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Open Marriage: Does it Mean a Free For All?

The definition of an open marriage or polyamorous relationship-is: "a marriage in which the partners agree to let each other have sexual partners outside the marriage." (1)

Some would add that it is a marriage in which the partners agree to let each other have sexual partners outside the marriage and not consider it to be infidelity. This is an important aspect to understanding the term. It’s not a free for all of cheating and hookups but a carefully considered and discussed idea that is shared between the two people and, more importantly, accepted by both as being their normal.

There are two different styles of open marriage: swinging and polyamory. "Swinging is motivated by a desire for physical gratification by engaging in sexual activities with extramarital partners. Polyamory is motivated by a desire to expand love by developing emotionally involved relationships with extramarital partners." (2)

Does an Open Marriage Mean the Same Thing to Everyone?

Clarity is important because even the concept of an open marriage might not mean the same thing to both people. While one may see it as open season on adult dating outside the marriage, the other may see it as a more controlled or discreet affinity with a select partner.

Open marriages and polyamorous relationships—are based on one simple thing: communication. Done correctly, an open relationship would mean that one or both parties are planning on having an affair with other people, and the other party is aware of it.

Even more than just being aware of it, the other party embraces it, and that’s the crux of the open marriage. It’s not just about being in the know, it’s about communicating clearly about one’s feelings, on both sides of the equation. Otherwise, jealousy and other negative reactions are bound to be the result, and that’s no benefit to anyone. But whether a one sided open marriage or with both partners planning on an extramarital encounter, communication is the key.

Deciding on the ground rules for an open relationship is the first step to making sure that it is feasible for both partners and that they each know what the other is up to. Knowing how matters will move forward, both in the existing marriage and in the new relationships, is vital for both parties to start out and remain comfortable with the whole idea.

Ground Rules for a Successful Open Relationship

Whether you’re in a marriage or a long-term relationship, if it doesn’t start out ‘open’ or polyamorous from the beginning, you’re going to need some ground rules before you can engage in an open marriage successfully, going forward. A March 2015 poll by YouGov and the Huffington Post(3) suggests that 13% of people surveyed are in a polyamorous relationship or have been in one in the past. 14% said they would consider one in the future. In other words, while it’s not for everyone, there are a lot of people engaging in this form of relationship.

Ground rules don’t sound very exciting, but neither is divorce. Whether one of you is initiating the idea of an open marriage or you’ve both come to the idea at more or less the same time, a polyamorous relationship is more complicated than a regular monogamous marriage and requires a little forethought and planning.

Why do rules matter? The minute one of you is no longer comfortable with the open relationship, the whole setup can go downhill fast. If you value your marriage or relationship at all, this will matter.

What kind of ground rules apply? That’s up to you and your partner, but here’s a sampling of ideas to get you started:

  • Have a clear and frank discussion about what it means to each of you to be part of the open marriage / relationship. A lot of people say they know what an open relationship is, but many don’t. If either of you have any reservations or misunderstandings about what it means to be in a polyamorous relationship, it’s going to be a problem in a hurry. Clear the air from the beginning!
  • Have a process for ongoing discussion and regular ‘check-ins’ so that you can both be open and honest about the relationships and your feelings. You have to remember that polyamorous dating isn’t cheating, so hiding things from your partner isn’t the name of the game!
  • Establish your limits and rules about the sexual encounters with outside partners. Are both of you to be present every time there is a sexual encounter? If not, should the other person be notified? Are certain sex acts not allowed with the outside partners? Are you limited to relationships with the opposite sex or same sex? Set your expectations down, allow your partner to do the same, and meet in the middle.
  • You should always be honest with your outside partners about the state of your relationship. Don’t hide it. If they’re not down with the idea of being the third person in an open marriage, they have the right to know up front so they can back away.
  • It should go without saying that you need to keep your activities safe. Everyone deserves to come away from the experience without having their physical health affected.

Regardless of your approach to an open marriage, if you want to keep your relationship intact, you need to go about it thoughtfully and carefully. And then you need to relax and enjoy it, or what was the point?

So, You Want an Open Marriage...

You’ve met someone outside of your marriage that you’d like to see again, not necessarily to form a relationship with but because you have an incredible physical attraction that won’t go away. You’ve never talked about an open marriage with your spouse, or maybe you have and it’s one of those ideas that didn’t go anywhere, but either way, you want to talk about it now.

How do you go about bringing up your desire to seek another relationship, outside of your marriage, without offending, or worse hurting, your partner?

Step 1 - Take it slowly

There’s nothing more unlikely to succeed than dumping the idea on your partner with no warning and expecting them to go along with it! It might take weeks, months or longer but if it means you keep your relationship intact, it’s worth it! Start by enquiring if they would even be open to the idea before you move ahead full throttle on a mission to convince them.

You want to avoid a situation where, as a knee jerk reaction, your partner says ‘no’. It’s hard to come back from that position, so you want to ease them into the idea. Trying to whine, cajole or cry your way into an open relationship is about as effective as the five-year-old who cries to get another stuffed animal. It won’t work!

Step 2 - Introduce your partner to others who are like minded

This isn’t about ganging up on your partner, but instead showing them that what you are asking them isn’t completely out of the norm; that others participate in open relationships. Like a good novelist, you want to show them, not tell them, why this would be good for both of you.

You can always mention a couple that you might know of who are rumored to have an open marriage: for some people, that could be what sways them!

Step 3 - Explain why you want an open marriage

If your partner is new to the concept, they might initially see your desire to have sex with other people as a rejection or veiled cheating. It’s important to discuss this with them so that they understand that your interest in pursuing sex dating with others has nothing to do with them directly. Interestingly, some people pursue an open relationship when their marriage is already faltering, but this is precisely the wrong time. For an open marriage to work, it needs to be on solid ground.

If they understood that doing this would make you happy and in fact would probably strengthen your relationship, they might be, for lack of a better word, open to it!

Step 4 - Be honest

Answer their questions and any reservations they may have as honestly and fairly as you can and don’t get upset that they are asking them. For a lot of people, this is a new concept that they never entertained as part of their married life or permanent relationship and they may harbor some negativity towards the idea of it for a while.

By being honest in your discussions with them, they will grow to see that you are not acting out of a desire to hurt them, but in fact want to bring them into the fold and keep them closer than ever. Your vulnerability in sharing your feelings will do you credit and make it easier to keep your partner by your side.

The whole process of transitioning from a traditional marriage to an open one isn’t easy or quick, but if you love and trust your partner and they love and trust you, anything is possible.

Including a New Partner in Your Open Marriage

You’ve decided, with your primary partner, that you are going to test out an open relationship. Finding a new partner—or what is sometimes referred to as a non-primary partner—is the next step in the equation. Welcome to the married dating world!

A primary partner is your original partner: the person with whom you share a strong pair bond, including property, finances, children and, in general, a family existence. The non-primary partner(s) is the newer additions to your relationship. Why ‘non-primary’? Because while they are not on equal footing with your primary partner, they’re not secondary either.

And that’s the rub for a lot of people: once they have found that non-primary partner, working out everyone’s position within this new social contract, when so many of us tend to think in more traditional terms about relationships, is the challenge. Indeed, society in general is more supportive towards the notion of a monogamous relationship far more than any alternative relationship, so finding a comfortable level with which each person can be included is very important.

To that end, the open communication that is so critical between the primary partners, when it comes to establishing an open marriage, is equally as important with regards to the non-primary partners. They have as much right to know what they are getting into, what the ground rules, who else is involved and what the potential long term outcome is. Ultimately, things can change over the course of time, but whether a non-primary partner is an occasional hook up or a long term, integrated member of the relationship, honesty is key.

Here are some other ways to ensure that the non-primary partner feels properly treated, within the relationship:

  • Don’t treat them like a second-class citizen. Their wants and needs matter and are just as valid and important as your primary spouse’s wants and needs, particularly as the relationship evolves and grows. Fairness is the key!
  • Include the non-primary partner in any decisions about the relationship that affects them, if they want to be included. It’s not a one-way street!
  • Be clear about the ground rules, so that there is no room for confusion, and ensure that everyone is okay with them. This includes everything from full disclosure on sexual health to whether or not public outings are permissible with the non-primary partner. Those ground rules shouldn’t be imposed without discussion, and your best bet at getting buy in for what you want is to explain your reasoning.

Remember that a lot of people who chose to be a non-primary partner in a polyamorous relationship do so because for them, the positives are legion: there’s all the advantages of a relationship without the commitment or downsides. You can enjoy the sexual pleasure and loving relationship that comes with the open marriage but avoid the elements of a long-term relationship that aren’t relevant to you, like having to make day-to-day decisions with someone else, or giving up elements of your personal freedom.

Regardless of how you proceed in an open relationship, it’s important to value all participants, not just the primary partner, and keep those lines of communication wide open.

Facts and Realities About Open Marriages

An open marriage, or polyamorous relationship, in the right circumstances can be the ultimate solution for people who aren’t meant to be monogamous. Monogamy is a social construct, but our biological selves don’t always conform to what society expects; the open relationship is a viable solution for many people who don’t fit into the box.

Interestingly, the concept doesn’t have a long history. The term ‘open marriage’ wasn’t even coined until the 1960s, when researchers(4) used it to describe a person’s ability to choose their marriage partner. The definition as more commonly used—which is to describe a marriage where one or both partners have sexual partners outside of the marriage, with the consent of the other partner—really came about in 1972, in a book by Nena and George O’Neill called, funnily enough: ‘Open Marriage’, in which they conceived of a marriage relationship where one or the other party could entertain ‘friendships’ outside the marriage.

Whether you want to call them friendships, hookups, affairs or sexual encounters, the bottom line is that an open marriage or relationship is a relatively new concept. Part of that stems from the fact that men and women did not experience their own relationships from a position of equality until the 1970s. With the sexual revolution and women’s empowerment came the possibility of living a life that didn’t fit into a tight, circumscribed definition of ‘family’.

Not that people went on an open relationship rampage, as a result. The number of couples who are or have at some point been part of an open relationship—either as a primary or non-primary partner—are still quite low. That’s to be expected. The ability to buck societal norms isn’t easy for most people to do: it’s a struggle between what they want to do and what they feel the ‘should’ be doing.

For those however who embrace the concept of open marriage or relationship, they can honestly say they are living their lives on their terms, and there is something very powerful in that - for all genders.