Have you ever heard of an open relationship? Or better yet, have you ever thought about being in one? Some of the most famous celebrities have participated in this lifestyle such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Kim Kardashian, and Nick Cannon. Many of these celebrities say that this was a part of the relationship that kept them happy and that it increased their trust in the other.

Whether you have heard the term “open relationship” or are curious about what this means for you or others, let’s delve into this fascinating relationship model so you can learn what it means to be in an open relationship, the different open relationship models there are and how you can communicate with your partner if you are thinking about opening up your relationship.

What is an open relationship?

Open relationships are defined as relationships that are beyond monogamy. This can mean having an established relationship while you both have agreed to have other sexual partners or romantic relationships. Open relationships fall into the ethical non-monogamy category. Within this umbrella, we have:

  • Polygamy, which is defined as marriage between a person and two or more spouses. Polygyny and polyandry fall into this category. Polygyny is when a man is married to more than one wife and polyandry is when a woman is married to more than one husband.
  • Open relationships in which people have sex with multiple partners (simultaneously or not).
  • Swinging, in which couples swap sexual partners.
  • Polyamory, which can take on many different configurations, such as triads or throuples (three people all date one another) and polyfidelity (all partners in a group make an agreement not to have romantic and sexual relationships outside the established group, number of people open to discussion), among others.
  • Casual sex, in which people may have sexual relationships without any romantic attachment or commitments, possibly with multiple sexual partners.
  • Casual dating, in which people may date multiple people.

Some partners may set this expectation from the beginning of the relationship as a need for them to be in a happy relationship, while others may want to bring it up later on during the course of the relationship.

Rewards and Risks

There is a large stigma against open relationships because it is not considered the norm. This stigma not only comes from friends and family but can come from therapists who may have a bias toward monogamous relationships being the “healthiest relationships”. All relationships come with rewards and risks and when considering an open relationship think about what is best for you and your partner.

So what are the rewards? Although open relationships are not for everyone, studies have shown that some of the rewards for people who have sought out open relationships have increased their understanding of communication, their needs, and boundaries. This is because they are able to experience more than one relationship at a time, whether that be sexual, romantic, or both. This can allow them to explore their sexuality in a much quicker time period and with different types of people. Partners may become more aware of what their needs and boundaries are because they have more experience in what they do and do not like. Therefore, the deeper insight may lead to an increase in understanding, empathy and emotional intelligence, which have been shown to overall improve a person’s sense of fulfillment. Partners who agree to be in an open relationship later in the relationship and or be in a one-sided monogamous relationship may see a stronger partnership.

And what are the risks with open relationships? First, bringing this idea up to a partner later in the relationship with no previous talk about wanting an open relationship may cause confusion, shock and insecurity. The partner with no previous context or desire for an open relationship may feel as though they are not enough sexually or emotionally for the partner seeking to open the relationship. One big risk is lack of trust, the other partner may get defensive or possibly end the relationship. Jealousy is also a common byproduct of open relationships, which needs to be handled with a lot of empathy and respect.

Partners in open relationships may perceive greater risks of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies or STIs/STDs than those in monogamous relationships. Many partners who are being asked to open the relationship may worry that their partner is more likely to contract STis/STDs and get them infected. In reality, people in ethical open relationships have been shown to get tested more often for STIs/STDs as well as use protective measures such as condoms more frequently than their counterparts who don’t practice ethical non-monogamy. There are also emotional risks in the way of partners forming deeper attachments to their romantic or sexual partners than previously negotiated. Ongoing and honest communication between all parties may help to prevent or mitigate these risks and assess them as they occur.

How to bring up an open relationship to your partner

If you are thinking about opening up the relationship or want to be prepared to bring up this idea as you date, these recommendations may be helpful:

  1. Transparency: Be honest with your partner(s) from the onset if this is something you need to be in a happy relationship.
  2. Know Yourself: Have a plan of what type of open relationship you may want and how many partners you would like to have as well as how you would handle hiccups along the way.
  3. Acceptance: Understand that your partner may not want this type of lifestyle so be aware of the risks to a long term committed or novel relationship beforehand.
  4. Safety First: Have a plan to practice safe sex and have ongoing conversations about testing, sharing results, and actions to keep yourself and all safe.
  5. Patience: Be patient with yourself and your partner, especially if this is your first time communicating about this with your partner.
  6. Communication: Be totally honest with yourself and others and keep the lines of communication open at all times. Be ready to address issues as soon as they arise and use your best listening skills to foster relationships based on transparency, empathy and mutual respect.

Being in an open relationship takes a lot of effort and being able to manage people’s time, emotions, feelings, needs and wants, all while supporting your own. The rewards can be great but being in an open relationship is not for the faint of heart, as a lot of communication and time management skills (to name a few) and honesty are required to keep all parties involved in balance. Important is to know that being in an ethical open relationship is not the same as cheating or infidelity as all parties involved are “in the know”.

Contributed by Isabella Calamari Caprez. Isabella is a Junior at George Washington University, double majoring in Psychology and Communications in pursuit of becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. She plans to practice in both English and Spanish and break the stigma of mental health and sex. Isabellac is also one of the founders of George Washington University Clearminds, an organization centered around relationships and providing help to guide students on how to have healthier friendships, relationships, and sexual interactions.

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