The open relationships between celebrities — Shailene Woodley, Angelina Jolie and, perhaps most notably, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith — have fueled conversations for years. The dynamic is often dismissed as a Hollywood arrangement that can only be maintained by ironclad NDAs.
In recent years, however, non-monogamy has become increasingly common. About one in four adults would like to have an open relationship, according to the 2021 YouGov poll of 23,000 Americans.
Opening up a relationship can actually strengthen it, says Avital Isaacs, therapist at the Manhattan Alternative Wellness Collective, a mental health practice that caters to queer and trans people, non-monogamous people and sex workers.
“In a monogamous relationship, there’s a typical sort of foreclosure,” she says. “The relationship is defined by what you don’t do and that can feel like a real downsizing of yourself. There are fewer things you are actively doing with your partner.”
Non-monogamy allows you to explore more experiences than you otherwise would in a monogamous relationship. It can also help remind someone that their partner is desirable. “Seeing them date other people can inspire feelings of wanting to earn that person’s love and care,” Isaacs says. “For some people, that’s a big motivation, instead of taking themselves for granted.”
3 rules for a successful open relationship
An open relationship tends to work better if you navigate it thoughtfully, says Megan Hanafee Major, a therapist who works with couples, marriage, gender and sexuality based in the greater Chicago area.
“Most successful open relationships follow general rules about boundaries, communication, and goals,” she says.
If you’re interested in exploring an open relationship, here are Major’s three tips to get you started.
1. Define which types or relations are OK
Decide if certain types of relationships or people are “off limits,” Major says. “Communicate whether you or a partner have a primary relationship that will take priority, and consider what kind of information you share with other partners.”
Maybe being open means physical but not emotional intimacy. Either way, you need to communicate your borders.
“Take time to think about personal boundaries as well as relationship boundaries,” she says. “Know that you can adjust them if necessary, but respecting others’ boundaries and expecting them to do the same for you is a must.”
2. More communication is always better
In any relationship, communication is key. In an open situation where expectations are even less clear, you need to be more aware of what you’re negotiating with your partner, Isaacs says.
“When you’re in a monogamous relationship, you make the frame that’s provided to you based on our society and our culture,” she says. “We prioritize and understand that romantic relationships are exclusive. If you’re in an open relationship, our cultural structures and systems are not designed for you.”
It can put you in uncharted waters.
For example, she says, you get a “plus one” at a wedding or holiday party, not a “plus whoever you’re in a relationship with.”
Major agrees that when you go against societal norms and create a more unique dynamic between you and your partner, clear communication becomes even more necessary. “Personally, I’m of the opinion that more communication is almost always better than less,” she says.
Be specific when discussing the parameters of your relationships. “Communicating to partners about expectations, logistics, such as time commitments and desires, allows trust and vulnerability to be built and maintained over time. Not only will this help to deal with any misunderstandings that arise – they are inevitable – but will show your partners that you appreciate them, their thoughts and their time.”
3. Know what your goals are and communicate if they change
Make sure you, your senior partner, and potential new partners are all on the same page.
Some questions you can ask yourself, Major says, include:
- Are you hoping to spend time doing specific activities?
- Would you like your partners to know each other?
- Are there certain things you want to explore sexually or romantically?
“Goals can be different from relationship to relationship and are subject to change over time,” Major says. Being clear about them can alleviate hurt feelings and mixed messages down the road.
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