A recent study co-authored by researchers at the Kinsey Institute has found that as many as 21 percent of Americans have taken part in consensual non-monogamy. That statistic is probably even higher given how open relationships are subject to stigmas that make people less likely to admit being in one. As a sign of the changing times, however, earlier this year, OkCupid added “open relationship” to their list of relationship statuses. In other words, if you’re considering experimenting with consensual non-monogamy, you’re not alone. Before you create a new profile on OkCupid or 3nder, here are a few things to think about in order to make it work.
First, learn the terminology. “Consensual non-monogamy” refers to relationships in which partners let each other have romantic and/or sexual relationships with other people. This includes polyamory (relationships that are mostly romantic), swinging (relationships that are mostly sexual) and open relationships (which are a mix of both). This is different from polygamy, which is usually faith-based and involves a man marrying several wives.
Polyamorists emphasize that their relationships are egalitarian and consensual, which is another way they differ from polygamous ones. Within a pre-existing couple, each person is the other’s primary partner and additional partners are called secondary. “Metamours” are your partner’s partners.
Second, understand the psychology. For some people, monogamy just isn’t for them; the idea of having only one sexual partner for the rest of their lives is too daunting. An open relationship could also be seen as a natural choice, since from an evolutionary perspective, humans are programmed to be non-monogamous. Back in the hunter-gatherer days, having a greater number of sexual partners was a surefire, short-term mating strategy that would increase a man’s chances of sowing his seed. For a woman, having multiple partners would obscure the paternity of her children, ensuring all of the men in the tribe would be invested in protecting her and her offspring.
Some research-backed benefits to polyamory include heightened emotional intimacy among partners, improved communication skills and more financial, physical (like when it comes to getting housework done) and emotional resources to share than your typical two-person household.
Third, make a game plan. From a practical standpoint, you might want to start by asking yourself if you have the time. It’s a myth that poly relationships take less work, or are more casual, than monogamous ones. In a monogamous arrangement, you’re only dealing with yourself and bae. In poly relationships, there’s now a minimum of two other people you need to keep happy. Personally, I’m often in awe of the poly community because I can barely find time to load the dishwasher, much less have three partners on the go.
Fourth, anticipate possible outcomes. Arguably, the biggest landmine of having an open relationship is jealousy. For people practicing consensual non-monogamy, it’s understood that jealousy is normal and not a sign of weakness. New research out of the University of Michigan (that has not yet been published) also shows they tend to be less jealous than monogamous people. Poly relationships can help couples learn how to manage their feelings in ways that are healthy and don’t involve monitoring or restricting each other’s behavior.
While it’s perfectly understandable how most of us don’t want to picture our partners having sex with other people when we close our eyes, some choose to instead feel vicarious happiness at the thought, which is known as compersion. And it works. For people in open relationships, compersion has been shown to predict greater relationship satisfaction. After all, jealousy is about what you choose to do with those feelings, not what your partner does. But like all decisions around sex, everything needs to be consensual. If something hasn’t been explicitly agreed upon, it’s considered cheating—whether the relationship is open or not.
It can take a good amount of trial and error to figure out what works. Negotiating (and renegotiating) boundaries and rules are necessary to succeed. For example, some couples agree they won’t hook up with new partners unless their primary partners have met them first. The good news is an increasing number of sex therapists are becoming enlightened about non-traditional relationships, and there are also helpful resources like The Ethical Slut and More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory to help you find your way.
Times when non-monogamy might not be the best idea? If you decide that this is what you need, but your partner ultimately wants to stay monogamous. In this case, you guys aren’t compatible and it’s better that you find partners who are on the same page. Also, don’t pursue non-monogamy if it is being used as a last-ditch effort to salvage a relationship in the final stages of decay. I have yet to see this kind of arrangement work out. Instead, partners end up feeling more hurt and misled when the relationship spirals to its (now, even messier) demise. No matter the curiosity or motivation, a couple needs a strong foundation, with a commitment to honesty, complete transparency and trust, before opening up.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist, specializing in the fMRI of paraphilias (or unusual sexual interests) at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine and many other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.