So, You Want to Open Up Your RelationshipBy Dr. Justin Relationships
Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is having a moment.
Since the turn of the 21st century, online searches related to open relationships and polyamory have steadily risen. The mainstream media is increasingly talking about ENM and depicting it on television and in film. We’re even starting to see slivers of legal recognition emerge for multi-partner relationships in some municipalities. Interest in EMN is clearly on the rise, and as a sex educator and researcher, I’ve seen this firsthand. It used to be relatively rare for me to get questions about ENM, but now I’m getting them on the regular. The most common questions I get tend to come from people who have only ever practiced monogamy before. Their questions typically center around three things:
Whether it’s normal to want something other than monogamy
How to bring up the subject of non-monogamy with their partner
What’s going to happen if they were to actually open things up.
In this article, we’re going to dive into each of these questions and take a look at what we can learn from the data.
How Many People Have Fantasized About Opening Up?
Have you ever fantasized about what it would be like to be in a sexually open relationship of some type? If so, you’re definitely not alone! A couple of years ago, I surveyed more than 800 adults who were currently in monogamous relationships about whether opening up is something they fantasize about. What I found was that about one-third of them said that being in an open relationship was their biggest sexual fantasy of all time! Of those who said this was their biggest fantasy, 80% reported that it’s more than just a fantasy—it’s something they want to try IRL. However, relatively few said they had taken any steps toward realizing it. Even if it wasn’t their biggest fantasy of all time, a majority of the people I surveyed—across gender and sexual orientation—said they had been aroused by the idea of being in some kind of open relationship before. So, if you’ve ever pondered the idea of opening your relationship, you’re in good company. It’s a widespread fantasy and desire.
But it’s important to recognize that this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, your partner, or your relationship. Wanting to open up doesn’t necessarily signify that you no longer find your partner attractive, that your sex life has gone completely stale, or that you’re on the verge of a breakup.
How To Tell Your Partner You Want to Open Up
So, you’re interested in opening things up. How do you introduce this idea to your partner? Let’s talk about some things to do—and things not to do. First, spend some time thinking about why you want to do this. If it simply stems from the fact that your relationship is in a bad place, that’s generally not a good reason to do so. We’ll talk about this more in the next section, but opening up a relationship in the hopes of fixing it rarely works. By contrast, opening up in order to augment an already positive situation is another story. What are your reasons? Do you want to explore your sexuality? Try things your partner isn’t into? Experience more novelty and variety? Being clear on why this is something you want can help you to better express it to your partner. Second, recognize that starting a conversation about opening up can be a sensitive subject. Think about it from your partner’s perspective. It might be something they’ve never thought about before, so suddenly saying that either of you wants to sleep with other people could easily induce some anxiety.
When introducing the idea, be sure to validate your partner in the process. And be clear about how it’s a journey together. It’s not just about you. What’s in it for them? Are you aroused by the idea of them getting it on with someone else? Do they have sexual needs or fantasies you know you can’t fulfill? Does it just make you happy to know your partner is happy? Third, have a flexible and open mindset about how the process will unfold. Be willing to take things slowly. Be open to the idea of letting your partner go first and support them in the process. Be willing to allow for some mistakes and to adjust your relationship agreement as needed. Some degree of exploration and experimentation is key to figuring out what does and doesn’t work for everyone involved.
What Happens When You Open Up a Relationship
You and your partner have agreed to open up. How is this going to change your relationship? Although there are some who claim that ENM never works, the data tells a different story. In a 2020 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers looked at what happened over time to people in monogamous relationships who were thinking about ENM and either decided to give it a try or not. On average, those who opened their relationships didn’t experience any adverse changes in how they felt about themselves or their relationships. In fact, the main change observed was that those who opened up were more sexually satisfied in the end.
I’ve found something similar in my own research. In the study mentioned above of monogamous people who had fantasized about opening up, among those who had tried it, a majority said that it either met or exceeded their expectations and improved their relationship. Of course, this isn’t to say that opening a relationship always results in a happy ending. There’s certainly a lot of individual variability due, in part, to people opening up for different reasons and approaching it in drastically different ways. But one of the key things I’ve seen in my studies is that the people who weren’t satisfied with their relationship to begin with had the worst outcomes. This makes sense because if there are fundamental relationship or communication problems, that’s going to make the process of opening up all the more difficult, and it’s likely to create more conflict.
In the end, people who open their relationships tend to be happier than they were beforehand, to the extent that they are already content in their relationship, to begin with, have solid communication skills, and put more time and effort into establishing the rules and boundaries of their relationship agreement.
If you’ve ever fantasized about being in some type of ENM relationship, you’re in good company. Most people seem to have thought about it at one time or another. However, if you’re considering taking things to a different level and opening up a monogamous relationship, it’s essential to proceed with care. Get clarity on why you want to open up, communicate your desires in a way that validates your partner, move slowly, and recognize that it’s going to take some trial and error to get things just right.
Haupert, M. L., Gesselman, A. N., Moors, A. C., Fisher, H. E., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). Prevalence of experiences with consensual nonmonogamous relationships: Findings from two national samples of single Americans. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 43(5), 424-440.
Moors, A. C. (2017). Has the American public’s interest in information related to relationships beyond “the couple” increased over time? The Journal of Sex Research, 54(6), 677-684.
Murphy, A. P., Joel, S., & Muise, A. (2021). A prospective investigation of the decision to open up a romantic relationship. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(2), 194-201.
Lehmiller, J. J. (2018). Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Boston, MA: Da Capo.
Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). Fantasies about consensual nonmonogamy among persons in monogamous romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior.