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What Exactly Is an Open Relationship and Is It Right for You?

If you're considering an open relationship, this is a must-read.

three people with arms around each other

three people with arms around each other

Many of us have heard the term “open relationship” thrown around before, whether it’s on a TV show or movie or during a conversation with a friend or colleague. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, most of us don’t fully understand what the terminology means, or what an open relationship actually looks like. 

According to Zack Berman, M.S., L.G.M.F.T., with Private Practice Therapy: Harmony Holistic, LLC. in Bethesda, Maryland, answering the question, “What is an open relationship?” is actually fairly hard to do—and that is because the an open relationship means different things to different people, so it really depends on who you ask. “Monogamy, of course, refers to the practice of having only one romantic partner at a time, usually someone with whom you are both emotionally and sexually involved, while polyamory, or non-monogamy, refers to the practice of having more than one partner at a time with whom you are intimately involved, either emotionally and/or sexually,” he explains “Non-monogamy can be done both consensually (i.e. the partners involved have agreed to certain emotional and sexual boundaries and ground rules for their relationship) and non-consensually (i.e. cheating).”

Generally speaking, however, when someone says they are in an open relationship, they most often mean they are in a non-exclusive relationship that allows them to have more than one partner, be it romantic, sexual, or a combination of both. 

Who might benefit most from an open relationship?

Even though a monogamous relationship is the one most of us are familiar with, certain couples could stand to benefit from being in an open relationship more than others, according to experts. 

Couples who are feeling unfulfilled sexually within their relationship might find that this type of relationship actually takes some pressure off in an area that causes a lot of tension, notes Michele Miller, L.C.S.W. Senior Therapist at Manhattan Wellness. “If one partner is not as sexually stimulated or interested as another partner, that partner may feel a lot of pressure within their relationship, which could lead to a lot of anxiety and resentment for that partner,” she says. 

Couples who want to embrace an abundance mentality towards love and sex can also greatly benefit from a non-monogamous relationship, notes Berman. “We wouldn’t expect people to provide all of the social and emotional support for their partners—family, friends, coworkers, mentors, and more all have their own roles to play in our lives that differ from our romantic relationships,” he says. “Opening themselves up to more and different types of experiences, provided they feel secure in their foundational connection, can actually be beneficial.”

The Surprising Benefits of an Open Relationship

Whether you’re highly considering entering a polyamorous relationship or are simply just curious about its perks, we asked experts to share the top benefits of being in a successful open relationship. 

It might improve communication.

Despite what you might think, an open relationship could actually lead to more open communication and can increase connection emotionally and sexually, according to Elizabeth Marks, L.M.S.W. with Manhattan Wellness. “Communication often improves specifically when partners can openly discuss their experiences with others and perspectives or encounters that they want to share,” she says. “If the open relationship leads to an increase in sharing and exploring it will empower the partners to further confidence in their relationship.”

It could take some pressure off.

If adhering to serial monogamy is, for any reason, showing to be challenging for one or both partners, Shemiah Derrick, L.P.C., relationship therapist and author of The Words Between Us Couples Journals, points out that an open relationship status could help decrease the pressure to commit. “Ideally you should date multiple people—openly and honestly—and make an informed decision to enter a committed relationship, if you choose to do so,” she says. “Exclusivity doesn't have to be the goal.”

It might enhance your intimacy.

This might sound counterintuitive, but non-monogamous relationships may actually increase intimacy for many couples. “For some couples these are the deepest conversations they’ve ever had about their sexuality, fantasies, apprehensions, insecurities, and consent,” says Berman. “As threatening as these discussions can seem to some couples, the opportunity to communicate need and share validation most often makes the relationship stronger as the couple opens its borders to new partners and experiences.”

It can increase sexual satisfaction.

If you are long distance and cannot get physical or sexual needs met regularly, Paulette Sherman, Psy.D., New York-based psychologist, relationship expert and author of Dating from the Inside Out, points out that an open relationship can give you the chance to explore your sexuality in a unique and, often more satisfying way. “An open relationship allows each of you to have different sexual partners while still maintaining your primary relationship,” she says. “This way you can go a while without seeing each other and communicate emotionally but have your sexual needs met.” It is essential to make sure you're practicing safe sex and both parties are comfortable with your non-monogamous relationship. 

Exploring an open relationship may not be for everyone, it may work for some. If you’re on the fence about the idea, Derrick suggests doing it on a trial basis. “Give it a try, discuss it with your partner and revisit it at the end of that trial period,” she says.