How do you know if an open relationship is right for you? First you can consider the experiences of people who have shared their stories with the Cut: Open marriage taught one man about feminism. Another writer found that dating apps are full of people in open relationships. One woman wondered if having threesomes with her boyfriend was like a gateway to non-monogamy; another felt guilty that she wasn’t ready for an open relationship with her partner when he asked.
Below, two experts share their thoughts on deciding if it’s right for you, and how to make an open relationship work. They are Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist who has written several books on polyamory; and Courtney Watson, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in sex therapy.
1. Get familiar with what’s on the menu.
“Open relationship is the umbrella category,” explains Dr. Sheff. “There are different types of open relationships like swinging, monogamish, polyamory, relationship anarchy, and then just open — people sometimes choose to identify that way.”
“There’s so many different configurations,” adds Watson. “There can be a V where one person has two partners and those two partners aren’t related, there can be a triangle where one person has two partners and those two partners mess around too, and then there can be all sorts of tree of life looking branches from different people.”
In order to learn more, Dr. Sheff recommends finding people in different types of relationships and asking them about it. Here’s how: On internet communities such as meetup.com, use search terms such as “polyamory,” “sex positive,” and “open relationship” to find couples, get in touch, and ask any questions you might have.
2. Decide what you want.
After you talk to people in different types of open relationships, “see which one appeals to you,” Dr. Sheff advises. “If you have a partner already, discuss it in depth with your partner.”
Watson agrees: “Know what you are and are not comfortable with. In terms of opening up your relationship, do you just want to have sexual relationships? Do you want to have a boyfriend? Do you want to have another long-term relationship? Are you comfortable with your partner coming over to your house? Are you comfortable with other partners having sex in your bed? Are you comfortable with your partner having sex with other partners? Are you comfortable with your partner’s other partners having sex in your bed? Get really familiar with what feels good to you and what you’re not comfortable with.”
3. Make sure you’re in it for the right reasons.
“If you’re opening up your relationship to fix the issues in your current relationship, that’s not going to work,” warns Watson. “You need to work on the issues in your current relationship and not expect your new relationship to just change that.”
4. Establish guidelines with your partner.
Once you know your boundaries and feel confident in your motivation behind wanting to open up your relationship, Courtney advises you and your partner “sit down and write down what you want and what you are planning to do.”
“I have couples write three lists of something they absolutely must have in a relationship; something they would like, but are willing to flex on; and something they absolutely will not allow in a relationship,” explains Dr. Sheff. “So it’s three columns of your boundaries and where they fall. Each person does that independently, and then come back and compare lists just to give yourself a baseline of, What do I want?” Within the list, she suggests you address questions like, What kind of safe sex will we practice? What happens if someone gets pregnant? What about living with other people?
Once you’ve filled out your three columns, exchange them with your partner and see how much your values align. “If your partner has — in the Absolutely Not column — ‘Never ever have sex with other people,’ and you have in the Must Have column, ‘Must have sex with other people,’ that’s going to be a serious problem.” It’s vital that the two of you are on the same page about what you’re getting into.
5. While making your guidelines, leave other people out of it.
“If people think about them a lot and make all sorts of plans about how it’s going to be and how other people will or will not react, that’s a recipe for disaster because you can’t make rules for people and how they’re going to feel,” explains Dr. Sheff. “But couples try that all the time — couples who are already together and opening their relationship often will think a lot about it beforehand and will decide ‘This is what’s going to be okay for secondaries and what’s not.’”
“You can’t expect someone to follow an agreement that they never agreed to and never had a hand in negotiating,” she continues. “It’s not fair. Most importantly, you don’t have their buy in. There’s no reason why they should follow it. That’s a common mistake from couples.”
6. Remember the guidelines aren’t a rule book.
“Realize that people’s boundaries change,” advises Dr. Sheff. “They think it’s gonna be one thing. And then they get started and it’s something else. You are not carving these in stone. This is the beginning of the discussion. Don’t use this list as a way to badger your partner.”
“It can be a document that evolves as you get more into opening your relationship and understanding what fits and what doesn’t fit,” adds Watson. “It should be a document that you regularly revise, but it’s helpful to write it down so that people don’t get confused.”
7. Hone your communication skills.
“Open relationships will tank if there’s no communication line,” warns Watson. “You’re dealing with so many different parts, pieces, and people, you need to be able to talk really openly about what your boundaries are and your wishes and desires.”
“Expect to put effort into communication,” adds Dr. Sheff. “Develop it as a skill. Take it seriously enough that you’ll learn how to communicate well. That’s key for these relationships because, without communication, you can’t talk about how you’re feeling and if you can’t talk about how you’re feeling often those feelings become a booby trap. If you just act out of jealousy instead of communicating, that just creates a lot of drama and pain for everyone.”
8. Make a calendar to stay organized.
“Just have a calendar that you can reference,” suggests Watson. “You can share your calendar digitally with your different partners or one or two partners — however you want to do it. The more organized you can be about it, the better because the less opportunity there is for hurt feelings and misunderstanding.”
9. Don’t expect it to be easy.
“Expect it to be a bit of a challenge,” advises Dr. Sheff. “I think, at heart, most people would like to have their own harem of completely devoted people they don’t have to share with anyone, but they get sexual variety. And most of us know it’s not okay. It’s reasonable to ask for that, but it’s also reasonable to give that same openness to your partner. That is the harder part.”
While pursuing your own relationships is great, Dr. Sheff warns, “It can be really challenging to allow your partner that same leeway. So be prepared for that, be ready to talk about it, be ready to own up to it. And that it doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, that was a failure, now we have to stop, this was a disaster. Oh no!’ You can say, ‘Oh, there it is. We kind of expected this. Here it goes — how are we gonna handle this?’”
10. Seek out help if you need it.
“Know sex therapy is always an option for you and all of your partners when you hit rough patches,” Watson says. “I’m a sex therapist and I will see as many partners as want to come in. We can work together to figure out what’s going on.”
There are also people like Dr. Sheff who provide relationship coaching for people trying open relationships and advise them on how to do it. For people who feel differently about non-monogamy than their partner, they help come up with solutions. Dr. Sheff says there is great advice and supportive information online, especially in polyamorous communities.