Do a quick poll of your closest friends—or a quick swipe through all those Tinder profiles that mention “ethical nonmonogamy”—and it seems like more people than ever are in open relationships. There’s data to back up that hunch.
A 2017 study by the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found one in five Americans reported being in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship at some point in their lives. And the younger you are, the more likely that is—in a 2016 YouGov study, 17 percent of people under 45 say they’ve been in an open relationship, compared with only 3 percent of people over 65. All this means that if you haven’t been in an open relationship, you probably know someone who is.
Of course, no one ever said open relationships were easy. The potential minefield of complications is enough to scare away plenty of people, even if they’re curious. Which is why it’s helpful to hear how nonmonogamy actually works from the people who know best.
We asked five people how they make their open relationships work, and they gave us the real deal on everything from what they discuss with their partners (and what they don’t) and managing jealousy to how nonmonogamy can actually improve your relationship. Read on for straight talk on a topic that deserves to be way less taboo.
Communication Is Key
Everyone we spoke with emphasized the importance of maintaining clear, open communication in nonmonogamous relationships. “Communication between me and my partner is everything,” says Flora*, who’s been in an open relationship for nearly three years. “Without it, this doesn’t work.”
And that doesn’t just go for talking about the specifics of your arrangement, say Ali and Ben, who have been dating for eight months and identify as ethically nonmonogamous.
“I wouldn’t have even tried an open arrangement with Ben unless we had super-strong communication from the start,” says Ali. “If I’m dating someone who’s a ‘brick wall’ type of guy, I just know it’s gonna be 10 times harder. You have to be in a good place to start with.” Ben agrees. “You both have to be emotionally available and willing to sort through the stuff that comes up—because stuff will come up! You have to think of it like you’re tackling those issues like a team.”
But That Doesn’t Mean Sharing Everything
People in open relationships tend to reject traditional ideas of shame or guilt around multiple relationships or sex partners. That said, none of the people we spoke with described themselves as “sharing every detail” with their main partner. It’s considered a kind of courtesy to hold some things back.
“I’ve heard of some couples that tell each other every detail of their hookups or use it as fodder for their sex life, but I’ve never done that,” says Kyle. “It’d make things way too weird.” But that doesn’t mean he bites his tongue: “My girlfriend and I are pretty open about discussing non-sex details of our relationships. If she tells me, ‘Oh, [her other partner] mentioned I’d like this movie,’ or ‘We went here to eat,’ it’s not awkward. I think sharing limited details is better. I’ve had relationships where it’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and that drives a wedge between you.”
“I’ll tell [my partner], ‘Hey, I have a date on Friday,'” Flora says. “We both see other people, but as far as discussing it, we keep it to a general outline of who we’re seeing, where we’re going, when we expect to be back. It’s almost the same as when you go out for girls’ night. We live together, so there’s no point hiding it. Once he high-fived me when I told him I had a date!”
Know Your Boundaries
Everyone we spoke with mentioned it’s crucial to know your boundaries and communicate them with your partner clearly. “It’s a misconception that every open relationship is a free-for-all,” says Ali. “We actually discussed it a lot before we started seeing other people.”
“You have to find a midpoint between feeling like you both have your freedom but are also making your partner comfortable,” Flora says. “Like, one of our non-negotiables is safe sex with other partners. And we don’t have hard rules about it, but we both feel more comfortable when each other’s hookups are more sexual than emotionally intimate—so we agreed to discuss it if the connection starts getting deeper.”
Some people in open relationships set boundaries around the type of sex they can have outside the relationship, while others are more laissez-faire. “I don’t care, as long as he’s honest and safe,” Katie says. “But I’d feel weird if he dated within our friend group, so we mutually outlawed that.” Katie says using Tinder is a good alternative for meeting people outside their social circle.
Expect Jealousy—and Learn to Manage It
Even in a healthy open relationship, jealousy can take a toll. “Sex is just sex to us,” says Kyle. “But it can be threatening if she’s starting to spend a lot of time with someone else, or I sense a connection is especially strong.”
Most couples cited communication as a frontline defense where jealousy is concerned. “At one point, I went from feeling empowered by this to feeling like I wasn’t enough for him,” says Flora. “As we talked it out, I realized that feeling was more about us growing distant than anything he had with someone else.” The couple decided to recommit to nurturing their relationship with weekly dates and more conversation, which, along with making time for her own self-care, made Flora feel like things were “back in balance.”
Other couples find it useful to indulge their partner’s jealousy a little: “I always tell Ali she’s totally allowed to veto [my other partners] anytime,” says Ben. “She’s never taken me up on it though.”
Make Time to “Rebalance” Your Relationship
Everyone who talked to us emphasized the need to occasionally revisit their arrangements. “We don’t schedule it or anything, but we promised each other we’d make an effort to check in every couple months,” says Katie. “It can be as simple as saying, ‘Hey, is this still working for you?’ The answer is almost always yes. But it opens up space for you to step back and re-evaluate if you need to.”
It Won’t Fix a Bad Relationship—but It Could Make a Good Relationship Stronger
The couples we spoke with were overall happy with their open relationships. “I feel like I relate to [my partner] more deeply because we’ve had all these serious discussions about our wants and needs,” says Ali. “Other relationships I’ve been in gloss over all that.”
“It feels like this secret we have together, like we’ve overcome this major thing that breaks people apart,” says Kyle. “It’s made me better at drilling down and figuring out what’s really important to me [in a relationship], listening to her and voicing my needs.”
For Katie, the extra work is worth it. “I know this isn’t always the easiest, so the fact that he’s committed to making this work, makes me feel like he’s truly invested in my happiness—that means a lot.”
*Names have been changed to protect peoples’ privacy.
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