Most relationships have “rules” – doctor/patient, teacher/student, boss/employee, judge/courtroom attendees. Some of these “rules” are written in policies and laws; others are unwritten but imposed by societal norms. Romantic relationships are a bit different; but when it comes to open relationships, there are some rules worth being discussed beforehand. And we’re here to describe what those mysterious open relationship rules are.
“First and foremost, an open relationship is a consensual and non-monogamous relationship between partners, known as primary partners. Based on an agreed-upon set of rules, each partner is free to date other people and, yes, even engage in sex with others.”
Dawn Ferrara, licensed professional counselor
First things first – let’s unpack some definitions. Simply put, open relationships are a variation of traditional relationships, meaning being involved in consensual non-monogamous relationships with more flexibility and customized rules.
According to study be Levine et al (2018), 4% of Americans are or have been engaged in an open relationship, both married and unmarried. Even more, 56% of Avvo study respondents believe open relationships are morally wrong.
However, before blaming open relationships, do not confuse them with the following:
So, while having more clarity on what open relationships are, let’s unpack the exact rules you must consider if you decide on them. Beware – the list can be lengthy and complex if there is to be a successful open relationship.
While societal and religious norms have dictated some broad rules over the centuries, today’s couples pretty much make up their own ground rules so that both partners are at least roughly on the same page about expectations, boundaries, behaviors, sexual activities, etc. These rules serve as general guidelines for how the romantic relationship will progress over time and bring happiness to both partners.
Within those basic rules, the details of how open relationships work individually will be up to those that both partners support.
In any relationship, honesty is always the right thing to do. But for a healthy open relationship, it is an absolute must. Here are the components of such honesty:
Just remember: being completely honest from the very beginning lays the right open marriage or open relationship foundation.
Related reading: How to Choose Between Two Guys (or Not)
Sometimes, safe sex practices fly out the window in the heat of the moment – but don’t let that happen to you. You should practice safe sex irl in all of your sexual relationships, and this is especially true for open relationships. These are the “rules:”
Practicing safe sex should be at the top of your list. It’s a key factor in partner transparency and creating a safe space for everyone. Don’t ever feel uncomfortable demanding caution.
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If a married couple wishes to explore an open marriage, these two primary partners should set the first set of boundaries. This means agreeing upon both physical and emotional boundaries to open marriage rules:
Every marriage is different, and open relationships fall obviously into one of these “differences.” And the relationship status between you and your spouse can get complicated and messy. If it does, working things through with a relationship therapist may be the best step to take – after all, we all process emotions differently.
Related reading: Relationship Advice for Women That Will Help Your Love Life
The explicitly negotiated “rules” you set up with your spouse or primary relationship will determine the “rules” you have with secondary partners.
If you are not married, though, and your relationships are clearly not going to be monogamous ones, what do you owe your partners? It’s a common misconception and kinda a popular belief that singles don’t owe their partners a lot of explanations about their dating behaviors. Quite the opposite is true.
“In an open relationship, invest in inventing a pattern of communication that works for you and your partners. Be open about your feelings, whether it’s inadequacy, jealousy, or joy. This will encourage your partners to open up about their feelings as well.”
Dr. Sampreeti Das, PhD researcher and clinical psychologist
When you were a kid, you probably learned the one golden rule that everyone should live by – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So, put yourself in your other partners’ shoes. Unless they just go after sexual satisfaction and nothing else, you do need to be honest to a point:
So, you’re in a primary relationship and have open relationships with others. Who are these others? Have you met your partner’s friend at a high school reunion, hit it off, and decided to pursue a relationship? How about a former co-worker your partner is still in touch with? These opportunities may present themselves but may ruin the strong foundation that you set up in the beginning.
In open relationships, partners do not have to get “permission” about who they hook up with. But use your common sense and avoid hookups that could result in emotional distress.
Open relationships can get messy, with feelings of jealousy, guilt, inadequacy, and even anger. If you have those feelings, just communicate them to your primary and involved secondaries.
At the same time, it is unfair to minimize those feelings on the part of partners, just because you do not feel them. Successful open relationships require that everyone involved is entitled to their feelings and a discussion about them. If your partnership cannot resolved the issues, it should end.
Open relationships are all well and good if both you and your primary are down for them. At the same time, you do have a primary, and that same person should be special in your mind and heart.
So make a point of ensuring that your primary knows they are special in your relationship with them. Here are some ways you can do just that:
“If your gut is saying ‘yes yes yes’ or Oh God, no, no’ no,’ listen to it.”
Dr Kristie Overstreet, psychotherapist
An open relationship is certainly not for everyone, and it may not be for you either. Sure, you were “feeling it” in the beginning, thinking it would give you new excitement and satisfaction. But once you’ve found something that wasn’t in your monogamous relationship, it might become a bit boring or mundane later.
Now that you have experienced it for a while, you are finding that all of the complications, all of the emotions you are feeling, and all of the “trendy” or “cool” aspects of an open relationship are just not for you.
You have the right to back out anytime you wish. The most important thing is that you do what is right for you.
And if you have a primary who does not feel the same way, then you will need to walk away from that relationship too. This may be painful but better now than to hang onto a relationship that will ultimately leave you unhappy and even bitter. And while you are grieving over your lost relationship, make sure that you find a loyal support system among friends and family to get you through the process.
Only you can make the final decision on whether or not enter an open relationship. But at least now you know the “rules” that regulate your emotional boundaries along with physical ones. This way, you’re more likely to make your relationship successful if you venture into this territory.
Just remember: sometimes, you just need to follow your instincts. If you’re feeling that an open relationship is the best options for you right here and right now, go for it. If you don’t like this relationship idea at all and don’t want to have several partners, nobody can force you into that. The choice is all yours.