The Oprah Magazine / What to Know About Open Relationships
November 02

The Oprah Magazine / What to Know About Open Relationships

As a culture, we collectively accept that relationship infidelity is a relatively common, if undesirable, occurrence. Yet for all of the marriages that suffer and sometimes end due to a spouses' affair, a stigma remains around the concept of consensual non-monogamy, or agreeing with your partner or partners to see other people. Alternative relationship models such as open relationships are often misunderstood, or dismissed as ultimately unfeasible—even by leading relationship experts.

"People have had open marriages forever, because a lot of us would prefer to have more than one relationship," anthropologist Helen Fisher told the New York Times in 2016, "but they never end up working long-term.” Though Fisher lacked the data to back up this belief (trustworthy open marriage statistics are hard to come by, in part due to the aforementioned taboo), she stated that our biology prohibits non-monogamy, and "emotionally the human animal has a very hard time with it."

But Jenny Block, author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriageargues that it isn't biology that leaves little room for open relationships, but rather centuries of culture presenting monogamous unions as the sole option—a norm cemented in the American postwar boom that presented nuclear families and suburban single-home ownership as the ideal. "Why should there be one relationship style, especially one that doesn't work that well?" Block points to the divorce rate, which still hovers in the 40-50 percent range according to the American Psychological Association, as evidence that at the very least, monogamous marriage doesn't work for everyone. "If your kid got a 50 on every test, your response wouldn't likely be, "way to go! Let's keep doing whatever it is you're doing, because that seems like a great approach.'"

Whether you're married, in a long-term relationship or single and curious, here's what to know about open relationships before you try one for yourself.

"Open relationship" and "polyamory" aren't interchangeable terms.

In a recent chat about polyamory, Dr. Elisabeth "Eli" Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Doortold me that "open relationship" is an umbrella term, and polyamory falls under category. People in the polyamorous community consciously engage in two or more simultaneous romantic relationships, and no one partnership is necessarily prioritized over another bond.

Meanwhile, the nature of a non-polyamorous open relationship can vary depending on what the two people involved agree it is. The couple may engage in sex together with multiple partners, commonly known as swinging (Silicon Valley star Thomas Middleditch spoke frankly about how swinging "saved his marriage" in a September 2019 Playboy interview). Or they may have each have one-off or regular sexual encounters separate of their partner outside the relationship, with a mutually-agreed upon set of unique rules. But the end of the day, a non-poly open relationship still places priority on the partner or spouse you've primarily committed to.

Consider why you want an open relationship.

If the pulse-racing prospect of new sexual partners is 90-100 percent of your motivation, don't forget to consider how you'll feel when your spouse or significant other is also with someone else.

You should also be confident that your current relationship is healthy before you even think about involving other people in the equation. Block warns against any notions that introducing non-monogamy can improve a relationship that's already on the rocks. "An open marriage is kind of a needy ball of love, just like a baby. You have to really tend to it and commit to it." And neither a baby nor an open relationship will save a bad marriage.

"I always tell people, open marriage is for the strongest marriages, not the weakest," Block says. "Because if you say 'I want to be with other people' when what you're really saying is 'I want out,' that's going to go bad quickly." However, if you're motivated to try it because you've realized you don't feel like an inherently monogamous being, you're in a good position to make choices that will protect your original relationship.

Do your research.

Taking the time to learn about how to have a successful open relationship won't just prepare you—it will provide you with valuable information to share with your significant other when you broach the idea. You may choose an article [such as the one you're reading right now, AHEM] or popular books on the topic that include The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, and Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.

Do not push your partner to pursue an open relationship.

"Don't try to convince your partner. Don't do any of that," Block says. If you've introduced the idea and it doesn't feel right to them on a gut level, additional pressure or rationalization is unlikely to change their mind. And if they do agree after initially saying no, they may only be doing so to please you, which sets the stage for problems down the line.

Make sure you agree on any ground rules you set.

Will you want to meet each other's sexual partners? How many details would you like to hear? Are you setting emotional limits on each other's external dalliances? What's your game plan for practicing safe sex and getting tested?


Before you embark upon an open relationship, you need to make sure both of you are on the same page about what you want, and what is and isn't allowed. Do not rush this step. "I'd say you have a couple of months ahead of you of really fun and really hard conversations," Block says. "And the better you are at that, the better your future looks."

"Think about what the relationship would look like to you, and ask your partner to do the same thing," she continues. "Then, sit down in a relaxed, stress-free, happy, no-time-limit situation and say, 'What would you think of if we...? What happens if we...? How do we...?'"

These chats will help you prepare for when things go sideways (this just in: human beings aren't perfect). "Be prepared to royally screw up," Block says.

Talk through tough feelings like jealousy.

Most people have experienced some level of jealousy in their romantic relationships, but knowing your significant other or spouse is actively sleeping with other people can make those feelings run red-hot. Ongoing communication is key, Block says, as does reminding yourself that jealousy doesn't serve your relationship in any way.

It also helps to talk through exactly what your fears are, and what they would look like if they were realized.

"Think about what you're talking about when you talk to each other," Block says. She offers a common scenario as an example of what that conversation can look like.
 "Hey, I felt weird when that girl looked at you."
Your partner:
 "What were you afraid of?"
"That she would take me from you."
Your partner: "You know me better than that—I'm going anywhere."

Block also points out that a person who actively wants to be with someone else might leave their partner either way, whether the relationship is monogamous or open.

Open relationships, like monogamous relationships, are always in flux.

You may open your relationship, and mutually decide to close it up again down the line. Or your open relationship may end, as Block's own open marriage with her husband did (she's now in a monogamous marriage to a woman). All good relationships require ongoing work and communication. Block believes that a great part about open relationships is the implicit intent to continually ask yourselves and each other what you want and need from it, and keep on choosing to be with each other.

When it comes to monogamy and marriage, Block says, "I just feel like somebody made an arbitrary rule that was about religion, or business, or both. Now we're trying to follow it, and we're wondering why it doesn't work," she says. "As humans, we sort of follow the crowd. Eventually I picked monogamy; it didn't pick me. You have to choose what type of relationship you want, whatever that may be."





Original post found here.