An expert explains how to make the switch to non-monogamy

Relationship status: it’s complicated...

Open relationship guide
photo: 'Love' by Gaspar Noé
Open relationship guide
photo: 'Love' by Gaspar Noé

Relationship status: it’s complicated...

By Louis Staples02 Aug 2022
12 mins read time
12 mins read time

For couples who are thinking about exploring life beyond monogamy, there is one central question: how to open your relationship? There is no one right answer, because every relationship is slightly different, and there are a lot of different reasons and ways to explore non-monogamy.

For a lot of people, transitioning into an open relationship can throw up some tricky questions. How do you manage jealousy when it flares up? Is it OK to date, or catch feelings too? Where and when are you allowed to sleep with other people? There are lots of areas where communication is key.

A 2020 YouGov poll found that a third of adults in the US would say that their ideal relationship would be non-monogamous to some degree – but that still doesn’t mean that moving away from monogamy is always easy.

In the interests of giving you some much-needed tips and advice on opening your relationship, Woo spoke to Ryan Campinho Valadas, Intergrative Therapist and Sex and Relationships specialist at Self Space, to find out more...

What is an open relationship?

Before we get into the nitty gritty, it's worth clearing up the terminology. Non-monogamy looks different for everyone, but it can be helpful to be on the same page when it comes to definitions – not everyone likes labels but they can help you avoid any tricky miscommunications. In general, an "open relationship" is seen to be one where the people involved may explore sexual connections outside of the primary relationship. This is, by and large, is somewhat different to "polyamory" which places more of a focus on emotional connections. Lots of people report some slippage between the two when they put the lifestyle into practice but an open relationship might have different rules and boundaries to polyamory, and vice versa. Open relationships may also correspond to a hierarchical concept, where there is a "primary" relationship which is prioritised and other "secondary" or "tertiary" relationships which are more casual or do not have the same privileges as the primary relationship – though it really is worth stating that this style of approaching relationships can prove controversial within the poly community.

How to discuss an open relationship

Ah, the age-old question; how on Earth do I bring up the topic of an open relationship with my partner? You might be worried that it could be awkward or even potentially upsetting to talk non-monogamy but, as sex and relationships specialist Campinho Valadas explains, there's plenty you can do to make it as smooth as possible, namely by making sure you cover all necessary bases. "There are three main things couples need to cover in this opening conversation,” he says. “First, it’s an exploration of the values they have around opening up a relationship and the meaning of that. Sometimes, what both people consider an ‘open relationship’ might be very different, so I would always start there: what meaning do you attach to terms like ‘monogamy’”. Next, couples should explore the feelings that are coming up for them. “There might be a mix of a sense of adventure and excitement, and sort of freedom almost, but also there might be some fears, anxieties and frustrations. So it's important to have open conversations about that,” he says. Finally, there are practical aspects. “What rules and agreements do we want to put around the sort of dates or connections we might be establishing with other people?”

Why are open relationships more common in some relationships than others?

If you're LGBTQIA+ you might have heard the stereotype that gay men tend to be more likely to be in open relationships – but what if we told you that there are stats that appear to back this myth up? In 2021, a survey conducted by The Gay Therapy Centre, an LGBTQIA+ affirming therapy practice based in multiple US cities, suggested that 30% of gay men are in open relationships while previous studies have placed the number of gay men in open or monogamish relationships at between 47 and 42%. US-based polls have suggested that lesbians and queer women may be more likely to be in non-monogamous relationships too, with a 2015 Autostraddle survey saying that just under 15% were exploring relationships outside of monogamy (who knows how much that number will have risen by now that Feeld is a thing...). For context, recent estimates place the number of non-monogamous heterosexual relationships at 4%.

What exactly is behind this disparity? Well, Valadas thinks the main reason for open relationships being more common in queer relationships is the historical context of LGBTQIA+ people being at the margins. “Being at the margins, some ideas like marriage forever hasn’t always applied to queer people from a cultural, legal and social perspective, so through the centuries and decades, people have found different ways in which to relate in which to connect with each other.” A function of being at the margins, he thinks, is finding alternative ways to find fulfilment in life. “If you live outside of the norms, and if you are told that the norms are not for you, then you by default, become more open to alternative ways of being, thinking and feeling,” he says. “That’s a ‘bigger picture perspective’ on why queer people are often more open to open relationships and non-monogamy.”

How to not get jealous in an open relationship

The idea of flirting, fun and hot dates with people you don't know – hot! The concept of your partner doing the same? For many, not so hot. Some individuals may find the idea of their significant other dating or sleeping with other people to be a real struggle or source of insecurity and one of the things that puts them off exploring non-monogamy. As a result, when opening up your relationship, it can initially be a bumpy road in terms of navigating jealousy and hurt feelings – a long way off from the "compersion" (a sympathetic joy for your partner's sexual or romantic fulfilment with others) that poly folk sometimes talk about.

So how do you get to grips with jealousy in open relationships so you can get to all the good stuff? Well, by expecting and anticipating it. As Valadas, explains, it's pretty normal to experience feelings of jealousy or even rejection when embarking on an open relationship if you've only been monogamous before. “We've internalised the idea that we need to be everything for our partner, so when the partner says that they want something else, or something additional, we immediately feel rejected by that. It's quite a human response,” he says. And how do couples cope with that? “With time, careful communication and honesty, it's very much possible that the person can come around to something different into a different way of looking at it. I often advocate, if couples can can afford it, to have a few sessions with a couples therapist, just to work out the kinks and how to have better conversations.”

Should you date in an open relationship?

A huge point of confusion when opening up your relationship is whether you should be looking to date other people – potentially opening yourselves up to more of a polyamorous-style dynamic of multiple relationships – or keep your relationship at a level of emotional exclusivity, with the added bonus of sleeping with other people.

Well, it's a tricky question and one that only you and your partner can decide upon. But whatever the answer you settle on, it’s important to be as clear as possible about where and when the relationship is open, and all the red lines which go along with that. One key question can be: is it just about sex with other people, or romantic connections too? Valadas thinks it’s “easier” when a relationship is just open in the sexual sense. “That makes it easier because couples can just work out the sex boundaries around that opening. But it may be that a partner may think that opening a relationship could also include romantic connections. And that's when we get into more polyamory rather than just non monogamy,” he says. “That would then entail a different conversation and different questions. So if you’re thinking of also opening up romantically, what does that mean? What does that mean in terms of the time we want to allocate to opening up the relationship?”

How to handle setbacks in an open relationship

Look, all relationships have their issues and open relationships are no exception. Add in the fact that you're breaking away from the established mould of monogamy, and you should be realistic that there are potentials for miscommunications or bumps along the road – but that doesn't mean that open relationships aren't worth embarking upon. As Valadas explains, it's important to be aware of the potential struggles and get into a regular routine of checking in and communicating. “No matter how clear we are, we might miss something because we can't possibly think of every single scenario straight away,” he says. “So there will be potentially moments where someone does something or says something that the other partner finds off. And it's like, ‘oh, we never thought of the situation before, so let's talk about it’.” There's a level of sort of planning that couples can do, but there will likely be times where unexpected situations arise. There might also be times where the rules aren’t working for people. “It's about establishing some kind of routine where you check in with each other, about how the agreement is going and how the experience is going,” he says. “Maintain open communication and open channels within that process.”

Should I tell my partner about the other people I'm sleeping with?

Once you start learning more about non-monogamy, you'll discover that there are multiple approaches to what you do or don't tell your partner about your exploration outside of the relationship. This is commonly one of the boundaries which are agreed upon before the relationship is opened up, alongside rules around sexual health, what should remain exclusive to the original relationship (such as not staying the night with other people or not having dates over to the shared home), or whether the relationship is non-monogamous in a romantic or sexual sense. “An important discussion is how much each person wants to know what the other person is doing. Because there's also a spectrum, right?" says Valadas. "You can ask your partner, ‘I want to know exactly everything,’ or ‘I don't want to know anything about it.' Both of these are key questions, which relate to the overarching themes of clear communication and boundaries."

As Valadas says, there are different degrees of disclosure in polyamory, and it's important to know which one works for you. For a quick primer, here is some of the terminology. A "don't ask, don't tell" policy relates to non-monogamous activity where individuals know that the relationship is open and agree upon the rules and boundaries of the relationships but don't want to know about or discuss any other partners, dates or sexual connections. This is a subcategory of "parallel polyamory" where individuals who are dating or in relationships with the same person don't interact or create a network, though they may know about one another. On the other side of the spectrum is "kitchen table polyamory" where individuals dating the same person are encouraged to cultivate a network and potentially become friends – note that this is often rare in open relationships and is more of a fixture among communities that define themselves as polyamorous.

See, there's plenty of options to choose from: as with everything in non-monogamy, it's all about what is a fit for you and your partner(s).

Can you close your relationship once you've opened it?

Tried opening your relationship but not sure it's for you? There's no reason why you might not decide to communicate this to your partner and, if they're willing, return to monogamy. After all, polyamory and consensual non-monogamy are all about finding the relationship style which works for you – and sometimes that's monogamy! “If someone does try non-monogamy and decides that it's not for them, it's absolutely normal for them to close the relationship and go back to monogamy, if they recognise for themselves that that's the best thing for them,” Valadas adds. “It's about being affirmative to what you might need and want, so if someone wants to open and close or remain open, it's really up to you. Couples can remain monogamous, let's say for 10 years, and then maybe it's time to open up again and try something else.”

How do I learn more about open relationships and non-mongamy?

It's vital to remember that polyamory and consensual non-monogamy are subcultures in their own right, with their own terminology, and serve as umbrella terms covering a considerable number of identities and orientations. While we hope that this How To serves as a sold primer, non-monogamy is really too vast a concept to cover in one article: so we'd recommend hitting the books to really learn more about community expectations on things like sexual health (yes, you should be getting tested after every new partner and/or using protection!), how to set boundaries and how to manage your time. The r/Polyamory community on Reddit is also a great place to ask questions and learn from IRL members of the community.

Some non-monogamy classics you might want to add to your TBR pile include The Ethical Slut, Polysecure and More Than Two. Seriously, make sure you do some research before you dive in...