In today’s society, many of the old taboos surrounding human sexuality and romantic expression are facing some close scrutiny and are up for re-examination. For good reason too, the traditional view of relationships doesn’t hold up to contemporary views in a few very important, and very timely, aspects.
Often the traditional relationship views stifle expression and act to limit people’s comfort and openness, or even their willingness to expand beyond conservative boundaries. But humans can be incredibly complex when it comes to the intricacies of interpersonal relationships, and that includes those of a sexual nature.
Luckily, we live in an era of evolving social norms where society at large (and particularly ‘pop culture’ and the younger demographics) is undergoing somewhat of a sexuality revolution. More than ever, people are being encouraged to express their sexualities, identities, and relationship interests openly and in a supportive environment. This is not to say the fight for free expression and acceptance is over, of course, but a there is a larger and more open community of acceptance than ever before.
That said, to feel or express interest in an open relationship is an understandable and even natural inclination—one that shouldn’t be met with ridicule or feelings of shame.
It is an interest that an individual should be free to explore, so long as those involved or included are consenting to such things. With that in mind, we’ll take a closer look at the nature of open relationships, dispel some common misunderstandings, and attempt to outline some general guidelines practitioners tend to follow. As always, the general rule of openness and consent are key before anything else.
What is an Open Relationship?
Open relationship is a general term for different relationships that people engage in that generally fall outside of traditional monogamy. The term polyamory is the technical one used to refer to open relationships and comes from the Greek words poly (meaning many) and amor (meaning love). In essence, the term means many loves and refers to the act of engaging in multiple, mutually consensual relationships at the same time with different people.
The term polyamorous (perhaps more commonly known) is often used to describe the trait of being romantically interested in multiple individuals at once.
Open relationships can be as formal or informal as the practitioner’s desires. Some couples who practice polyamory are married (often referred to as an open marriage) and still seek alternative intimate relationships. Similarly, some people practice open relationships where they consider themselves particularly invested in a single relationship and person, while still engaging in other intimate relationships on the side.
Of course, these examples are not always the case, and the relationships between all the active participants can be as loose or fixed as desired. The key to all of this, is just that all participants are aware of the situation and have consented to engage in it. From this point forward, the lines between dating, relationships, flings, and casual encounters can be as fixed or fluid as individuals would like.
How Are Open Relationships Different from Being Single and Mingling?
Generally, when a person is dating around and maintaining their status as ‘single,’ there is a lack of strong emotional bonds between partners. Any ‘flings’ the person engages in are short-lived, and often come without strings attached.
This typically means there are no expectations of strong attachment, reciprocal feelings, or obligations to share details of other intimate encounters. In essence, aside from the obvious consent for the intimate act itself, there really isn’t a need for further explanation or engagements. Neither party assumes a lasting relationship where personal disclosures are expected.
In contrast, open relationships are just that, relationships.
These are still committed relationships where individuals engage in mutual support, care, and the general life-building monogamous couples engage in. In an open relationship, this might include more than two people, but generally the relationship is centered around two or more individuals who are building a relationship while engaging in other intimate relations on the side.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and it may be redundant to say again that the lines are not ridged, but it is important to understand that open relationships tend to involve a core committed relationship, where the individuals are free to engage in additional less serious ones at the same time (or even together).
Rules in an Open Relationship
While there are no official rules for open relationships, there is a general principle that practitioners adhere to and consent is the ultimate key. This doesn’t just refer to consent for intimate or sexual acts, but also to entering the relationship. It means that all individuals involved in the relationship, either currently or newly introduced, should be made aware of the situation so they can make their own decisions on the matter.
Open relationships aren’t for everyone, and that is perfectly fine—so those people should be made aware of what kind of relationship they are entering before they make any decisions. It wouldn’t be right for a person to suddenly realized their significant other of three weeks has another, active significant other of four years.
After implementing this basic rule, it is important for participants to set their own specific guidelines or boundaries for the relationship. This can vary greatly between people, based on their own desires and needs, but there are some general examples that are quite common.
For instance, people in an open relationship often want to ensure the primary relationship is prioritized, so time constraints may be placed on how much time should be spent away from the core partner or partners. Certain limitation or requirements may also be placed on interactions. For instance, it may be important that all participants meet and know each other ahead of time, while others may prefer that distance is maintained. Rules could also be enforced where immediate friend groups are off-limits, or social media is intentionally kept clear of friendships with those other intimate relationships.
Again, there are no hard and fast rules for the kind of boundaries you should establish with your partner or partners, but it is good to always keep the concept of consent in mind.
Never hide things from your partners, and keep an open communication. Often times, couples that enter open relationships are doing so for the first time, so it is important to be flexible at first while all participants are discovering their own comfort levels. Also, be aware that jealousy is a natural human emotion, and few people are immune to it. While such feels often fade over hours, days, or weeks, it is important to communicate these feelings so members of the relationship can work through them constructively.
And further, always keep your own mental health in mind—don’t engage in an open relationship just to satisfy the desires of a partner. If it is out of your comfort zone, you should never be pressured into it.
How to Be in an Open Relationship
If you are looking to expand the boundaries of an existing relationship, then the most important step is talking with your partner about it. While this may not be an easy conversation, it is important to express your interest in a manner free from pressure, and to discuss the idea of moving into an open relationship together in a mutually understood environment. Your significant other may not feel comfortable with an open relationship, and that is entirely acceptable too. Again, consent and open honesty are key to a successful open relationship.
For those currently outside of a relationship, dating apps such as Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble can be good sources for seeking out open relationships. Not only do these applications pander to a generally younger and more open audience, but many individuals expressly state their interest in open relationships ahead of time—sometimes even specifying particular varieties.
On these apps and sites, couples sometimes even maintain joint profiles while searching for new partners. In the same vein, individuals may clearly state they are in an open relationship and are looking for new intimate relationships. The digital environment can help you to locate like-minded individuals who may be able to fulfill your interest in establishing or even briefly participating in an open relationship (depending on what you’re looking for).
Trust and Closeness
Open relationships are nothing new to human relationships, but they are a growing trend amongst individuals looking to explore their sexuality and intimacy outside of traditional monogamy—while still maintaining one, or more, strong committed relationships.
Anybody interested in engaging in an open relationship should feel free to explore and experiment to their comfort and with the consent of others. While it takes time, you may find that such a relationship can actually bring significant others closer together, bonding over shared experience and trust.
Though traditional relationships and sexual norms may cause hesitation for those interested in open relationships, forgoing societal pressures in the interest of self-discovery can lead to personal fulfillment and enrichment. Relationships, open or closed, are healthiest when we can express our truest selves.