What Is an Open Relationship? An Introduction

Are you in an open relationship? Or are you in a traditional, monogamous relationship but would prefer an open relationship? Is an open relationship the same thing as polyamory?

Maybe your partner has asked you about exploring open relationships, and you aren’t sure exactly what that means, or how it would work for you as a couple.

What Is an Open Relationship? 

An open relationship is a consensual non-monogamous relationship where two (or more) committed lovers choose to allow sexual or romantic intimacy, with other people, outside of the relationship. 

There are many kinds of open relationships and each relationship has its own rules, boundaries, or specifics.

Read: 5 Reasons to Open Your Relationship

Some open relationships are about swinging, or socializing and finding other sexual partners together. Some are an arrangement of convenience, staying together “for the kids” for example or financial reasons, but each partner pursuing lovers separately.

Some open relationships are about polyamory, and the philosophical belief that monogamy limits relationship potential and sexual pleasure, where consenting lovers agree that more is more. An “open relationship” is really an umbrella term for relationships that are consensually non-monogamous.

Read:13 Unconventional and Alternative Relationships Explained

How Do Open Relationships Work? 

Every open relationship will have unique terms. The only real rule is that both or all partners in the relationship will agree and consent to those terms. Basically, an open relationship is a relationship designed by those inside of the relationship, rather than by social, religious, or cultural traditions or institutions. 

People in the dating sphere may be open about looking for an open relationship, or identify as polyamorous. Others may already be in a relationship together and one or more of the partners is interested in opening the doors to outside intimacy, romance, and sex.

Read: A Guide to Open Relationship Rules

Many open relationships work by prioritizing the relationship but allowing sexual connections outside. Those relationships work by keeping boundaries about emotional involvement. Others allow certain kinds of sexual activity but not others, for example, soft swinging is usually about “everything except intercourse.”

Other open relationships work as polyamory, where couples are open to exploring more interconnected relationships or forming polycules. Some reject relationship hierarchies and don’t have rules for what might happen. 

Open relationships work with honesty, communication, consent, and boundaries specific to that couple. 

Read: Why Open Relationships Don’t Work (and Why Some Do)

Why Do People Want Open Relationships? 

There are as many reasons why people want open relationships as there are open relationships! 

Some people are philosophically or morally opposed to the state, culture, or religious imposition of monogamy, which they may view as unnatural to humans.

Some feel that a relationship is enhanced by an open-door policy, and believe that love and trust are more complete without sexual restrictions.

Some love each other but have different sexual needs and desires that are better fulfilled outside of that union. For example, some people are bisexual and want to explore that side of themselves. Or a couple may have mismatched kinks. 

Read: Mismatched Kinks & Fetishes: How to Deal

Some couples don’t want to break up when common circumstances such as infidelity arise, so they change the rules.

Some find sex is much better when they enjoy sex outside the relationship. They find their attraction to each other benefits by being renewed.

Some people choose not to limit the pleasure their loved one can experience.

Some people prefer to experience freedom and don’t want to limit themselves.

Some find an open relationship alleviates the pressure to be all things to another person, sexually and emotionally. 

Read: Still Deciding? Open Relationship Pros and Cons

5 Types of Open Relationships 

1. Polyamorous Relationships 

Polyamory means having, wanting, or seeking out relationships that are consensually non-monogamous.

A polyamorous relationship may involve a primary partnership between two people, a throuple or relationship with three, two or more couples forming a polycule, non-hierarchical relationships, and many more variations. 

In polyamory, people may identify as polyamorous or see their relationship preferences as a kind of orientation. They may be philosophically committed to non-monogamy. Polyamory is about relationships, not just sex. 

Read: Polyamory Is More than Sex

2. DADT Open Relationships 

The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is basically a relationship where partners are allowed to pursue sex or romance outside of the relationship, but they don’t want to know about those events.

In general, the DADT open relationship has a bad rap in polyamory, because polyamory is in some ways about both or all partners being “all in” and having the same beliefs.

The sex and romance that poly partners pursue is a preference or belief. The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell model is seen as being somewhat begrudging or making a kind of allowance. It implies that one partner is doing the not asking and another is doing the not telling. Polyamory is about open communication and compersion.

This is very often true, but not always. The DADT open relationship is not always a dying relationship going through its last gasps, or a dead one that hangs on without full consent of both parties. It can serve very well for some kinds of relationships. Things can sometimes be complicated.

Read: How to Ask for an Open Relationship

Should you divorce just because you know your wife is also in love with her ex? Is a man who is much older or very ill not allowed to be generous and tell his wife she is free to see other men, without burdening him with the details? What if two people aren’t inclined to polyamory, but one has an intense fetish that the other finds disturbing? 

The DADT is one of the oldest kinds of relationship agreements. It is not always hunky dory, true. But it is not always negative. Many relationships have been saved or improved by what was sometimes called “an arrangement.”

Read: DADT Relationships and Their Challenges

3. One-Sided Open Relationships 

The one-sided open relationship is not very common, but for some couples it is the best one. It’s also not for everyone. It is where one partner is free to pursue sex or romance outside the relationship, but the other is not. 

Some one-sided open relationships are formed when two people fall in love, one who is polyamorous and one who is monogamous. They both decide to accept the other as they are and carry on. This might be tricky for many people, but some find it preferable to dissolving a good relationship.

Read: What It Means to Be Poly Monogamous

For others, the one sided open relationship is an aspect of dominance and submission or BDSM relationships. The dominant lover has privileges that the submissive one does not have or want, as they only want to serve. Cuckolding lifestyles would also fit here.

In other cases, both are free to pursue sex outside in theory, but one doesn’t and the other does.

Read: One-Sided Open Relationships: Can it Work?

4. Open Marriage

An open marriage is an open relationship where the couple is married. Although this can be a form of polyamory, it usually implies the couple’s outside affairs are sexual in nature and is not usually about being open to further relationships. 

Read: Polyamorous Marriage: 6 Benefits for Poly People

5. Swinger Relationships

Swingers are a subset of polyamory or open relationships that keep the focus on each other. Swinging is something couples participate in together. They socialize with other couples and exchange partners. Swingers go home together and use the outside sex as an aphrodisiac for their own sexual relationship.

Read: Swinger Stories: 8 Readers Share Their First Time Story

Are you in an open relationship or considering one? Please share!

Tell us what you think

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments