Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have a famously open marriage. This week, she told Howard Stern, “I trust that Will is a man of integrity. He’s got all the freedom in the world, and as long as Will can look at himself in the mirror and be OK, I’m good.” Rumors swirl around Tilda Swinton—she has an aging husband and a hot young boyfriend—and even Megan Fox and Brian Austin Greene; the former is allegedly allowed to stray.
We might be a long way from declaring open relationships the new normal, but as society shifts its perspective on gender, people live longer, and the definition of family continues to evolve, who’s to say it won’t soon be?
Zhana Vrangalova is a professor of human sexuality at NYU with a PhD in developmental psychology who researches non-normative expressions of sexuality. “We are definitely moving towards a society where non-traditional sexual practices are becoming more acceptable,” she tells Yahoo Style. “So much has already changed within the past five years. While I don’t think we will ever reach a point where every single person accepts it, the discussion of sexual non-monogamy will continue to broaden within more liberal communities.”
Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith at Black Girls Rock in March. Photo: Getty Images
For now, however, the idea of an open relationship can be terrifying. That eventually one of the two will fall for someone else is a very reasonable fear. That’s what happened to Trent, who is 26 years old and lives in Brooklyn. He recently emerged from his first open relationship. He and his partner considered each other their primary partners—meaning they were emotionally committed to each other—but engaged in physical experiences with others. Five years in, his girlfriend began to have an emotional connection with a different person, and that was the end of their “monogamish” relationship.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always a bad idea. “There are many misconceptions about non-monogamy. The most common thing I hear is that it simply doesn’t work, but it actually does! Many people have successful long term relationships this way,” Vrangalova says. 30-year-old Josephine, a marketing consultant in New York, is in a happy, open, long-distance relationship. “We both have a vague idea of what the other is up to, but spare each other the details,” she says. “I would say we are emotionally monogamous but sexually polyamorous.” And it works well; she says she feels closer to him than she ever has with someone who lived nearby.
Life is certainly less stressful—and there’s less pressure—if you don’t expect one person to meet all of your needs. “My boyfriend was into a specific sex act that I didn’t regularly enjoy,” Josephine says. “So it was nice that he was able to fulfill that desire with others.” Conversely, Trent liked that he didn’t have to “feel guilty for needing or desiring something that a partner cannot consistently provide.” Not surprisingly, anyone with a high sex drive or a desire for sexual novelty is most likely to benefit from this kind of arrangement. Oksana, 31, was attracted to an open relationship because of that: “The most fulfilling part of my polyamory experience was that I could feel the “new wave” of romance again and again,” she says. “Being able to share moments collectively is very sexy, but can also become part of the challenge.”
But of course, there are plenty of other stressors that come along with an open relationship. More than two partners means sharing, and most people aren’t very good at that. “You probably don’t want to be a very jealous person,” Vrangalova says, pointing out the obvious. “Some jealousy is to be expected, but it might be more trouble than it’s worth if you’re on the more extreme end of the spectrum. It’s also important to not have a history of insecure attachment. Being very clingy and needy doesn’t fare very well either.” Trent found himself feeling upset at times because he had a harder time than his girlfriend when it came to finding hookup partners. “The gap between theory and practice is real, and can be very wide.”
So you want an open relationship? The big question is how to address it with your partner. “Don’t expect to go from zero to sixty,” Vrangalova says. “You’re not going to go from only being with one person to immediately having multiple partners. Take small steps. You can begin by simply acknowledging your attraction to someone else other than your partner.” While diving in head-first might work for some couplings, there’s a greater chance of success if you take it slow and keep communication open along the way. It might not be for you, but there’s certainly a lot to be learned from understanding the many different ways in which people connect.