut, or any other great resource on open-relating, and educate yourself on how to navigate your desires the right way.

Finally, be sensitive to your partner’s concerns if you’re the one proposing the change. Remember, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing – find a way to compromise. Perhaps a night of unrestricted flirting is a reasonable meeting point. Every open-relationships looks different, it’s up to you and your partner to find what works best for you. That’s how you make an open relationship work.

See the other instalments in our Ask A Sex Therapist series here.

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