Can you make an open relationship work?

Siski Green / 17 November 2016

Open relationships aren’t impossible, many couples make them work. Find out how.



Having sex outside of a committed relationship happens all the time – research shows that around 60% of men and 45% of women are unfaithful to each other. But that’s having sex outside of a committed relationship without the other person knowing. 

Open relationships are different in that they are based on honesty. An open relationship is one where you are in a loving relationship with someone, and you have sex with others outside of that relationship with their knowledge. And the incidence of these types of relationships is much lower. 

Research from sociologists Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein found that 15% of married couples agree that they are in an open relationship, but only around 24% of those men and 22% of those women actually engage in extramarital sex. So it’s not very common. But that doesn't mean it won’t work for you. 

If you’re interested in exploring the possibility, first find out how it might affect you and your relationship by asking yourself why you want an open relationship.

Common reasons for an open relationship

1. You’re still attracted to other people

Many people in relationships find other people outside of their partnership appealing, sexy even. But finding someone else attractive is different to having a strong enough desire for someone else to act on it, despite already having a warm, loving and sexual relationship with someone with who you love. 

If you don’t feel you’re in a warm, loving and sexual relationship, then that could be why you feel such a strong urge to be with someone else. 

In that scenario, an open relationship won’t work because if you find the sex, love or warmth you receive outside of the relationship gives you what you need, your former relationship will suffer or end. Or if you don’t receive what you’re lacking in your current relationship, you will remain unsatisfied and so the open relationship won’t work either. 

“Being attracted to someone else sexually doesn’t mean you aren’t committed to your partner,” says sex therapist Dr Ian Kerner (www.goodinbed.com). 

“But it can indicate that you need to work on your relationship in the areas you feel it’s lacking. Use this as an opportunity to explore creative ways you can please each other sexually. And remember that it’s perfectly safe to fantasise about sex with someone else – as long as you still put in the effort and attention to your sexual relationship with your partner.”

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2. You have needs that aren’t fulfilled within your relationship

Maybe you or your partner suffers with an illness that doesn’t allow for great sex. But you still love him or her and don’t want to leave. Or maybe your partner doesn’t want to fulfil certain elements of your sexual relationship, so you’d like to get satisfaction elsewhere. 

“The key here is to assess whether both of you can benefit from an open relationship in this scenario, or whether only one of you will be better off,” says Kerner. 

“If it’s the latter, it may be preferable to find other ways of gaining satisfaction or to end the relationship. But if you talk about it and both agree that an open relationship would enhance what you have already, rather than replace it or interfere with it, then go to it. Just be sure to set some ground rules first.”

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3. You hope an open relationship will make you feel good about yourself

Feeling attractive and sexy as a result of another man or woman’s attention can indeed up your libido and make you more open to sex within your committed relationship, so that would seem a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. “In an ideal world, your partner is able to make you feel attractive and sexy so you shouldn’t need to get that boost elsewhere,” says Kerner. 

“In reality, of course, some of us feel the need for external admiration – from someone ‘new’ or ‘different’ – to feel good about ourselves.” 

The problem here is that if you find yourself constantly looking outside of yourself and your relationship for affirmation of your attractiveness, your partner is more likely to get tired of trying to fulfil your needs and failing. 

You may also find that having sex with other people actually lowers your self-esteem making an open relationship a risky option. Instead, try to focus on ways to boost your self-esteem yourself.

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4. You’re hankering after those feelings during the initial stages of love/lust

Feeling a deep attraction for someone and having that feeling returned is amazing. Aside from the psychological boost, when you’re sexually attracted to someone new, your body releases hormones that make you feel great. 

Three chemicals are released in greater quantities at this time – adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin – and researchers believe it’s dopamine, especially, that gives us that initial ‘high’. 

Being in a long-term relationship means your body can’t sustain the same levels of those chemicals throughout – you’d be a physical and emotional mess if it did. 

Instead, by enjoying regular physical contact your body releases other chemicals - oxytocin and vasopressin - which help calm you and make you feel connected with your partner. 

“If your desire for those feelings of first attraction is stronger than your desire to remain in a monogamous relationship, then it’s something you should discuss with your partner,” says Kerner.

“Because whether or not they also want an open relationship, talking about your feelings is something you should do out of respect for them – they may decide that if it’s so important to you they would prefer to end the relationship, or they may agree that an open relationship is possible. But it is something they should be able to decide with you.”

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5. You live far apart

When you live on other sides of the planet, or even other ends of the UK, it can seem like a nice idea to enjoy each other when you can but not to hold back when it comes to having sex with others when the opportunity arises. 

“An open relationship when you live far apart makes more practical sense than when you live in the same house, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t subject to the same risks and potential problems,” says Kerner. 

Research from Grand Valley State University, USA, shows that long-distance relationships are not so different from ‘normal’ relationships in terms of quality, even though there is often a lot less time spent together. “This research suggests that the closeness we experience is about the quality of the time together not the quantity,” adds Kerner. 

“So if having an open relationship might affect the quality of the time you do get as a couple, it will be as detrimental as it would be if you were living close by.” 

Setting the Ground Rules 

You are not allowed to… 

Specify what kinds of activities are ‘allowed’ and which are off the table. 

So, for example, perhaps you’re okay with your partner having other sexual partners for oral sex but not penetrative sex. You may be okay with him or her having sex in a hotel room but not in your own home, or you may not want him or her to have sex with anyone you know, and so on. 

Make your own set of rules together. You should also require that your partner uses a condom, and use one yourself too! 

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We must not change… 

Specify what you would like to remain the same within your relationship. 

This is something couples often forget to cover – but what if you or your partner are suddenly spending a lot more time with other people and so have less time or energy for your relationship? If you expect to have sex as regularly as you do now, specify that. 

If you expect to spend all weekend with them or every weeknight, specify that. 

Finally, if you expect not to hear about your partner’s exploits, specify that too! You may prefer not to know or perhaps you want to know every detail. This has to be decided before you go ahead. 

If one or both of us is unhappy… 

Decide before you start what you both will do if one or more of you finds it isn’t making you happy. Will you both quit, no questions asked? Or will you talk it through to see if there’s another way? 

It may also be an idea to give it a time limit to begin with, so you both know you have a month, for example, to try it. 

I respect you… 

The most important element of making an open relationship work is maintaining mutual respect within the relationship. That means being honest and caring, listening and respecting each other’s viewpoints, even if they differ from your own, and working together as a team to make it work.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.