Rules of Open Relationships

Relationship Rules
08 May 2023
11 min read
Open Relationship Rules - They're Important

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.

What Is (and What Is Not) an Open Relationship?

“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:

  • Swinging: These are solely temporary sexual relationships with other partners, usually planned in advance, in the form of a party, and often occur among people who may or may not know their sexual partners and may never see them again.
  • Infidelity: When people are in monogamous relationships and break the set romantic and sexual boundaries by cheating, there is no open relationship happening. It is simply cheating without consent and without any common open relationship rules.
  • Polyamorous relationships: They are not really open relationships. These are groups of people who may reside together (in polycules) and have open sex with many more than one person. But they all know each other, and there are usually no strict ground rules with set sexual boundaries.

8 Open Relationship Rules

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.

Healthy open relationships are based on honesty

Open and Honest Communication

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:

  • If you begin a new relationship and you are already engaged in other relationships, you must be upfront and honest about your non-monogamy. How many details you provide, including how many partners you have, is up to you. But, above all, don’t set up expectations that you will be in a monogamous relationship with them.
  • Be honest with yourself too. If you have a primary partner with whom you have strong emotional intimacy, be certain that all other consensual non-monogamous relationships are aware of this. They have the right to know that your primary partner takes precedence over them so that they can make their own decisions about moving forward with you.
  • Honest open relationships should include your secondary partners. And it’s not just about how many partners you are involved with and if you have a primary partner. Everyone should be aware of your relationship schedule time. If you add and drop partners and do not live up to agreed-upon expectations and emotional boundaries, you are practicing relationship anarchy, and that isn’t ethical or fair.
  • Have honest conversations about the levels of emotional intimacy and sexual activities. You should be able to have these talks with all your open relationships partners. This approach to practicing healthy communication on physical intimacy will lead to healthy open relationships.

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)

Safe Sex Is Not an Option

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:”

  • If you engage in penetrative sex, a condom is a must
  • If you engage in oral sex, a dental dam is in order
  • Get tested often and be honest if you contract an STI
  • It is perfectly fine to ask any new partners to get tested before oral or penetrative sex or exploring sexual activities of any kind
  • If you use toys, they must be thoroughly cleaned with an antiseptic after each use

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.

Related reading:
How to Be a Better Lover – Inside and Out
The Art and Skill of Making Love

Setting Boundaries and Limitations with Your Spouse

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:

  • If you are both going to have date nights with your multiple partners, where will these occur and how will you schedule them?
  • How much information will you share about each other’s sexual pursuits and activities?
  • Will you allow each other to have sexual activities that you don’t have at home?
  • What are the emotional and sexual boundaries with other partners? If another partner is getting too emotionally attached in a romantic way, for example, what will each of you do about that?
  • What happens if either of you develops feelings of jealousy? Or romantic feelings of love for another partner?
  • Is it okay to take some other relationship out to social events or on business trips where the public will see two of you?
  • Are there financial limitations on how much can you spend on the pursuit of and “dating” other partners?
  • What other specific details are important to either one of you?

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

Setting Boundaries and Limitations with Multiple Partners

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:

  • Even if you are only in two relationships, you need to let each partner know you are also seeing someone else. They have the right to decide if they can live with that.
  • Negotiated boundaries are key to keeping yourself and each partner happy. Set rules as soon as you enter any relationship that is more than one-night stands you have hooked up with on dating apps.
  • You need to get as close to an exact definition of what your relationship boundaries will be. How often can you expect to see one another? What safe sex practices will everyone agree to?
  • Set emotional boundaries that you are comfortable with. If one of your partners is expressing love and the desire to be in a monogamous relationship with you, and you are not there, that breathes your emotional boundary. What will you do?
  • What open relationship activities are acceptable to everyone involved? People have very different ideas about the many forms an open relationship may take, and you will need to express yours and allow them to express theirs. What happens, for example, if you are out with one partner and run into another?
  • How will you communicate feelings – positive or negative – to each other?

Take Care When Hooking Up

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.

Healthy open marriage and relationships require being heard and seen

Validate Partners’ Feelings

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.

Be Sure That Your Primary Feels Special

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:

  • Celebrate holidays as a couple
  • Remember birthdays and anniversaries with meaningful gifts, gestures, and dates
  • Be public and open about your relationship status
  • Take mini and maxi vacations together. These will serve to renew your primary relationship foundation.
  • Verbally assure your partner that they come first with you. And make sure that they feel free to have totally open communication with you about their feelings at all times. And you do the same.

Get Out at Anytime

“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.

So, Is an Open Relationship for You?

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.

Relationships Author
Geoffrey Williams
After taking a required Intro to Psychology course as an undergrad, I have never looked back. Since my doctoral program, I have specialized in adult relationship therapy. Through my studies and clinicals, I wrote several articles for professional journals and currently in the midst of writing a book.
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