Here in the 21st century, we have quite a few options when it comes to many areas of life. This is no less the case with dating and relationships than it is anything else. While traditional dating and relationships aren’t completely a thing of the past, we’re no longer stuck doing things that way if we decide it isn’t right for us. Open relationships in particular represent the best of both worlds. You can enjoy the closeness and security that committed relationships bring to the table, but you’re also still free to explore other people sexually if you wish. However, there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to approach such a situation.
While ground rules may seem like they miss the point of being in an open relationship in the first place, this is far from the case. Along with communication, rules help both parties get what they’re looking for out of their relationship with one another. It’s also worth noting that society doesn’t make the rules in this sort of situation; you do! Here we’ll take a closer look at how to set some good ones so that you can keep your open relationship happy, healthy, and fulfilling.
Understanding What Open Relationships Are (and Aren’t)
The textbook definition of an open relationship is simply “a relationship or marriage where both parties agree each can have sexual relations with other people”. However, the relationships themselves are so much more than that in practice. Forget black and white. All there are in open relationships are various shades of grey.
To begin with, no two open relationships are alike just as no two couples are alike. Even traditional relationships can be super confusing at times and this only becomes more the case when you add more people and more sexual relationships to the mix. That said, not only do you really need rules for your open relationship, but the rules need to suit you, your partner, and your unique set of mutual needs.
If you do have a partner, start by deciding what “open relationship” is going to mean to both of you. Some couples have a standing agreement that they can hook up with whomever, but agree not to talk about it. Others prefer barebones honest communication every step of the way, especially if a secondary relationship ever goes well beyond just hooking up. Most couples fall somewhere in between.
Knowing Your Reasons for Wanting an Open Relationship
It’s just as important to be honest with yourself, not to mention others, about your reasons for going this route with your romantic and sexual life. As is the case with most important things in life, some reasons are better than others when it comes to opening things up.
Are you bored or unhappy with your existing relationship and simply looking for a distraction? Or are you happy with your partner, but feel exploring new physical experiences with others might make things even better for both of you? If you’re already unhappy with your current relationship, opening things up probably isn’t going to make things better. However, it can deepen the connection between two people that are happy together if both parties are really on board.
People in healthy, happy open relationships put their partners first just as people in healthy monogamous relationships do. The rest is just physical. You can and probably will care for and connect with other people you’re with, but none of them should be taking priority over your primary partner if you have one.
That said, it’s important to understand the difference between being in an open relationship and being polyamorous. If what you’re really looking for is the freedom to create sexual and romantic bonds with multiple people to whatever degree you wish, polyamory might actually be a better fit for you.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
Once you’ve established that an open relationship is indeed the right fit for you and that you’re interested in one for the right reasons, it’s time for you and your partner to draw some boundaries. This should be done before you actually open the relationship up. Start by addressing questions like the following:
- Is sex with other people only OK if the partner is present and/or actively participating in what’s going on?
- Are there certain acts that should be considered off the table altogether (i.e. anal, oral, etc.)?
- Is it OK to hook up with people of one gender, but not the other? Are there certain situations under which exceptions are okay?
- How much will you share with one another about encounters that happen or new people you meet? Everything? Nothing? Some types of details, but not others?
- Is it okay to hook up with local people or would you prefer to limit extracurricular hook-ups to long-distance encounters?
- What’s the protocol should one or both of you develop feelings for someone you’re sleeping with outside the relationship? End it, keep going, or something else altogether?
- Are the both you comfortable labeling your relationship as “open”? If so, is it something you plan on telling friends and family or is this something private between the two of you?
You might also want to consider a trial period for your open relationship. Think of it as taking a new car out for a test drive before you actually invest your hard-earned money in it. Sometimes being in an open relationship sounds good on paper, but turns out not to be right for one or both people in practice.
Being Up Front with Additional Partners
Just as it’s important to set ground rules and boundaries with your partner so that both of you know what’s what, you need to be up front with any new partners you meet as well. Unless you’re looking at a bona fide one-night stand, don’t simply decide it’s none of the person’s business what else you have going on in your life. That’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to your partner. Respect the person enough to tell them the deal.
Before you get involved, try saying something like: “I really like you and find you attractive, but I’m in an open relationship/marriage. I just thought you should know that there’s someone else in my life.” Then do your best to answer any questions the person might have. Modern people are relatively accepting of open relationships and becoming more so all the time, but it’s still important to make sure people know what they’re getting into now to avoid hurt feelings or disappointment later.
The Elephant in the Room
Yes, being in an open relationship is and should be all about fun and freedom. However, it’s still vitally important that you’re safe. At the end of the day, sex is still something that can potentially get you sick. You owe it to yourself, your partner, and anyone you might decide to sleep with to stay on top of your sexual health.
Make sure you’re practicing safe sex, especially when engaging in a casual hook-up or getting to know someone new. Prioritize your sexual health even further by getting regular check-ups, as well as screenings for STDs. You and your partner should also be up front about how you’re making sure to stay safe when you’re with other people, as well as with each other.
Don’t Just Set It and Forget It
So you and your partner have set your ground rules. You’ve opened things up, you’re both seeing other people, and you’re both having a blast to exactly the degree you hoped you would. Great! Just understand that what’s working really well for the both of you right now might not be at some point down the line.
Even in monogamous relationships, ample communication and regular check-ins are an absolute must. People change over time, as do their emotional, mental, and physical needs. It’s important to make sure both you and your partner know where you both are when it comes to all of these areas. Make sure you’re also asking each other where you want to take the open relationship experience next.
Keeping Encounters Casual
You’ll also want to make sure you’re choosing potential new partners wisely. Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to get sexually involved with anyone that’s already part of your life in another way. Sleeping with close friends or mutual friends you share with your partner can get really sticky. So can sleeping with bosses, neighbors, or coworkers.
Instead, choose new people to get to know in a way that’s purely sexual. Then keep things that way. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being engaging in a little pillow talk now and then, but spending a lot of time together as friends outside of the bedroom is probably not advisable.
Try meeting new people through a dating service that’s all about finding cool, interesting people that are solely interested in hooking up and having fun. It also takes a lot of the guesswork out of finding suitable partners to explore the sexy side of your personality with.
At the end of the day, establishing and maintaining a healthy open relationship isn’t rocket science. It does take some planning, care, and consideration though. A whole new world full of fun and connection awaits.