OPEN RELATIONSHIPS 101: What are they and how do they work?

“Open relationships” and “polyamory” are are two terms used to describe having the freedom to be sexually and/or emotionally involved with more than one person. Open relationships and polyamorous relationships are explicitly designed to be practiced honestly, with the mutual consent of all parties — where no one is deceived and everyone chooses to enter this type of relationship.

Some people in open relationships live with a “primary” lover or spouse, but occasionally have casual sexual relationships outside their marriages. Others have more than one committed long-term relationship concurrently. Still others are in “group marriages,” living with several adults who share sexual and spousal relationships. Some people call their lifestyle “relationship anarchy,” meaning that each relationship is allowed to evolve organically with very few restrictions or preconceptions about the form or substance of the relationship. And a few people are inclined toward multiple casual or less committed relationships, because they have an overriding commitment to their work, their art, political activism, raising children, or to community building.

Many other people enjoy having the option of having more than one lover, but may not have the time or energy for more than one relationship. Even though they consider themselves polyamorous, they may not “practice” it, but they like having the option and having an agreement with their partner that this would be acceptable if it does happen.


Many people try to live a monogamous lifestyle and find it just does not meet their needs. They come to believe that it is unrealistic to expect any one person to fulfill all their needs for intimacy, companionship, love, and sex.

People are drawn to an open relationship because they want either MORE or DIFFERENT. If they are looking for MORE, they are not getting quite enough of an important resource, such as not enough romance, attention, sex, time, etc. They want to supplement their current relationship by getting some of that missing quantity with someone else. If instead they want DIFFERENT, they enjoy their current relationship, but there is one crucial ingredient missing that really would make them happier, so they are seeking that from someone else. They may want a different type of sexual activity, or seeks a partner of a different gender, would like a person who is more romantic or adventurous, someone with whom they have some specific shared interest (“my partner hates camping and I love it”), or may just desire the novelty of sexual and romantic variety with a new person.


Living in a new way requires learning new skills and overcoming a lifetime of socialization. What sounds reasonable in theory is actually much more complicated, logistically as well as emotionally. People with the best of intentions often discover that they have many intense insecurities and fears based on core beliefs about themselves, about their partner(s), and about love, sex, and relationships.

Most people find that they experience jealousy, especially when first embarking on this lifestyle. It usually takes time, effort, and reassurance from partners to manage jealous feelings. Some people find that while they continue to feel jealous at times, these feelings are outweighed by a much more positive experience of the benefits and freedom of polyamory.

After the initial anxiety and discomfort subside, many people can handle an open relationship as long as they feel secure that they are loved and will not be abandoned. It usually helps to specify some parameters which feel safe and supportive, and negotiate with your partner to reach agreement on what type of relationship best fits your needs. For instance, is it okay to have only casual sex, or are you comfortable with them falling in love with someone else? Do you want advance notice if your partner meets someone and wants to initiate a sexual relationship? Does your spouse or partner have “veto power” over your choice of potential partners? Do you have an agreement on safe-sex guidelines to prevent being exposed to sexually transmitted infections? How much time can your partner spend with other lovers? Are you going to “come out” about your lifestyle to family, friends, and co-workers, or would you prefer to keep your relationships private? Most people experience less of the anxiety and insecurities and more of the satisfaction and rewards of a polyamorous lifestyle if they know what to expect, and feel secure that their partners will be honest and will abide by agreements.