What are the rules and definitions of an open relationship, really? And do open relationships work? 

Open Relationship Definition

Some people consider themselves to have an open relationship if they are allowed to flirt and make out with other people. But the meaning of an open relationship can be quite different for those who include full sexual experiences outside of the relationship. In either case, a couple may engage in these experiences together as a team, or choose to have experiences with others separately. An open relationship is what any couple makes of it.

There is a belief – rooted in our culturally wide-spread fairy tale thinking about relationships – that couples only engage in an open relationship if there is something inherently wrong or missing in their primary liaison. This is false. Instead, many people open up their relationship to enhance an already wonderful connection. They may enjoy going on sexual adventures together or get turned on by the idea of their partner with someone else.

Open Relationship Rules

Since open relationships are not exactly a mainstream concept, many wonder about open relationship rules. While monogamy can also be challenging to define – especially in the age of technology – many people take the rules of monogamy for granted, never even discussing them with a partner. People in open relationships, on the other hand, are required to set the ground rules for their engagement up front.

Open relationship rules can vary from couple to couple. Every couple needs to take the time to sit down and negotiate what is comfortable for them. Some varieties of these different relationship forms have even taken on their own succinct names. Such as Dan Savage’s coining of the term “monogamish” – describing a couple who is mostly monogamous, while still allowing for extra-marital sex every once in a while.

People have many categories of open relationship rules. We can think of this as the who, what, where, when, why, and how of open relationship rules. Each of these categories has an extensive number of options, but here are a few examples:

Who: Each person in the relationship needs to talk about who they want to have sex with – and their partner needs to see if they’re comfortable with that. Some examples might be: having sex only with other people who are also in open relationships; only having sex with men; only having sex with women; only having sex with someone in the same age range as a partner; only with people you pay; only with strangers (or anonymous); only with friends; only with one person many times; only with many people one time.

What: Some couples have concise rules about what kind of erotic interaction or level of intimacy is allowed with people outside of the partnership. For example, some couples have a rule that their partner can date other people, but are not ok to have intercourse with. For other couples, anything goes. Some people only want their partner to play with others above the belt, while others might be ok with everything but kissing.

Where: Location and distance can matter. Certain couples define where it is – or is not – ok to have sex with a third party. One partner might decide they aren’t into sharing their bedroom, so the home is off-limits. Some couples are only ok with someone local, or they might follow what is colloquially known as the “500-mile rule” (when you only have sex with people who are at least 500 miles or more from home, while traveling or on a business trip). This can be particularly helpful for those whose love language is touch. Living far apart and trying to stay monogamous can cause one or both people in the relationship to feel sex or touch-deprived.

When: It’s also common to ask your partner to be sensitive about when and how often they have sex with others. For example, hooking up with a playmate once a week could be ok – others give their partner free reign on frequency as long as they are informed first (or immediately after).

Why:  Some couples have open relationship rules around their reasons for having sex with others. They would prefer their partner only has sex with a third party for the sake of enhancing their mutual connection. Or they might be ok with their partner engaging in BDSM if they themselves aren’t into kink but want the partner to have the experience. Others yet are ok with random hookups but want to confine romantic interactions to their primary relationship.

How:  How much a couple communicates about their external sexual adventures can be up for negotiation as well. For example, some prefer a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (also known as DADT) approach. In a two-way Don’t Ask Don’t Tell scenario, neither partner has to tell the other the details or even that the outside sex is happening. It’s also possible to have one-way DADT ground rule where one person wants to know, but the other person doesn’t. Another rule variety defines if there should be an asking for permission before every engagement – and then a detailed re-telling afterward. And then are those couples who just want some general idea of what is happening and don’t care about the details.

Do Open Relationships Work?

Sex coaches often hear the question: Do open relationships work? The answer is never simple, and a trained sex coach will not simply answer yes or no. Instead, they should engage you to think more critically about what you meant and why you asked the question in the first place.

Since our society thinks of monogamy as the normal and right way to be in a relationship, open relationships and open marriages get scrutinized in a completely different way than monogamy. Any time two people in an open relationship break up, people blame it on the open relationship. They never consider that the open part of the relationship might have been great – and the couple may have had huge issues around child rearing or money.

With monogamy, it is exactly the opposite. Lots of people want to have sex outside of the relationship but are terrified to ask for an open relationship out of fear they will be judged or abandoned by their partner. And so while the institution of monogamy ruins many relationships, no one ever says “We broke up because we were monogamous and it just wasn’t working.” At best, they might admit to “We just wanted different things.”

So, the question “do open relationships work?” is actually a loaded question. It assumes monogamous relationships work, and open relationships are more likely to fail. However, if you look at the statistics on monogamy, marriages end in 51% of the time – and that is considering people are willing to actually get married. Unmarried partners are even more likely to break up, and many people simply stay together even though they are miserable. Since most relationships are still monogamous, it is safe to assume that monogamy “works” way less than 50% of the time.

So – what does it mean for a relationship to work? If we look at the fairy tale social script, a relationship must include only two people. They must be romantically and passionately in love with each other. They must stay together, only desiring each other, until the day death parts them. And yet – if this is the very definition of a successful relationship, then pretty much every relationship is failing.

So maybe instead of asking Do open relationships work?, we should create a more realistic definition of the prosperous relationship. It could be defined as two or more people,  honestly communicating about their needs, feelings and boundaries. They stay together for as long as they feel like the relationship supports them in who they are, and enhances their lives in some way. With this more grounded relationship definition, many more people might actually get to enjoy the feeling of success.

Can a Sex Coach Help with an Open Relationship?

A sex coach can help you have an honest, open conversation about your relationship choices – no matter whether you want to have a monogamous relationship or engage in some variety of an open relationship (which might include polyamory, swinging, or being monogamish).

If you are interested in opening your relationship up and are looking for a supportive group environment, you may want to consider joining the Somatica Core Training for personal growth. In this training, you will be surrounded by a large group of people – many of whom are already in open relationships or are beginning to explore them. The training is very supportive of all relationship styles and offers insights into how to deal with your emotions as an important part of the relationship journey.

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Danielle Harel
Danielle Harel, PhD is the Co-creator of the Somatica® Method and the Co-Founder of the Somatica® Institute. She trains coaches in the Somatica® Method of Sex and Relationship Coaching. She has her own private practice in Sunnyvale, where she supports her clients in having amazing sex and relationships as well as passion-fueled lives. She has published original research on Orgasmic Birth and is the co-author of two books, Cockfidence - The Definitive Guide to Being the Man You Want to Be and Driving Women Wild and Making Love Real - The Intelligent Couples Guide to Lasting Intimacy and Passion. Danielle Has her Masters in Clinical Social Work From Haifa University in Israel and her PhD in Human Sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (IASHS). She is a Clinical Sexologist and a Certified Sexological Bodyworker. Danielle is a Certified Body Positive Facilitator and took many trainings in embodied and mindfulness based therapeutic approaches such as Hakomi.