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What Life's Really Like In An Open Relationship

Wondering if it's right for you? Here are a few things to consider.

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Chiara Ghigliazza
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I once fell in love with a man who told me way too late in the game that he was not (and never would be) the monogamous type. I, on the other hand, was most definitely said type. I always imagined that if a man threw out the term “open relationship,” I would run for the hills. But love makes us do crazy things, and run I did not. Instead, I asked him so many questions and he gave me all the answers. I am not sure if my judgment was clouded by love or if I was attracted to this gypsy-soul free spirit of a man who found a way to make nonmonogamy sound romantic, loving and — dare I say — selfless, but I thoroughly considered entering an open, no-questions-asked, nonmonogamous relationship with him.

I googled the term ethical nonmonogamy and was flooded with information that I just wasn’t ready to process. (You have heard the — quote-unquote — stories about Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, haven’t you?) In the end, I made the decision to stick to my monogamous roots and said goodbye to my polyamorous beau, but my head was left spinning with curiosity: Are people really happy in open relationships? If so, how do you know if it is right for you and what can a couple do to set themselves up for success in this type of relationship?

I reached out to Leah Carey, a sex and intimacy coach and host of the podcast Good Girls Talk about Sex, to get some answers and was surprised when she said that yes, this arrangement can and does indeed work for some. She was quick to point out, however, that it requires hard work: “Open relationships can work when everyone involved is committed to drawing and maintaining strong boundaries and has excellent communication skills. Unfortunately, too many people embark on an open relationship without doing the work in advance to make it successful.”

Wondering if it is right for you? Here are a few things to consider before making the commitment (to being noncommittal).

Weigh the pros and cons

There are many potential benefits to an open relationship. I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. Many report that it brings an intense level of honesty and trust into a relationship because partners are free to be themselves and don’t have to hide their desires for other people. Partners trust each other (more than I could ever imagine trusting a man) to be with others, yet still respect, love and come home to them.

Carey points out, too, that when done with honesty and integrity, the benefits are plentiful. “It can allow people with different libidos to both be satisfied. It can allow people with needs for different types of interaction to get those needs fulfilled. It can allow people to indulge their kinks if their partner isn’t interested.” Of course, there is also the potential for disaster. When done hastily and for the wrong reasons, jealousy, anger, hurt and toxicity are sure to take over and the relationship could be doomed. Carey says “instead of adding an exciting element to your existing relationship, poor communication and poor boundaries can lead to the implosion of multiple relationships.”  

Consider your motivation

If you aren’t sure if you’re ready for success or setting yourself up for disaster, simply check your motivation. I considered an open relationship not because I liked the idea of having multiple partners, but simply because I didn’t want to lose the man I loved. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that this is not a good reason to change your core values. Others may consider opening their relationship when things feel stale or tensions are high — simply to bring back the excitement and butterflies of the early stages. Carey says that situations like these are “destined to explode because the primary couple still has all the issues of the original relationship, and now they’re adding more people and more complexity into the dynamic.” She suggests that open relationships are most successful for couples who “have a strong relationship and good communication skills.”

The most important thing is to be honest with yourself and your partner, and if fear or uncertainty are on the forefront of your mind, it’s best to say no to opening the relationship. And if you just aren’t sure, Carey suggests “working with a sex-positive coach or therapist before putting yourself in a position you’re not sure that you’re ready for.”

Communicate clearly

If you decide that your motivation is healthy, you must both be willing to have “long conversations about how to [establish] boundaries so [both partners] feel safe and taken care of.” Make sure you really delve into the details, too, and cover all the possible scenarios. Just like with monogamous relationships, no two nonmonogamous relationships are the same. Different couples have different boundaries, guidelines and expectations, so leave no stone unturned. How often will you date outside of the primary relationship? Are there certain sexual activities that are off the table? How much will you discuss your “outside activities” with each other? Will you meet the outside partners? And of course, how will you as a couple navigate jealousy, which Carey says “is (almost) inevitable.”  

She also notes that one thing must remain nonnegotiable: “Any potential date MUST be told from the first contact that this is an open relationship. That is mandatory so they can opt in or opt out with informed consent.”

This communication piece is key, and if you or your partner is not able to have this conversation with love, compassion and understanding, it may be a signal that you aren’t quite ready to embark on the journey of a nonmonogamous relationship. The conversation can be intense, “so it can be helpful to have a relationship or intimacy coach facilitate, so everyone feels heard and taken care of.”

The times they are a-changing, friends, and people are indeed having open or nonmonogamous relationships now more than ever. I remain intrigued. I am not sure why the fascination, either.  I guess somewhere deep in my soul I get it: The idea that humans aren’t built for monogamy, and that there is so much love and beauty and good sex to go around, why should we limit ourselves? But alas, I am a hopeless romantic and more than anything I love the idea of a man choosing me and only me over and over and over again — and knowing that I am and always will be more than enough. In the meantime, I will be keeping tabs on the Pinkett-Smiths — because inquiring minds want to know.