Every relationship looks and feels different. What works for one couple might not work for you and your boo, and vice versa. Enter the open marriage. While the concept is certainly not new, it’s definitely a relationship paradigm that is not only confusing and exciting but is also unique to each couple. If you’re considering an open marriage, or a consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationship, then you probably have a ton of questions. Like, how does one work? Are there rules? And, how do you even ask your partner to engage in such a relationship? You’ve got the questions, and we’ve got the answers. If you’ve been wondering if an open marriage would suit you and your partner, here’s everything you need to know.
What types of couples benefit from an open marriage?
According to Courtney Watson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and sex therapist with a group practice in Oakland, “folks who are willing to be vulnerable and dedicated to open and direct communication” would benefit the most from an open marriage. Considering that you’re inviting multiple parties into a marriage, emotional safety and openness is crucial. As for why couples might choose one, Watson says there are a variety of reasons, “but one mindset I often see is an acknowledgement and comfort with the idea that one person can not meet all of your needs.”
How do you react if your partner wants one?
“Thank them for being honest about the desire to open up the relationship as opposed to bringing another person in without your knowledge,” says Watson. “Get clear on what an open relationship means to your partner. Take some time to think about how you feel about the prospect. I would not advise that anyone immediately say no nor immediately say yes.”
Keeping an open mind is also important, says sex and relationship expert Dr. Jessica O’Reilly .”The desire for an open relationship is not universally indicative of a deficit in the existing relationship; some people are simply more inclined toward consensually non-monogamous relationships (CNM). In many ways, you already love multiple people (kids, parents, siblings, friends) — loving multiple intimate partners may be an extension of this capacity to love,” she says.
O’Reilly says asking questions is key, too. “Ask your partner for more information — what draws them to CNM? How do they envision a CNM relationship? What concerns do they have? They’ve likely done more research, so be open to really listening to their perspective even if it doesn’t align with yours.”
Ultimately Watson advises spending some time alone reflecting on your feelings, values, and beliefs about both non monogamy and monogamy. “Don’t feel pressured. Return to the conversation when you feel like you are clear on where you want to go, then start to ask you partner questions and see if it makes sense for your relationship.”
How to negotiate ground rules
“After you’ve taken the time to reflect and only if you both decide to proceed, get into the nitty gritty of every aspect of the open relationship,” says Watson. “Get a piece of paper for each of you and set up yes/no/maybe columns. Each of you work on this on your own then come together and share your answers. Combine the yes/no/maybes that are in alignment and discuss the ones that are not.”
Adds O’Reilly: “This is a big ongoing conversation. This isn’t a one-and-done conversation. You’ll (hopefully) have many conversations pertaining to ground rules over the course of your relationship — regardless of whether or not you’re monogamous.”
O’Reilly recommends doing some reading together, and suggests Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up and Liz Powell’s Building Open Relationships. The latter is “a great workbook to help you consider questions, concerns and conversations.”
Is there such a thing as cheating in an open marriage?
“I hate that cheating gets conflated with consensual non-monogamy,” says O’Reilly. “There is a specific distinction between cheating and having an open relationship: consent of all parties.” O’Reilly says she sees cheating as the same concept whether you’re CNM or monogamous. “If you violate a term to which you’ve agreed, you’re likely cheating.”
Can you back out of an open marriage once you’ve agreed upon it?
There can be a variety of reasons an open marriage may be difficult, says Watson. “If it feels like it’s not working you can seek the support of a poly knowledgeable therapist or sex therapist to help talk about what isn’t working. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a professional to talk to rather than immediately close the relationship with some unresolved hurts still present. That is a breeding ground for resentment.”
O’Reilly points out that every relationship is constantly evolving. “I don’t think you’re backing out if you decide to return to monogamy (even for a set period of time). You can always speak up if something isn’t working for you, but don’t assume that being CNM is the source of an issue — it may be something specific to your partner’s (or one of their partner’s) behavior as opposed to the open relationship itself.”
How can you make an open marriage work for you?
Basically what will make an open marriage work for you is what helps any relationship function: being intentional, respectful, and communicative.
“I believe that whatever arrangement you choose, your chances of success increase when you thoughtfully consider your options in advance and opt in as opposed to simply accepting one relationship structure as a default setting,” says O’Reilly. “Just like monogamy, CNM does not work for everyone (there is some preliminary evidence that certain personality types are drawn to it) and it is not the answer to a failing monogamous relationship.”
While O’Reilly says an open marriage won’t eliminate common relationship stressors related to time, extended family, household labor, kids, and money, its benefits might include “expanded support networks, alternative openings for personal growth and an emphasis on exploration over restriction. As CNM requires greater specificity with regard to delineating relationship boundaries and expectations, it can lead to more voluminous communication which has the potential to increase intimacy and decrease tension.”