Open Relationships

Open relationships? Here's what you need to know

The idea has been dancing around in your mind for awhile, and you and your partner finally had the big talk - you want to expand your horizons, sleeping around with other people and coming on home to each other at the end of the day. Congratulations! You're about to enter the wet and wild world of an open relationship.

As fun as this path is, it can be perilous if you don't approach it right. The way from monogamy to non-monogamy is full of pitfalls that can damage even the best relationships. With the wrong mindset, this thing you want so much can start to feel like a burden on your relationship. Even so, you're curious, aren't you? You and your partner have committed to only be with one person forever and ever, but are still thirsty AF, and would really like to feel the pulse of someone else under your lips.

Whether you're in your tenth year of marriage or have only been dating for a few months, there are a few key things you need to know as you dive into these frisky experiences outside of your relationship.

Start by knowing the basics

While the thought of getting in a sweaty tangle with some fuzzy, dream babe is great, if you hope to upend that lover out of the fantasy and into your bed, you need to start by defining what it actually means to be in an open relationship in the first place.

While an open relationship may lead to more intimate bonds, that’s generally not the goal. To make sure you’re on the same wavelength, set expectations and communicate with your partner about what you hope your relationship looks like in five years. The best foundation? Nailing down the definition of an open relationship.

What is an open relationship, exactly?

The great thing about open relationships is that there are myriad ways to go about it. As long as you keep yourself casual with all other partners, and only have a romantic relationship with your main partner (called your “primary” by the community), then you’re doing an open relationship right.

At first glance, it might sound like you're changing your whole life and going poly - but there are some key differences between the two that you need to keep in mind.

What's the difference between polyamory and open relationships?

You'd be wrong if you thought there was no difference between polyamory and an open relationship. Meaning, these partnerships definitely have some overlap, but their differences are worth noting so that you can explore your relationships appropriately. Think of it like a venn diagram of two sexy, lush choices.

Minneapolis-based sex and relationships therapist Renee Divine, L.M.F.T., put it best when she talked to Women's Health Magazine. 'An open relationship is one where one or both partners have a desire for sexual relationships outside of each other,' she says, 'and polyamory is about having intimate loving relationships with multiple people.'

While polyamory and open relationships do have overlap, the big difference is that polyamory invites the potential to fall in love with many people at once, while an open relationship emphasizes true love flourishing only with one partner, not multiple people. Open relationships stress having a main person you love, in what's called your 'primary relationship.' While this configuration exists in polyamory too, poly living includes relationship anarchy, or triads where there is no 'primary' involved at all.

In polyamory, the emphasis is less on rules, and there may not even be one person in particular someone is interested in getting involved with. When it comes to open relationships, it is much more important to head home to one partner, and many couples feel like incorporating emotions with someone else is enough to make them not want to open their relationship ever again.

If you’re diving into this world, it helps to make sure you and your partner are on the same page to begin with. If one of you is saying “open relationship” and the other is saying “polyamory,” you may be in for a world of hurt.

Talk about it with your partner

The media shows a narrative of threesomes and non-monogamous excursions just unfolding with no discussions beforehand, like a big and sexy surprise. But in reality, there is a lot of prep work that must go into play if you want to have another romp down he road - and keep your relationship thriving afterward. Relationships take work, and the most important work of all that you can do is talking about it with your partner in depth.

To successfully open your relationship, you’re going to have to talk about it – more than you expect. Go through different scenarios, bring up doubts, and be vulnerable with one another. When your partner expresses a concern, don’t get defensive. Listen. Over and over throughout the conversations, stress your love for them, your attraction to them, and how excited you are for both of you to receive new kinds of pleasure.

Feel too sticky to talk about? Here's the hard truth: you may have full fantasies of wild sex with new people, and getting a thrill from hearing about your primary partner’s sexcapades with secondary lovers, but if you can’t start the conversation, you aren’t ready to open your relationship.

Keep yourselves open, and get vulnerabe. Then, by reminding them of all the benefits you both will reap, you’ll not only make them more comfortable with the idea, but you’ll also help understand both of your boundaries. These boundaries and these conversations will give way to the most important feeling in all nonmonogamous configurations: compersion.

What’s compersion?

This is a feeling that can’t be valued enough. Compersion is jealousy’s opposite. It’s the feeling of joy and happiness you get from your partner receiving pleasure, when their happiness (even if it doesn’t involve you) informs your own. 

When your partner is having fun with someone else, it has nothing to do with you – and that’s okay. That moment is all about them and their happiness. To successfully embrace this feeling, you have to trust that your partner will do what’s best for them while maintaining a happy relationship at the same time.

For some people, it’s easy to think about this from a nonsexual perspective. You know the jealousy you get when your partner’s career is taking off and you’re in a dead end? Normally, you shut that down and act happy for them – because they deserve it. Because their happiness and success doesn’t impede your own happiness and success. 

It’s the same thing when it comes to having casual encounters with new people. Compersion is a powerful emotion that takes practice. But as you learn to embrace it, your relationship will be better, more fulfilling, and happier than ever.

Get into details about what you want

Once you've gone ahead and opened the door to conversations with your partner about an open relationship, you might be thinking you're set. If your conversation went as smoothly as it could, then the next thing you both can start to do is explore the specifics. You may think you two can dive right into an orgy and make that sweet love with a new honey, but hold up.

Broaching the topic is only the first baby step. A significant other needs respect - and that means communicating more than you think you would have to. While you have both had the sexy and thrilling starting convo, and agree that you both want to have sex with other people, you need to lay out some of the nitty gritty details. Every couple is different, but some common places to establish rules include these four facets:

  • Remember, you aren't becoming polyamorous, so a rule about developing emotional connections is essential. You might find that means no hooking up with friends or acquaintances, or you might both feel more comfortable when it's kept in your social circle.
  • Frequency of hookups is also another thing. You may not want each other to hook up with one person more than once, or it may make you feel more comfortable to meet the person your partner wants to hook up with first. You're in this together, so make sure your rules help you both be heard.
  • Traditionally, women are less reserved about exploring their sexuality than men. If you're in a straight relationship, women may find this an opportunity to open themselves up to finally try queer sex. Establish guidelines for one another about sexual exploration, and everything related to it - and what the boundaries are for that kind of intimacy. A good example is a woman might want to experiment with other women, but only if her husband isn't watching. Such a personal experience might best be explored solo.
  • Husband and wife duos may enjoy swapping partners with other people, but a conversation needs to happen first about the matter of seeing each other actually getting down with other people. It may be alright for you if your partner canoodles with a person behind closed doors, but seeing them get it on with others right in front of you may elicit a totally different feeling.

Revisit your boundaries often, and always let your partner know you have an open door for love.

Remember: the people you're hooking up with are people too

The rules and boundaries you elicit are likely to change as you evolve together, but one thing to always keep in mind is extending compassion to the people you're hooking up with too. This may sound obvious, but it's something many couples overlook when first diving into open relationships. Whoever you're getting frisky with that isn't your partner is their own individual person - and they have their own unique wants and agenda coming into a hookup.

In relationship la-la land, some couples completely forget that the single folks they're hooking up with get a say in how the night goes, as well. You may see one person at a bar and think they're your dreamboat for the evening, but you'll get nowhere satisfying if you don't keep in mind that they've got plans of their own, too.

As you and your partner establish rules for hooking up with other folks, keep the autonomy of those new folks in the foreground of your conversation one hundred percent of the time. Some rules that couples come up with can be cruel and dehumanizing, like 'no kissing.' For every rule you establish, take a moment to stop and put yourself in the shoes of your potential lovers. If you were single, how would it feel if someone refused to kiss you, but wanted to have sex with you?

If your gut tells you it's a shitty move, then skip it. The golden rule reigns supreme here. Enter every hookup being forthright. Share your intentions, be honest that you're in an open relationship, and field your potential suitor's questions or issues over a cocktail or cup of coffee. When we act with integrity in all our relationships, everyone wins.

How do I get started?

Now that the conversation has been had and you've agreed on parameters that work for you both, your connection to each other can go to the next sexy level: it's time to start pushing those monogamous edges and experiencing something brand spankin' new.

Because it can be tricky, it pays to start slow. Open relationships take a ton of communication and a heavy dose of patience. Start with small acts of nonmonogamy. There are a few ways to go about it, but two of the most common ways are with same room and full swap play.

In same room action, you go on a date with another couple. It’s kind of like a double date, but at the end of the night, you go back to a hotel room or someone’s house together and all have sex in one room. You stay with your respective partners, but get the thrill of seeing what it’s like when someone is lusting after your person.

Soft swaps take it a step further. They start the same way: a double date. This time, there’s more flirting, because it’s understood that you’ll be playing with one of the other two people this time. Boundaries vary for everyone, so talk about it before you get frisky. It may be a heavy makeout session with the new person, or it could be giving head. It’s up to you four to decide the boundaries.

Playing like this lets you see what it’s like to get frisky with someone who isn’t your partner without committing to sex just yet. When you do these things, you may notice curious feelings cropping up – which is why this next part is so crucial

You got this.

Open relationships can be a fulfilling way to explore new kinks, have fun, and get to know your sexual self. With a little conversation, you and your partner can be well on your way to having the times of your lives and deepening your relationship in a way you only dreamed about before. 

Already in an open relationship? Tell us about how you and your partner make it work!