3 rules to follow for a successful open relationship from therapist

The open relationships of celebrities (Shailene Woodley, Angelina Jolie and, perhaps most notably, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith) have been a source of conversation for years. The dynamic is often dismissed as a Hollywood deal that can only be maintained through iron-clad NDAs.

In recent years, however, non-monogamy has become increasingly mainstream. About one in four adults are interested in being in an open relationship, according to YouGov’s 2021 survey of 23,000 Americans.

Opening up a relationship can strengthen it, says Avital Isaacs, a therapist at the Manhattan Alternative Wellness Collective, a mental health practice that serves queer and trans people, non-monogamous people, and sex workers.

“In a monogamous relationship, there’s a typified type of foreclosure,” he says. “The relationship is defined by what you don’t do and it can feel like a real reduction of yourself. There’s less of what you’re actively doing with your partner.”

Non-monogamy allows you to explore more experiences that you might not otherwise have in a monogamous relationship. It can also help remind someone that their partner is desirable. “Seeing them date other people can inspire a sense of wanting to earn that person’s love and care,” says Isaacs. “For some people, that’s a big motivator, rather than being taken for granted.”

3 rules for a successful open relationship

An open relationship tends to work best if you navigate it thoughtfully, says Megan Hanafee Major, a couples, marriage, gender, and sexuality therapist 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 relationships are correct

Decide if any types of relationships or people are “off limits,” Major says. “Communicate if you or a partner have a primary relationship that will take priority, and think about what kind of information you share with other partners.”

Maybe being open means physical but not emotional intimacy. Whatever it is, you need to communicate your boundaries.

“Take time to think about both personal and relational boundaries,” she says. “Know that it’s okay to adjust if necessary, but it’s imperative to respect others’ boundaries and expect them to do the same for you.”

2. More communication is always better

In any relationship, communication is paramount. In an open 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’re making the framework that’s offered to you based on our society and culture,” she says. “We prioritize and understand that romantic relationships are exclusive. If you are in an open relationship, our cultural structures and systems are not designed for you.”

This can put you in uncharted waters.

For example, he says, you get a “plus one” at a wedding or holiday party, not a “plus one you’re in a relationship with.”

Major agrees that when you’re breaking social norms and creating 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,” he says.

Be specific when discussing the parameters of your relationships. “Communicating with partners about expectations, logistics, such as time commitments and desires, allows trust and vulnerability to be built and maintained over time. This will not only help manage misunderstandings that arise, are inevitable, but it will show your partners that you value them, their thoughts and their time.”

3. Know what your goals are and communicate if they change

Make sure you, your primary partner, and potential new partners are all on the same page.

Some questions you can ask yourself, Major says, include:

  • Do you expect to spend time doing specific activities?
  • Would you like your partners to meet each other?
  • Are there certain things you want to explore sexually or romantically?

“Goals can be different from one relationship to another and are bound to change over time,” says Major. Getting clear on them can ease hurt feelings and mixed messages along the way.

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