Open relationships have become less of a taboo topic in recent times. Couple that with the fact that around one-fifth of people living in the US have engaged in some kind of consensually non-monogamous behavior, and you can understand why this is so. In my previous article, I talked –a lot – about open marriages and consensual or ethical non-monogamy, and tried to answer all kinds of emerging questions surrounding them. What are the rules to ethical non-monogamy and open marriages? How do people deal with feelings of jealousy? How can couples start a conversation about these topics and lifestyles? But one question remained unanswered – something I left for a separate article. Yeah, you guessed it – do open relationships actually work?
Well, the short answer is: yes they can work and they do work for some couples. Of course, it takes lots of open-hearted and honest conversations, among other things.
How common are non-monogamous relationships and why are they so alluring for us?
Truth is that, and the data shows that as well, consensual non-monogamous relationships are more common than we think. And it’s no wonder, really. We often demand of our partners to be our everything: great lovers and tigresses in the sack, best friends, financial supporters, our hobby buddies, or our emotional rocks. I mean, that’s a lot of pressure on the relationship folks, no matter how much you love each other.
In reality, rarely is a partner capable of playing all those roles. All of us have different needs and not all of them can be so easily negotiated or fulfilled by our partners. One of the ways in which people try to alleviate this pressure is by trying an open relationship. They get to fulfill some of their sexual needs, for example, that they’re not able to do with their partners, without any hard feelings from them.
And, of course, it’s not just about alleviating the pressure of a long-term relationship. There are people who are also very happy with their partners on multiple levels: sexually, emotionally, socially… but they still need the thrill, excitement, and validation of other people who are not their partner, no matter how fleeting it may be. And that’s perfectly okay. It’s not something we should be ashamed of.
Still, society says otherwise. CNM, or consensual non-monogamous relationships, are still very much under scrutiny and not favored by mainstream society, and considered even downright taboo for some people.
The public often thinks of them as immoral, like something is lacking in those kinds of relationships that should otherwise be there. But that’s not really the case.
Let’s see how and why this is.
What Does the Scientific Data Say on the Well-Being of People in Open Relationships?
Well, according to several studies, people in open relationships tend to be just as happy as their monogamist counterparts.
One study, published in 2018, from the University of Guelph in Canada, gives a report how “people in consensual, non-monogamous relationships experience the same levels of relationship satisfaction, psychological well-being and sexual satisfaction as those in monogamous relationships.”
This study included more than 140 people in ethically non-monogamous relationships and over 200 couples who were monogamous.
Jessica Wood, a Ph.D. applied social psychology student who was the lead author of the study, goes to add how “[T]his debunks societal views of monogamy as being the ideal relationship structure.”
In the same study, Wood found out that one of the most important signs of how much people are satisfied in their relationships had to do less with the structure of that relationship, and more with the sexual motivation present inside of it.
“In both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, people who engage in sex to be close to a partner and to fulfill their sexual needs have a more satisfying relationship than those who have sex for less intrinsic reasons, such as to avoid conflict,” says Wood.
So happiness comes with satisfying your psychological needs, as well as with your sexual ones. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with how you define the relationship – whether it’s a monogamous or polygamous one.
Although, certainly, for some people, that might be the primary reason for relationship satisfaction. Some people just can’t bear the mere thought that their partner is seeing someone else, even if only for a few hours, even if it’s about sex only.
People cherish deep emotional connections, agreed-upon relationship structure, and honesty
Another study, published in 2014 and conducted by Brock University, also in Canada, reports a similar finding like the one above: “General trends in the research reviewed suggest that consensual nonmonogamists have similar psychological well-being and relationship quality as monogamists.”
So it seems, the statistic is increasingly on the side of open relationships.
That being said, let me tell you about a third study (yeah, I promise I’ll end here with the studies).
This study was designed to assess the attitudes people have in general about non-monogamous aka nonexclusive relationships (as they’re referred also in the study).
Five types of relationships were taken into consideration: monogamy, polyamory, open relationship, swinging, and the last one is pretty interesting – cheating.
And the findings are?
Well, first place gets monogamy, of course, but the second one was reserved for polyamory. After that came the open relationships (which, in this case, were just sex and flings outside of marriage but no emotional connections), and swingers – they’re tied for place, actually. And, yeah, you guessed it by now – cheating was looked at most unfavorably by most of the 375 participants in the study.
So what does this tell us? It tells us a very profound thing – that people like to be in the clear, and most judge a relationship and its success and fulfillment with the factors of openness, honesty, and consensuality. And, as it seems, emotional connection. Because you see, monogamy and polyamory fared next to one another, and we know by now that polyamory is a type of relationship where people get to have deeper sexual and emotional connections with more than one partner.
Even when all is consensual and clear, it doesn’t mean the open relationship will flow smoothly
Similarly to the comments in the first study I mentioned, the structure of the relationship was most important to people in terms of relationship satisfaction. The questions of what each party has agreed to do and not do within it, the rules by which they abide, the constant communication and open-ended conversations, these are all parts of the successful open relationship stories.
Of course, the road to keeping up with one, long-term, is not easy, even though it may be paved with good intentions. Especially the early days of opening your relationship – they can be really tough for some people.
Consider these examples from The New York Times’ coverage on open marriages and relationships. I was particularly stricken by the story of a woman who, when her long-term boyfriend started dating another woman after they opened their relationship, and after her own attempt of side-dating had waned, was at one point so stricken by the pangs of jealousy that she managed to text the other girlfriend a text saying “Get your own boyfriend.” However, she eventually communicated to her partner what her real concerns were – fearing she wouldn’t have enough time to spend with him and fearing he won’t take enough care of her children. When he proved that that’s not an issue, she felt much better and even apologized to the girlfriend.
Or, another story when two men get to meet – the husband and the consensual lover of his wife. Don’t worry, the meeting ends well. The husband starts to feel the guy as less of a threat and finds a girlfriend on his own as well.
Final Thoughts on the Question Do Open Relationships Work
But you get my point. These can be some pretty scary situations. Yet they do happen, even with the best intentions, and one has to simply weather them somehow. With lots of communication, of course, as well as understanding from both sides, a bit of courage and persistence, and you’ll be able to get through. But also, nothing should be forced.
If one of the partners keeps trying but simply can’t get used to the open relationship, even after a while, then it might be time to reevaluate things and put the open relationship on hold, possibly even do away with it.
In any event, an open relationship can serve as a way to show partners what they have at home – a truly loving, understanding union that’s really hard to find and that should be nurtured and taken care of.
And, as long as the other people know what they’re getting into, the flings and escapades with them can serve as antithesis for the partner in the long-term relationship. You’ll be able to find out the things you love about your partner more accentuated, your whole romantic relationship history pronounced, and you can also become more eager and open again to making each other happy.