Polyamory. Swinging. Monogam-ish. When talking about open relationships, the terminology can get confusing, quick. That’s because the phrase “open relationship” is often used as an umbrella term — meaning that there are a lot of different ways that open relationships can look.
To put it simply, an open relationship is any relationship that isn’t entirely monogamous — and everyone in the relationship knows about it. (If you’ve told your partner you’re monogamous but you’re having sex with someone else, that’s not an open relationship, that’s just cheating.) There’s a wide range of what this looks like: one couple’s open relationship could include romantic relationships with other people, while another couple’s open relationship might be limited to occasional sexual experiences outside the relationship.
Though it varies based on your community and where you live, monogamy may no longer be the default. A 2016 YouGov study found that many Americans, particularly young people, would like some kind of non-monogamous relationship. Asked to place their ideal relationship on a scale of 0, “completely monogamous,” to 6, “completely non-monogamous,” only 61% of American adults of all ages chose “0, or completely monogamous,” and even less — 51% — of Americans age 18 to 30 did.
Whether you’re dating or currently in a monogamous relationship, you might want to spend some time thinking about what your ideal relationship would look like (if you’re looking for a relationship at all, that is). Do you want a relationship that’s completely monogamous? Would you prefer one that allows for occasional sexual encounters outside the relationship? Would you want your partner to be part of these experiences — for example, by swinging, or by having a threesome — or would you prefer to pursue them independently? Do you want to have multiple romantic relationships at the same time? There’s no wrong answer here, and it’s okay to change what you’re looking for over time.
Keep in mind that opening an already-monogamous relationship may be difficult, and can sometimes lead to the end of the relationship. If one person definitely wants an open relationship and the other definitely wants a completely monogamous relationship, sometimes, they’re unable to find a solution that works for both of them. Other times, of course, they’re able to find a relationship style that makes both people happy.
The key to making an open relationship work is communication. As Kayla Knopp, a clinical graduate student who studies facets of commitment in relationships at the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies, previously told Refinery29, “One of the strengths of non-monogamous relationships is often better communication about your expectations for what the relationship is going to look like.”
Once you think you know what you want, you can discuss it with your date or a partner and come up with guidelines and boundaries. For example, how much detail do you want to know about your partner’s other dates? These boundaries might change as you actually put them into practice, and that’s okay, too.
As one anonymous woman in an open relationship wrote for Refinery29, non-monogamy can just work best for some people. “We’ve approached it as partners and equals. We also communicate — a lot,” she wrote. “We follow rules, we keep each other apprised of any development in our dating lives, and we have veto power if, for whatever reason, we are uncomfortable with what each other is doing…or who.”
Ultimately, there are many different ways that relationships can work — and just like anything else, open relationships will work for some people, and not for others. You’re the only one who can decide if it’s something that works for you.
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