Open relationship

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An open relationship is an intimate relationship that is sexually non-monogamous. The term is distinct from polyamory, in that it generally indicates a relationship where there is a primary emotional and intimate relationship between two partners, who agree to at least the possibility of sexual or emotional intimacy with other people.


Open relationships include any type of romantic relationship (dating, marriage, etc.) that is open. [1] An "open" relationship is where one or more parties have permission to be romantically or sexually involved with people outside of the relationship. This is opposed to the traditionally "closed" relationship, where both parties agree on being with one another exclusively. The concept of an open relationship has been recognized since the 1970s. [2]


To a large degree, open relationships are a generalization of the concept of a relationship beyond monogamous relationships. [3] A form of open relationship is the open marriage, in which the participants in a marriage have an open relationship. [3]

There are several different styles of open relationships. Some examples include:

The term open relationship is sometimes used interchangeably with the closely related term polyamory, but the two concepts are not identical. The main unifying element to open relationship styles is non-exclusivity of romantic or sexual relationships. Another generic term for all these types of relationships is open love. [4]


Swinging is a form of open relationship in which the partners in a committed relationship engage in sexual activities with others at the same time. Swingers may regard the practice as a recreational or social activity [5] [6] that adds variety or excitement into their otherwise conventional sex lives or for curiosity. Swingers who engage in casual sex maintain that sex among swingers is often more frank and deliberative and therefore more honest than infidelity. Some couples see swinging as a healthy outlet and means to strengthen their relationship.

Open marriage

An open marriage, [7] sometimes referred to as consensual non-monogamy [8] or CNM, is a type of marriage wherein the involved parties unequivocally consent to their partners entering or engaging in romantic and/or sexual relationships with other people. [9]


Polyamory is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. While "open relationship" is sometimes used as a synonym for "polyamory" or "polyamorous relationship", the terms are not synonymous. The "open" in "open relationship" refers to the sexual aspect of a relationship, whereas "polyamory" refers to allowing bonds to form (which may be sexual or otherwise) as additional long-term relationships. [3]

The terms "polyamory" and "friends with benefits" are fairly recent, having come about within the past few decades [10] though the concept is as old as society.


Some believe that open relationships occur more frequently in certain demographics, such as the young rather than the old in America, including, more specifically, the college-educated middle-class rather than the uneducated working-class, or people of certain ethnic and/or other racial minorities. [11] According to the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, 4% of respondents reported being in an open relationship. [12] It was also found that males and LGB individuals are more likely to report being in an open relationship, [13] with 33% of gay men, 23% of bisexual men, 5% of lesbian females, and 22% of bisexual females reporting an open relationship. [12]

A 1974 study showed that male students who either cohabit or live in a communal group are more likely to become involved in open relationships than females, and are still more interested in the concept than females even if not participating in open relationships. [11] A survey taken by gay men's "health and life magazine", FS Magazine, of the 1,006 gay men they surveyed 41% are in, or have previously experienced, an open relationship. Of the men who are in an open relationship, 75% believe that open relationships are great. [14] [15]

Many couples within open relationships are dual-career, meaning that both primary partners have a stable job and/or a career. Both men and women in these, especially in closed groups, are also more likely to be in managerial jobs. Most also are either childfree, or post child-rearing. [16]

Reward vs. risk

Reasons for entering an open relationship

An open relationship may form for various reasons. These include:[ citation needed ]

“It has been proposed that men (both gay and straight), in contrast to women, are able to cognitively separate sex from emotions (or love) in a process commonly termed compartmentalization. [19] " This means it is not unusual for homosexual men to have open relationships, which means breaking the ‘norm’ of a committed and ‘typical’ heterosexual relationship. That is not to suggest that open relationships do not work; research has shown comparable relationship satisfaction for both monogamous and non-monogamous couples. [20] [21] However, it could be that there is a lack of emotional investment in the relationship that makes it harder to navigate through tough times.

Reasons for avoiding an open relationship

Many couples consider open relationships, but choose not to follow through with the idea. If a person attempts to approach their committed monogamous partner about transitioning to an open relationship, the monogamous partner may convince or coerce them to either stay monogamous or pursue a new partner. [3] There may also be concern that when beginning an open relationship, a partner may become only concerned in their personal development and pay less attention to their partner. [10]

Jealousy is often present in monogamous relationships, and adding one or more partners to the relationship may cause it to increase. [10] Results of some studies have suggested that jealousy remains a problem in open relationships because the actual involvement of a third party is seen as a trigger. [22] In Constantine & Constantine (1971), the researchers found that 80% of participants in open marriages had experienced jealousy at one point or another. [22]

Consensual nonmonogamous relationships have negative stereotypes around them, including less sexually fulfilling, more sexually risky, and less moral. [12] These stereotypes are reinforced by mononormativity, which is the belief that monogamous relationships are the most natural and culturally acceptable relationship. [23]

Cultural pressure may also dissuade initiating or switching to an open relationship. There is a commonly held societal stereotype that those involved in open relationships are less committed or mature than those who are in monogamous relationships. Films, media, and self-help books present the message that to desire more than one partner means not having a "true" relationship. In the post-WWII 1950s-1970s, it was traditional to "date around" (with guidelines such not going out with one particular suitor twice in a row) until ready to start "going steady" (the onset of exclusivity and sexual exploration); since then, non-exclusive dating around has lost favour and going directly to steady (now known simply as exclusive dating) has been elevated instead. [24] Desiring an open relationship in these days often claimed to be a phase that a person is passing through before being ready to "settle down". [3] The logistics of an open relationship may be difficult to cope with, especially if the partners reside together, split finances, own property, or parent children. [3]

Sexually transmitted infection

Any sexual contact outside of a strictly monogamous or polyfidelitous relationship increases the possibility that one member of the group will contract a sexually transmitted infection and pass it into the group.

Neither barrier device use (such as condoms) nor more vigilant STI testing and vaccination can fully eliminate such risk, [25] but can reduce the statistical increase attributable to nonmonogamy. Nevertheless, using data from the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, Levine et al. (2018) found that individuals in open relationships reported more condom use in both vaginal and anal intercourse compared to monogamous couples. [12]

The development of PrEP has led to a decrease in risk for HIV infection by as much as 92%. [26]  If both partners are on PrEP, risk of HIV infection is diminished, even if there are multiple partners.

Successful open relationships

One of the most significant factors that aids a relationship in being successful is that it is about making the relationship fit the needs of all parties involved. No two open relationships will be the same, and the relationship will change due to the current circumstances at each specific moment. The style of the open relationship will mirror the parties' involved values, goals, desires, needs and philosophies. [3]

The most successful relationships have been those that take longer to establish. By taking the time to develop a clear idea of what both partners want out of the openness of a relationship, it allows the parties involved to self-reflect, process their emotions, deal with possible conflicts, and (for those transitioning from monogamy to nonmonogamy) find ways to cope with the change. [3]

Negotiating the details of the open relationship is important throughout the communication process. Topics that are commonly found in negotiations between couples include honesty, the level of maintenance, trust, boundaries and time management. [27]

Other tools that couples utilize in the negotiation process include allowing partners to veto new relationships, prior permission, and interaction between partners. This helps to reassure each partner in the relationship that their opinion is important and matters. However, although ability to veto can be a useful tool in negotiation, a successful negotiation and open relationship can still occur without it. Some reject veto power because they believe it limits their partner from experiencing a new relationship and limits their freedom. [3]


Types of boundaries include physical, which is along the lines of not touching someone without permission being given; sexual boundaries; and emotional boundaries, which is avoiding the discussion of specific emotions. [3] Boundaries help to set out rules for what is and is not acceptable to the members of the relationship. They also help people to feel safe and that they are just as important in the open relationship as their partners. [3]

Examples of boundaries that are set could include: [3]

Some couples create a physical relationship contract. These can be useful in not only negotiating, but also clearly articulating the needs, wants, limits, expectations, and commitments that are expected of the parties involved. [3]

Time management

Adequate time management can contribute to the success of an open relationship. Even though having a serious commitment with one partner is common, negotiating the time spent among all partners is still important. Although the desire to give an unlimited amount of love, energy, and emotion to others is common, the limited amount of time in a day limits the actual time spent with each partner. Some find that if they cannot evenly distribute their time, they forego a partner. [3] Time management can also be related to equity theory, which stresses the importance of fairness in relationships. [27]

Research on open marriages

Positive outcomes

Published 1974, a national study of sexuality conducted by Hunt found that relatively few people engage in swinging. Hunt attributed the low number of people in these open marriages to various social, psychological, and practical problems. Yet, some of these people "confirmed what the advocates and enthusiasts have claimed—namely, that marital swinging can provide physically intense experiences, that it can be immensely ego-gratifying and that it is a temporary release from confinement and responsibility and a brief chance to live out one's wildest fantasies" (pages 273–274). [28]

Some studies show that couples in open marriages can maintain satisfying relationships. Rubin observed no differences in marital adjustment between couples in open marriages and couples in sexually monogamous marriages. [29] Rubin and Adams reported no differences in marital satisfaction between couples in open marriages and couples in sexually monogamous relationships. [30] Gilmartin likewise found no differences in marital satisfaction between sexually open and sexually monogamous couples. [31] A study by Bergstrand and Willams found couples in open marriages had higher levels of satisfaction than couples in the general population. [32]

Some couples in open marriages report high levels of satisfaction with their relationships. A study conducted by Wolf found that 76 percent of couples in open marriages described the quality of their relationships as "better than average" or "outstanding". [33] Dixon found similarly high levels of marital satisfaction in a study of 100 bisexual and heterosexual husbands in open marriages. [34] In another study, Dixon observed that 80 percent of wives in open marriages rated their marital compatibility as "excellent" or "good", and 76 percent of the wives rated their sexual satisfaction as "excellent" or "good". [35] Buunk has also reported high levels of satisfaction in couples in open marriages. [36]

Some couples feel open marriage has increased their marital satisfaction. Bergstrand and Williams collected online questionnaires from 1092 people involved in swinging style open marriages. [32] Among those people who said they were "somewhat unhappy" or "unhappy" with their marriages before swinging, around 80–90 percent said they were happier with their marriages after they started swinging. Nearly half of people who said they were "very happy" with their marriages before swinging claimed to be even happier with their marriages after swinging. Open marriage can in some cases increase marital satisfaction.

Neutral outcomes

Couples sometimes drop out of the open marriage lifestyle and return to sexual monogamy. In a five-year study of bisexuals, 80 percent of whom initially had open relationships, Martin Weinberg, Colin J. Williams, and Douglas Pryor observed a definite shift towards sexual monogamy over time. [37] When first interviewed, a majority of these bisexuals preferred sexual non-monogamy as their ideal form of romantic relationships. Five years later, around 60 percent had changed their views, and most of those who changed their views said sexual monogamy was their new ideal. Some of these changes were motivated by the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. Monogamy was seen as a way to avoid getting HIV/AIDS. But, for many, the shift to monogamy was due to a genuine change in what they sought in relationships. Their desire to be sexually monogamous had nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic.

Couples who try open marriages and decide to return to sexually monogamous marriages may be left with different feelings about open marriage. Some may have negative feelings about their open marriage experiences. [38] Others may continue to "see nonmonogamy as possibly good for others but not for themselves". [37] Overall, open marriage has a relatively neutral impact on these couples.

Negative outcomes

Couples in open marriages expose themselves to the potential for conflicts caused by jealousy. Studies have shown that 80 percent or more of couples in open marriages experience jealousy over their extramarital relationships. [39] [40] Jealousy with its roots in open marriage can lead to serious conflicts. For example, attempting to interfere with a rival relationship may make a partner angry. Insulting or berating a partner may provoke retaliatory responses. Demanding greater commitment may ignite arguments. Indeed, many studies have reported that conflict occurs during episodes of jealousy. [41] [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] The conflicts caused by jealousy can seem overwhelming and damage relationships.

Even when jealousy is not an overwhelming problem, open relationships may cause other complications. Numerous authors have argued that open marriages disrupt relationships by interfering with intimacy and provoking insecurities. [28] [47] [48] [49] [50]

Some couples report that open marriage contributed to their divorces. Janus and Janus asked divorced people to list the one primary reason for their divorces. [51] Approximately 1 percent of men and 2 percent of women listed open marriage as the primary reason for their divorce. This seems like a small percentage, but keep in mind that only 1 to 6 percent of the population have open marriages. [28] [52] [53] [54] Open marriage is perceived as a primary cause of divorce in a substantial minority of the 1 to 6 percent of people who have open marriages.

The extent to which open marriage actually contributes to divorce remains uncertain. Blumstein and Schwartz note a slightly higher risk of divorce among couples who engage in extramarital sex, even if the couples agree to allow extramarital sex. [55] However, Rubin and Adams did not observe any difference in the risk of divorce for couples in open marriages and couples in sexually monogamous marriages. [30]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Human sexual activity</span> Manner in which humans engage sexually

Human sexual activity, human sexual practice or human sexual behaviour is the manner in which humans experience and express their sexuality. People engage in a variety of sexual acts, ranging from activities done alone to acts with another person in varying patterns of frequency, for a wide variety of reasons. Sexual activity usually results in sexual arousal and physiological changes in the aroused person, some of which are pronounced while others are more subtle. Sexual activity may also include conduct and activities which are intended to arouse the sexual interest of another or enhance the sex life of another, such as strategies to find or attract partners, or personal interactions between individuals. Sexual activity may follow sexual arousal.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polyamory</span> Intimacy for multiple partners

Polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, romantic relationships with more than one partner at the same time, with the informed consent of all partners involved. People who identify as polyamorous may believe in open relationships with a conscious management of jealousy and reject the view that sexual and relational exclusivity (monogamy) are prerequisite for deep, committed, long-term, loving relationships. Others prefer to restrict their sexual activity to only members of the group, a closed polyamorous relationship that is usually referred to as polyfidelity.

Swinging, sometimes called wife-swapping, husband-swapping, or partner-swapping, is a sexual activity in which both singles and partners in a committed relationship sexually engage with others for recreational purposes. Swinging is a form of non-monogamy and is an open relationship. People may choose a swinging lifestyle for a variety of reasons. Practitioners cite an increased quality and quantity of sex. Some people may engage in swinging to add variety into their otherwise conventional sex-lives or due to their curiosity. Some couples see swinging as a healthy outlet and means to strengthen their relationship.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Infidelity</span> Cheating, adultery, or having an affair

Infidelity is a violation of a couple's emotional and/or sexual exclusivity that commonly results in feelings of anger, sexual jealousy, and rivalry.

Open marriage is a form of non-monogamy in which the partners of a dyadic marriage agree that each may engage in extramarital sexual or romantic relationships, without this being regarded by them as infidelity, and consider or establish an open relationship despite the implied monogamy of marriage. There are variant forms of open marriage such as swinging and polyamory, each with the partners having varying levels of input into their spouse's activities.

Polyfidelity is a form of non-monogamy, a romantic relationship structure in which all members are considered equal partners and agree to restrict sexual and/or romantic activity only to other members of the group.

Group marriage or conjoint marriage is a marital arrangement where three or more adults enter into sexual, affective, romantic, or otherwise intimate short- or long-term partnerships, and share in any combination of finances, residences, care or kin work. Group marriage is considered a form of polygamy. While academic usage has traditionally treated group marriage as a marital arrangement, more recent usage has expanded the concept to allow for the inclusion of non-conjugal unions. Colloquial usage of group marriage has also been associated with polyamory and polyamorous families.

Non-monogamy is an umbrella term for every practice or philosophy of non-dyadic intimate relationship that does not strictly hew to the standards of monogamy, particularly that of having only one person with whom to exchange sex, love, and/or affection. In that sense, "nonmonogamy" may be accurately applied to extramarital sex, group marriage, or polyamory. It is not synonymous with infidelity, since all parties are consenting to the relationship structure, partners are often committed to each other as well as to their other partners and cheating is still considered problematic behavior with many non-monogamous relationships.

Couples therapy attempts to improve romantic relationships and resolve interpersonal conflicts.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to sexual ethics:

The type, functions, and characteristics of marriage vary from culture to culture, and can change over time. In general there are two types: civil marriage and religious marriage, and typically marriages employ a combination of both. Marriages between people of differing religions are called interfaith marriages, while marital conversion, a more controversial concept than interfaith marriage, refers to the religious conversion of one partner to the other's religion for sake of satisfying a religious requirement.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to interpersonal relationships.

Terminology within polyamory looks at the evolution and meaning of the word "polyamory" itself, as well as alternative definitions and concepts which closely relate to it.

A mixed-orientation marriage is a marriage between partners of differing sexual orientations. The broader term is mixed-orientation relationship, sometimes shortened to MOR or MORE.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cuckold</span> Husband of an adulterous wife

A cuckold is the husband of an adulterous wife; the wife of an adulterous husband is a cuckquean. In biology, a cuckold is a male who unwittingly invests parental effort in juveniles who are not genetically his offspring. A husband who is aware of and tolerates his wife's infidelity is sometimes called a wittol or wittold.

Monogamy is a dyadic relationship in which two members of a group form an exclusive intimate partnership. Having only one partner at any one time, whether that be for life or whether that be serial monogamy, contrasts with various forms of non-monogamy. More generally, the term is used to describe the behavioral ecology and sexual selection of animal mating systems, referring to the state of having only one mate at any one given time. In a human cultural context, monogamy typically refers to the custom of two individuals, regardless of orientation, committing to a sexually exclusive relationship.

Terri Conley is an American social psychologist who studies gender differences in sexuality, consequences of departures from monogamy, and the consequences of masculinity threat. She is currently an associate professor of psychology and women's and gender studies at the University of Michigan, where she leads the Stigmatized Sexualities research lab.

Polyamory is a relationship orientation that is practiced by a minority of the population in the United States, about 4 to 5 percent. According to a 2016 study, 20 percent of singles in the US have attempted some form of consensual non-monogamy at some point of their lives, such as polyamory or open relationships. In a study, polyamorous couples tend to identify as bisexual and pansexual.

Consensual non-monogamy (CNM), and its subset ethical non-monogamy (ENM), are the practice of non-monogamous intimate or sexual relations that are distinguished from infidelity by the knowledge and consent of those involved, and from polygamy by the various partners not being in a single marriage. Forms of consensual non-monogamy include swinging, polyamory, open relationships, cuckquean fetishism and cuckolding fetishism.

Unicorn hunting is the practice by two people who are in a relationship, usually a heterosexual couple, of seeking a third partner for the relationship temporarily or permanently, usually a bisexual woman, either to join a threesome or to start a polyamorous relationship. The practice is generally viewed negatively by the polyamorous and LGBT community as a form of fetishisation.


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Further reading