Love makes the world go round. But not everyone does it the same way. Romantic comedies, pop songs, and every commercial ever made would have you believe monogamy is the only option for a “real” relationship. But open relationships have been quietly gaining popularity, as people explore their freedom to share the wealth and have more of what they want, whether that’s sex, love, camping weekends, or all of the above.
If you’re new to the idea of open relationships, also referred to as ethical non-monogamy, it can seem intimidating. How does that work exactly? Do you just bang anyone you want? What if someone falls in love? What about the children?! Totally legit questions. The answer to all of them is: It depends on the relationship. Open relationships are not one size fits all. They’re tailored to suit the needs of the people involved. Here are just a few of the most common arrangements.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
An agreement both partners make to keep any extracurricular activity secret from each other.
The Upside: No-strings sex without any difficult conversations.
The Downside: Trying to keep a part of your life secret from your partner, even if it’s something you’ve both agreed to do, can be stressful and erode intimacy.
Best Suited For: People who are mostly happy in their relationship but desire something their partner can’t or doesn’t want to provide. For example, when your partner can’t have sex due to health issues or doesn’t share your kinky interests.
The Upshot: If the dallying partner can truly keep their sex life to themselves and the partner at home can be tolerant of things like lipstick on the collar, it can work.
An acceptance of limited outside sexual connections, usually only when certain conditions are met. Only when one of us is out of town. Only in months with no “R”. Only redheads.
The Upside: Never having to say, “No, George Clooney. I’m married.”
The Downside: It’s easy to agree to a scenario you imagine will never happen. But what if she does meet George Clooney?
Best Suited For: People who mostly prefer monogamy but recognize the need to vent some sexual steam from time to time.
The Upshot: Noted columnist, and monogamish husband and father, Dan Savage, describes it as agreeing “to place a higher value on the relationship itself than on … sexual exclusivity.” If you can both live with the occasional dalliance, this can work.
The practice of purely recreational sex, often as a couple, with people outside the relationship, for fun. Those “in the lifestyle” may find their partners at swinger parties, online, or simply out in the world. Couples often hook up with other couples for a “same room swap.” This is where you can have sex with a new friend while making hot eye contact with your main squeeze, as they play with someone else. Threesomes are also a treasured element of swinger culture. The proverbial “Unicorn”, a hot bisexual woman who’s into couples, is the Holy Grail of Swingerdom.
The Upside: Sexual variety, which many swinger couples find invigorates their sexual attraction to each other. If you’re wired the right way, watching your lover kiss someone else can be super hot.
The Downside: Sometimes people fall in love with their sexual partners. Since swinger culture tends to discourage external romantic attachments, getting feels for someone you’ve been sport banging can be a problem.
Best Suited For: Open-minded people with secure relationships and good communication, who like sex with different people.
The Upshot: As long as everyone’s on the same page, swinging is a blast.
Literally translated as “many loves”, this is the practice of simultaneous dating or partnering with multiple people. We’re talking multiple relationships, not just multiple sex partners. Lots of poly people are married or live with someone, while simultaneously, and in the clear light of day, also having additional partners. While a “primary” is often the person you live with/have kids with/fold socks for, a “secondary” partner is not necessarily less important to you. They are, however, someone who gets less of your time and money.
Poly relationships are not necessarily a straight line. The mix and match poly possibilities are endless. Couples can have a girlfriend or boyfriend or date another couple or date one half of a couple while the other half dates their spouse. Or not. Three or four people (known as a triad or quad) can be in a relationship together. This relationship can be open, meaning everyone in it is free to date outside of it. It can be closed, meaning everyone in it agrees to only date each other, a practice known as polyfidelity. And some people practice relationship anarchy, in which all relationships are treated as equal and no one is given priority over another. Any of these can work if they meet the needs of everyone involved.
The Upside: The possibility of infinite love and an endlessly expanding community of loved ones.
The Downside: The potential for messiness in relationships multiplies when more people are involved. Think about how you take your friend’s side in a breakup. Now imagine that their ex is your lover.
Best Suited For: Emotionally mature people with excellent communication skills. Poly means talking. About your feelings, your partner’s feelings, their partner’s partner’s feelings. In swinging, the emotional monogamy means you primarily take care of each other emotionally. Poly people are more likely to take care of additional lovers, as well. If your wife’s book signing conflicts with your girlfriend’s birthday, you all have to figure that out.
The Upshot: If you’re willing to do the work, you could be very happy. And there’s tremendous security in knowing that feelings for another person need not be a threat to your relationship.
To learn more about polyamory, read Polyamory for Beginners: How to Open Your Relationship.
What’s Your Open Relationship Style?
Open relationships can be wonderfully liberating and deeply satisfying. They can also intensify your feelings of love for a primary partner, as they involve being vulnerable, and vulnerability fosters intimacy and trust. As long as everyone involved is on board with the style of nonmonogamy you choose, there is no right or wrong way to love someone. There’s just your way.