An open relationship is one that allows for more than one sexual partner. It is not to be confused with a polyamorous relationship, which allows couples to explore romantic relationships outside of their primary relationship (1). Open relationships have the potential to increase sex drive, bring couples closer together, and increase sexual and emotional experimentation. However, for couples who are not naturally comfortable with a partner’s experimentation, open relationships can allow for issues such as jealousy or insecurity
The non-monogamy history in the US falls into three main waves. In the 19th century, transcendentalism ushered in the first widespread challenges to the Christian doctrine of relationship and marriage. Quakers, Mormons, and other smaller communities on the East Coast began to practice “free-love”, which opposed the typical one man/one woman and racial separation identities of marriage.
Moving into the 1970s & ‘80s, the feminist movement, along with the non-heterosexual community, exposed gender roles as a social construct. Specifically, the increased economic ability of non-white straight males created dynamic urban centers in which the sexual revolution took place. Famously, swinging (the act of couples exchanging sexual partners) became popular, extending this sexual revolution into suburbia.
The most recent wave of open relationships came with the rise of the internet. The internet provides a platform to easily form communities, exchange advice, and offer support. It has allowed for sub communities to form in specific areas of kink, such as BDSM. These relationships have largely moved from multiple heterosexual relationships to those including multiple sexualities (2).
Common Pros & Cons
Open relationships can lay the groundwork for excitement while allowing couples to continue developing a deep emotional connection. Many people in successful open relationships reflect on their own personal growth as new sexual experiences push them to try new things, which they can then bring back to their primary partner. A notable byproduct mentioned is improved communication, as an ethical open relationship that includes absolute honesty inspires honesty in all other aspects of the relationship.
While sounding rosy to many on paper, open relationships are not for everyone. Sharing your partner sexually may bring out jealousy, which, if not communicated, can prove to be toxic to the relationship as a whole. On a logistical note, those without the ability to rent rooms may find scheduling to be a burden. Walking in on your partner may be shocking and uncomfortable, and scheduling issues can be an undue source of conflict that drive partners apart. Lastly, there are far fewer professional resources for those in open relationships, causing difficulty in navigating relationship hardships (3).
The potential of an open relationship should not incite feelings of instability. In exploring the possibility of being open, both partners must communicate honestly and openly about how they could see it affecting them, as well as potential ground rules. Though you may come to the conclusion that an open relationship is not right for you, try not to blame your partner for bringing up the possibility - they are looking for ways to grow with you, not away from you.
- Hartney, Elizabeth. “Exploring Polyamorous Relationships.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 4 Dec. 2019, www.verywellmind.com/what-does-polyamorous-mean-21882.
- Sheff, Elisabeth. “Three Waves of Non-Monogamy: A Select History of Polyamory in the United States.” Elisabeth Sheff, 23 Oct. 2012, elisabethsheff.com/2012/09/09/three-waves-of-polyamory-a-select-history-of-non-monogamy/.
- Ellington, Laurie. “Pros & Cons Of Being In An Open Relationship.” Poly Coach, 11 Nov. 2017, poly-coach.com/open-relationship-therapy/pros-cons-of-being-in-an-open-relationship/.