Do Open Relationships Work?

Do Open Relationships Work?

Let’s see what science says about how these relationships work.

There are a couple different definitions of an open relationship. To some people, “open relationship” is a term that means any kind of consensually nonmonogamous relationship (Kurdek & Schmitt, 1986). At the same time, more recently, “open relationship” has come to refer to any relationship arrangement where one or both partners can have sexual (but usually not romantic) connections with other people (Levine et al., 2018).

In this context, people often refer to having a “primary” partner and may assign any number of labels to their other partner(s). Importantly, to distinguish open relationships from swinging, wherein a couple meets together with one or more sexual partners, in open relationships, people meet with their second (or third, or so on) partners without their primary partner present (Levine et al., 2018).

Do Open Relationships Work?

Scientific research usually suggests that people in open relationships report romantic and sexual satisfaction that is equal to, or higher than, that of people in monogamous relationships (e.g., Conley et al., 2017, 2018; Fairbrother et al., 2019; Fleckenstein & Cox, 2015), although there are studies that have found the opposite result (Levine et al., 2018). It looks like a major factor in whether open relationships feel good for the people in them is how those people feel about open relationships in general (Moors et al., 2021). People who think open relationships aren’t natural, those who would prefer to be in a monogamous relationship, or those who don’t want other people to know about their relationship type are less satisfied with their open relationships (Fairbrother et al., 2019; Moors et al., 2021).

One study looked closely at whether there are differences in relationship quality for different types of consensually non monogamous relationships (more on the definitions of these in a moment) (Conley & Piemonte, 2021). This study found that people in open relationships, compared to people in swinging and polyamorous relationships, have lower quality relationships. These authors found that this difference could be accounted for by looking at the quality of couples’ communication, their reasons for having a non monogamous relationship, and how much contact the primary partners had with the other partners. In other words, people in swinging or polyamorous relationships may conduct their relationships in ways that are more effective for managing non monogamy than people in open relationships do. This may extend to them having more satisfying sexual relationships (Conley et al., 2018).

“If you really love someone and want to build a successful relationship with them, be open with each other, be real to each other and give each other plenty of space, time apart and freedom.”
― Mouloud Benzadi

Pros and Cons

Research has also identified a variety of pros and cons of open relationships (Zimmerman, 2012). People who are happy in their open relationships say that the arrangement has increased the honesty in their relationship, particularly about sex. Some couples find themselves with very different levels of sexual desire, and having an open relationship can allow a partner with a higher sex drive to meet their sexual needs. Other couples find that sex outside the relationship provides an additional erotic charge to their sex with each other (Taormino, 2008). Outside the realm of sexual needs, people can find additional emotional and social fulfillment from having other partners, of course.

On the other hand, open relationships increase the sexual risk for both partners, as well as the risk of breakup and jealousy in the relationship (Zimmerman, 2012) and stigma from healthcare providers, family, and friends (Vaughan et al., 2019).

Tips for Open Relationships

For open relationships to work, partners must be committed to being as communicative as possible (Jamieson, 2004). It is important to combine a willingness to be honest with an awareness of which details do not need to be shared. For example, a couple should have a clear sense of what kinds of sexual activity need to be disclosed to each other and a firm commitment to doing so. This does not mean the couple must have complete transparency, though; for example, it may be healthier to not know the name, age, or body type of a partner’s secondary partners, in case those are potential sources of jealousy and resentment.

My number one tip for people considering an open relationship is to have a long period of open discussion about feelings and attitudes about opening the relationship, and then a similarly intense negotiation of rules first (Jamieson, 2004). Couples will want to be prepared to repeatedly revisit these topics, as changes in the primary relationship will probably require continual adjustments to the rules of the open relationship.

Finally, if couples have a clear sense of why the open relationship matters to them and reflects their own needs and values, they may be more able to withstand judgment from family and friends. There remains ample stigma against open relationships (Matsick et al., 2014), but couples will fare better in facing that stigma if they are in agreement about why they benefit from having an open relationship.

In Sum

It is clear from the research that open relationships can work: they can enrich people’s lives and help them meet additional needs not fulfilled by their primary relationships. It is important not to put pressure on our partners to meet all of our needs. Open relationships give us the chance to meet our needs with multiple partners and take some of that pressure off the primary relationship. However, it takes a great deal of self-awareness, flexibility, emotional intelligence, and love to be a good partner to another person. To add more partners into the mix is to greatly increase the demands on everybody’s skills of relating.

References

● Conley, T. D., Matsick, J. L., Moors, A. C., & Ziegler, A. (2017). Investigation of consensually nonmonogamous relationships: Theories, methods, and new directions. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 12, 205–232.

● Conley, T. D., & Piemonte, J. L. (2021). Are there “better” and “worse” ways to be consensually non-monogamous (CNM)? CNM types and CNM-specific predictors of dyadic adjustment. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(4), 1273-1286.

● Conley, T. D., Piemonte, J. L., Gusakova, S., & Rubin, J. D. (2018). Sexual satisfaction among individuals in monogamous and consensually non-monogamous relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(4), 509-531.

● Fairbrother, N., Hart, T. A., & Fairbrother, M. (2019). Open relationship prevalence, characteristics, and correlates in a nationally representative sample of Canadian adults. The Journal of Sex Research, 56(6), 695-704.

● Fleckenstein, J. R., & Cox, D. W. (2015). The association of an open relationship orientation with health and happiness in a sample of older US adults. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 30, 94–116.

● Jamieson, L. (2004). Intimacy, negotiated non-monogamy and the limits of the couple. In J. Duncombe, K. Harrison, G. Allan, & D. Marsden (Eds.) The state of affairs: Explorations in infidelity and commitment. (pp. 35–57) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

● Kurdek, L. A., & Schmitt, J. P. (1986). Relationship quality of gay men in closed or open relationships. Journal of Homosexuality, 12(2), 85–99.

● Levine, E. C., Herbenick, D., Martinez, O., Fu, T. C., & Dodge, B. (2018). Open relationships, nonconsensual nonmonogamy, and monogamy among US adults: Findings from the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 47, 1439-1450.

● Matsick, J. L., Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., & Rubin, J. D. (2014). Love and sex: Polyamorous relationships are perceived more favorably than swinging and open relationships. Psychology & Sexuality, 5(4), 339-348.

● Moors, A. C., Schechinger, H. A., Balzarini, R., & Flicker, S. (2021). Internalized consensual non-monogamy negativity and relationship quality among people engaged in polyamory, swinging, and open relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50(4), 1389-1400.

● Taormino, T. (2008). Opening up: A guide to creating and sustaining open relationships. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press.

● Vaughan, M. D., Jones, P., Taylor, B. A., & Roush, J. (2019). Healthcare experiences and needs of consensually non-monogamous people: Results from a focus group study. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 16(1), 42-51.

● Zimmerman, K. J. (2012). Clients in sexually open relationships: Considerations for therapists. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 24(3), 272-289