Open Relationships: What are They?
The practice of open relationships, also known as non-monogomy is nothing new. is form of an open relationship whereby two people who identify as a couple engage in activities with other people as a form of gaining physical intimacy. Generally speaking, open relationships happen where emotional closeness still exists within the context of a relationship but there may be a lack of physical closeness.
At Couples Counseling Center, our marriage and couples therapists commonly receive requests for counseling from couples (married and unmarried) who want to explore the idea of open relationships. This is particularly true for couples, both straight and gay, who have been together for many years. What follows is a brief overview of open relationships, including information on the current research. We have also provided 5 questions couples should consider before making the decision to physically open up their relationship.
Open Relationship is not Polyamory
Many consider this type of relational dynamic to fall into the category of non-traditional or alternative lifestyles. And it is important to understand that having an open relationship is not the same as polyamory, which typically involves a trio of individuals and a hierarchy.
Open Relationships: Motivation to Open
There are a number of reasons couples, both married and unmarried, consider the option of an open relationship. Some of these reasons include a desire to experience different physical dynamics, a need for variety and a way to keep emotional closeness in the void of a physical abyss.
Open Relationships and Couples
The exact number couples who engage in forms of having an open relationship can be difficult to get a firm grasp on. Some research suggests that as many as 15 million Americans “swing” on a regular basis. Other surveys suggest the numbers are lower, hovering around 4 million.
In a 2000 study that appeared in the Journal of Human Sexuality offered the following information on reactions to open relationships from couples involved in this activity:
- 70% claimed having no problems with jealousy
- 25% acknowledged problems controlling jealousy
- 59% claimed to be happier than their non-swinging counterparts.
And it should be pointed out that more men completed this study than woman, according to the numbers behind the study. The research also only targeted couples who self-identified as open.
Open Relationships: Should Couples Do It?
One of the primary reasons a couple will seek out counseling around the topic of open relationships is linked to the following 3 questions: Should we do it? What are the risks? What are the rewards?
Our marriage and couples counseling organization does not take a position on open relationships because we recognize intimacy between adults come in a variety of forms. When clients call us to set up an appointment to explore open relatuionships, we encourage the both of the partners to consider the following 5 questions:
5 Questions Before Opening Relationship
1. What is your motivation to open?
Many times, one or both people in the relationship consider opening as a way of creating relational variety and widening experiences. Others feel opening will help keep their relationship from becoming boring. And still others have considered opening the relationship as a way of juicing things up from an otherwise “dull” situation.
Knowing why you and/or your significant other are considering opening is important. This can only happen when couples talk about their motivations.
2. Is opening based on a fantasy?
Couples who are considering opening should consider if the desire to expand experiences is based on a fantasy. In many ways, opening has become romanticized in popular culture. Consider reality television shows like Wife Swap that aired in 2004 and Trading Spouses that was broadcast around the same time.
While the narrative of these shows focused on spousal duties, the opening undertones were unmistakable. It is important, however, to recognize that fantasy and reality are two different constructs. How you envision an open relationship unfolding may not exactly turn out the way you think.
3. Are you trying to save your relationship?
Many couples enter counseling to explore opening as a way of saving their relationship. In these situations, one or more parties reveal the existence of a tight emotional bond but a lack of intimacy. The hope is that through the act of opening, an otherwise dead relationship in the bedroom will take on new life.
If opening is being considered to save your relationship, we encourage you to see the next question.
4. Have explored other options?
Intimacy in the bedroom can occur in ebbs and flows, which is completely normal. Before making the decision to open your relationship, it is important that you explore different ways of creating intimacy within your relationship. We say this because once the bell for an open relationship has been rung, it cannot be un-rung.
Options for creating change in the bedroom can include role playing and sensate focus. There are of course many others.
Exploring how physical intimacy can happen in new ways should be considered, including the basics like kissing. Working with a couples counselor, marriage therapist or other relationship specialist who is knowledgeable about different ways of expressing intimacy should be considered as part of this question.
5. Discuss the potential risks and rewards
Couples who are considering an open relationship as part of their situation should consider all of the potential risks and rewards. This means having an honest conversation about the implications of activities involved with having an open relationship.
A key set of questions, after all of the points mentioned above have been explored, should be:
Are both of you on board with opening? Will one person in the relationship view this activity as a form of infidelity? How will engaging in opening change the dynamics of the relationship? Is our relationship currently stable enough to explore an open dynamic? Do the risks out weight the rewards?
The decision to open up your relationship or widen physical activity is a major relational event. We encourage couples to have an honest, transparent and thoughtful dialogue about how the introduction of an open relationship/marriage will affect both parties – both as individuals and as a couple.
If you are thinking of an open relationship, we encourage you to pick up a copy of Opening Up: A Guide to Maintaining and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino. This book provides a serious look at this topic and answers many questions you may have.
As a tool to help better gauge the current state of your marriage or partnership, it may be helpful to download a copy of our relationship report card. Many people use the report card as a pre-counseling tool to help facilitate therapy.