10 Open Relationship Rules to Follow for Success

<p>Plume Creative / Getty Images</p>

Plume Creative / Getty Images

Despite some lingering stigma, many people find an open relationship—in which a person and their partner also agree to see other people—very fulfilling. This relationship structure is also commonly known as ethical non-monogamy.

A 2023 study from YouGov America found that 12% of adults have engaged sexually with someone who wasn’t their primary partner—but with their permission. Whether or not they want an open relationship themselves, most people (82%) approve of them.

While the debate over if humans are naturally monogamous—30% of people said no—is a big one, normalizing open relationships provides each person with a safe space to decide about monogamy for themselves.

With mainstream acceptance comes a further conversation about what makes an open relationship successful. Each person will have a different idea of what they want an open relationship to look like.

Certain guidelines can simply help with figuring it out. To that end, read on for open relationship rules to follow to keep you and your partner feeling happy and respected.

Related:What to Do When Your Partner Wants An Open Relationship—and You Don't

Dos in an Open Relationship

These are some important things to keep in mind as you navigate (or consider) an open relationship.

Know why you want an open relationship

Understanding why you are seeking an open relationship before you start one is critical. “Take a moment to be honest with yourself about your desires and needs,” says Shan Boodram, Bumble’s Sex & Relationships Expert, a certified sex educator, dating coach, and intimacy expert.

“Are you hoping to explore your sexuality, or do you want to experience different types of relationships with other people? Or are you hoping to fix a broken relationship, avoid commitment, or feel pressure from your partner?” If it’s the latter, it’s going to be a rocky road ahead. An open relationship can be great when it’s something you want to do, not something you think you should do.

Set boundaries

It’s not enough to say, “Let’s have an open relationship.” A successful open relationship requires clear, communicated boundaries. They “set the relationship up for success because they provide a roadmap of what each partner expects from the relationship,” says Lauren Consul, JD, a licensed marriage & family therapist specializing in infidelity and consensual non-monogamy.

The boundaries can be adapted as you go, says Nirmala Bijraj, LMHC, NCC, a relationship and communication therapist specializing in working with open, non-monogamous, and polyamorous relationships.

At first, you might not want to hear anything about your partner’s encounters, but later on, you might like to share a bit. Of course, this also depends on whether your partner is comfortable discussing this.

Regularly check in with your partner

On that note, it’s good to have check-ins with your partner. “What you thought you might like in theory may not actually be something you do like in reality, or vice versa,” says Consul.

“Or you might have been OK with something at one point, but something has changed, and you’re no longer OK with it.” These will be vulnerable, honest conversations.

Be patient

This is a new experience, and it will take time to get it right.

“Be willing to learn and grow together,” says Boodram. “Just because an open relationship may look one way on TV or social media, anchor yourself in the fact that each relationship is unique, including yours, and that it will be a continuous conversation and learning process for the both of you.”

Be patient with yourself and your partner as you go.

What you thought you might like in theory may not actually be something you do like in reality, or vice versa.

Practice safe sex

Safe sex and what that means to you is something to discuss before entering an open relationship. Protection and regular testing are key to keeping everyone healthy and free of sexually transmitted infections, says Boodram.

Related:How to Build Compersion in Your Relationships

Don’ts in an open relationship

Now, these are the things you want to avoid in an open relationship.

Rush into it too fast

Take your time dipping your toe into the pool of open relationships as you decide what you and your partner want.

“Maybe you want to date multiple people, or you only want to explore sexually but not necessarily emotionally, or maybe you aren’t quite sure what you want yet,” says Consul. Take a small step, then check in with your partner, and so on.

Think opening your relationship means there’s something wrong with it

According to Boodram, this might cause you to think, “If I say yes to being in an open relationship, am I also admitting that we aren’t enough for each other?”

You’re not looking for a new partner—if you are, this isn’t the move—but intimate encounters with other people who can add something a little different to your life. “You can accept your partner and partnership as perfect for what they are, but you can also be interested in experiencing more,” adds Boodram.

Dismiss your partner’s feelings

The conversation about non-monogamy doesn’t end just because you and your partner decided to be in an open relationship.

Give your partner the space to discuss things that may be bothering them or boundaries they’re trying to create, says Bijraj.

Assume you and your partner will be OK with the same things

It really can’t be emphasized enough: communicate.

You may know your partner very well, but an open relationship is a new territory. You can’t be sure what they’ll be comfortable with you doing and what their boundaries are, says Bijraj. Discuss these things upfront to avoid hurt feelings and arguments.

Hide feelings of jealousy

No matter how much you want to be in an open relationship, jealousy can still creep up. It’s a normal reaction to knowing the person you care about is with someone else.

The problem is when you let it boil inside. “If you feel jealous, that needs to be addressed and worked through without shame or judgment,” says Consul. If the jealousy becomes disruptive or unbearable, it might be time to reconsider your boundaries or if an open relationship is right for you.

Are open relationships more likely to fail?

An open relationship is not destined or more likely to fail by any means. Instead, open relationships may break down when seen as a safety rope for their relationship versus actually wanting to be in one. “Some couples use it as a last-ditch effort to save the relationship but don’t actually address the underlying issues in the relationship that are causing problems,” says Consul.

People in open relationships can experience more openness and discussion around boundaries than monogamous couples due to the guidelines needed when starting one. Boundaries are just as crucial in monogamous relationships, says Consul, but without a clear impetus, they can go undiscussed.

Everyone needs to be on the same page when foregoing monogamy. A one-sided open relationship —in which only one partner dates other people—exists, but it can be challenging. The monogamous partner can feel disrespected or as if they’re being cheated on.

Each relationship is unique based on its circumstances and the people involved in it. A successful open relationship is one in which you feel comfortable, cared for and respected. Take the time to determine what’s right for you and your partner.

Related:How to Have a Successful Open Marriage