What Is an Open Relationship?

Saleem Rana
Contributor: Gabrielle Applebury
Two couples having lunch smiling

An open relationship is an agreement between two people who want to be together but decide that they want to date and/or have physical relationships with other people too. Some people view an open relationship as a negative thing, while others see this type of relationship as a positive factor that can lead to more freedom or self-expression while in a relationship.

Understanding Open Relationships

While many people may have opinions on open relationships, only the couple can determine what it means to them and how they want to proceed. Each couple is unique and their definition of an open relationship will reflect that. According to YouGov, about 11 percent of millennials have engaged in consensual open relationships compared to 19 percent who cheated on their partners.

No Fixed Definition

In an open relationship, both partners are free to engage in sexual relationships with other people while still remaining in a relationship with each other. Beyond this, there isn't really a single definition of open relationships, as partners who consent to this arrangement determine the parameters that apply within their relationship. According to an article in Men's Health, there are a wide variety of open-relationship arrangements, and details can vary substantially from one couple to another.

Determining Your Meaning

Since there is no fixed definition, unlike, say, monogamy, which had established its rules over centuries, it is up to couples who engage in open relationships to set rules. In Opening Up, a book on open relationships, author Tristan Taormino indicates that setting boundaries makes it easier for couples to determine what is acceptable within their relationships. Some examples of open relationships include:

  • A married couple who both consent to casually dating people outside of their marriage.
  • A married couple who both consent to being in serious relationships outside of their marriage.
  • A committed couple who both consent to casually dating other people outside of their relationship.
  • A committed couple who both consent to being in serious relationships outside of their relationship.
  • A committed or married couple who consent to having a physical relationship with others outside of their committed relationship.

Types of Boundaries

Boundaries can be physical, sexual, or emotional. A physical boundary refers to touching someone, a sexual boundary refers to having sex, and an emotional boundary refers to the level of emotional involvement. For instance, if a couple decides that dating another person is fine, but kissing is not permissible, and sex is not allowed, it's establishing an emotional boundary (dating only), a physical boundary (no kissing) and a sexual boundary (no sex). The agreement a couple reaches can even be formally written down to solidify commitments and clarify expectations.

What Open Relationships Are Not

An open relationship is not a "no strings attached" relationship, or a "friends with benefits" relationship. Although people often equate an open relationship with these other types of relationships, there are distinct differences between them.

  • No strings attached: A no strings attached relationship focuses on not being accountable to the other person in any way. By contrast, an open relationship does include a certain level of mutual accountability, and both partners consent to the arrangement.
  • Friends with benefits: A friends with benefits relationship focuses on the freedom to have sex with friends, without romantic commitment. By contrast, an open relationship is interested in developing deeper levels of rapport and intimacy and not just camaraderie and sexual pleasure.

Perceived Pros & Cons

There are a variety of perceived pros and cons to an open relationship. However, it's important to note that what may be a positive aspect for one couple or person, could be a negative aspect for another. The important thing is that both partners are in agreement.

Advantages

Deciding to be in an open relationship can lead to many positive outcomes. Some may include:

  • With multiple partners, new experiences and interests can be pursued.
  • The relationship is not inhibiting or boring because of the excitement of different sexual experiences.
  • There is the freedom to express different sides of one's self with a different partner.
  • One person is no longer expected to fulfill all one's interests, emotional needs, and sexual desires.

Disadvantages

Open relationships can be a bit tricky depending on you and your partner's needs. Some challenges may include:

  • It can cause a great deal of emotional pain to see your partner experience happiness and pleasure with someone else.
  • It can potentially increase the risk of spreading sexually transmitted diseases since people in the relationships have multiple partners.
  • It might result in unwanted pregnancies.
  • It can aggravate sexual addiction as an escape from personal problems or result in loss of libido from trying to please multiple partners.
Young man looking to the side, young couple in background

What Is the Difference Between Polyamory and Open Relationships?

Polyamory is Greek for many love and is defined as having relations with more than one consenting partner. In polyamorous relationships, there are several romantic relationships going on at once. These can range from casual to very serious. In an open relationship, the couple decides to see other people, ranging from casual to serious relationships. In both cases, every partner must consent to this arrangement.

Do Open Relationships Work?

Open relationships, just like any other relationship, may or may not work. These types of relationships may work if partners have no interest in monogamy, assuming that both partners are honest and have the consent of everyone involved in the relationships. However, they may not work if one or both partners secretly cling to the image of romantic and sexual exclusivity. In that case, jealousy and hurt feelings may override any logical agreements.

What Is an Open Relationship?