Can Open Relationships Really Work?

Sex & Relationships

January 5, 2020

The idea of swinging, wife-swapping, open relationships, and any form of non-monogamy are enough to spark debate for many people. Interest in these activities counter some of our most basic cultural views touting monogamy as the most desirable sexual arrangement out there. However, more and more couples are exploring the world of “consensual non-monogamy”, which allows for sexual activity and romantic involvement outside of their primary relationship. In fact, about 3-5% of people classify their relationship as such1.

Can these types of relationships really work? Do Will Smith and Jada really have it all figured out?

We know that engaging in sexual activity outside of one’s relationship when your partner doesn’t know and wouldn’t approve (i.e. cheating) is not a good move. In fact, research has shown that these behaviours are consistently related to negative relationship outcomes all around2. But what about when you have talked about it with your partner beforehand and you both agree that you are comfortable having sex with other people? Would you feel jealous? Uncomfortable? Worried about losing your partner? Perhaps surprisingly, couples with these types of agreements actually have similar relationship outcomes and satisfaction to those boring monogamous couples3. Wait, WHAT? So you can be in a relationship and still have sex with other people and be just as happy?

Not so fast…

Recent research suggests it is possible that only certain types of people are cut out for this type of arrangement. It turns out that some people are just more liberal than others. In the context of sexuality, this is called “sociosexuality” and captures the extent to which individuals pursue long-term committed relationships versus short-term relationships and casual sex4. It just may be that individuals who are more restricted in their sociosexuality are more likely to be satisfied in monogamous relationships, while those who are less restricted may be more satisfied in an open relationship arrangement5. Other possible explanations for why some people thrive in consensually non-monogamous relationships include a higher need for excitement and novelty6.

Sexual Freedom

Of course, it is possible and even likely that partners have different expectations and needs in terms of monogamy. For example, one partner may want more sexual freedom in the relationship, while the other may be dead set on monogamy. In all cases, it is important to communicate with your partner about what your expectations are and to come to an agreement that both of you are happy with and can commit to. Rather than relying on an unspoken or “implicit” agreement about your expectations for monogamy (or non-monogamy)7, an actual conversation about these issues is key to mitigating misunderstandings and hurt feelings. I mean, think about it. If you don’t talk about it, one member of the couple might think flirting with co-workers or bumping and grinding on the dance floor with a stranger are “allowed” while the other may think these behaviors are totally unacceptable. In any case, making sure boundaries are clear will help ensure the success of your relationship in the long run.

1 – Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matskick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2013). The fewer the merrier? Assessing stigma surrounding consensually non-monogamous romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13, 1-30.
2 – Treas, J., & Giesen, D. (2000). Sexual infidelity among married and cohabitating Americans. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 48-60.
3 – Rodrigues, D., Lopes, D., & Pereira, M. We agree and now everything goes my way: Consensual sexual nonmonogamy, extradyadic sex, and relationship satisfaction. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19, 373-379.
4 – Gangestad, S. W., & Simpson, J. A. (1990). Toward an evolutionary history of female sociosexual variation. Journal of Personality, 58, 69-96.
5 – Szepsenwol, O., Griskevicius, V., Simpson, J. A., Young, E. S., Fleck, C., & Jones, R. E. (2017). The effect of predictable early childhood environments on sociosexuality in early adulthood. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 11, 131-145.
6 – Conley, T. D., Matsick, J. L., Moors, A. C., & Ziegler, A. (2017). Investigation of consensually nonmonogamous relationships: Theories, methods, and new directions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 205-232.
7 – Swan, D. J., & Thompson, S. C. (2016). Monogamy, the protective fallacy: Sexual versus emotional exclusivity and the implication for sexual health risk. Journal of Sex Research, 53, 64-73.

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