Can An Open Marriage Work? Is The Relationship Happier?

Men and women often fantasize about having sex with someone other than their spouse or partner.

Many choose not to pursue further or go beyond the fantasy, as it could compromise their monogamous relationship.

Today, however, quite a few couples, married or living together, are experimenting with the possibility of opening their relationships to outside partners without jeopardizing their emotional intimacy and trust at home.

Relationships And Reality

Although most committed couples in long term intimate relationships expect that theirs will be a monogamous marriage, the facts concerning sex, sexual satisfaction, and human behavior reveal some bitter truths.

  •  Surveys suggest that most everyone has fantasies of sex with someone other than their partner.
  •  About 46% of spouses in monogamous marriages (in the United States) will cheat on their partner at some point in the relationship, a considerable failure rate.
  •  Although cheating is not condoned by society, in more recent years it has somehow become more accepted.

But what if couples did not have to cheat this way? What if previously monogamous couples permitted each other to develop a sex life and have sexual relationships with outside partners?

What Is An Open Marriage?

Open marriages fall under the broader category of casual non-monogamous relationships, in which couples agree to the following ground rules:

  • Casually date other people
  • Pursue sexual relationships, having safe sex
  • Always prioritize their primary relationship and not become romantically involved or emotionally intimate with new partners

Open relationships differ from polyamorous relationships in that partners in open marriages do not intend to develop intimate connections outside of their primary partner. It’s mostly about sex.

Couples who engage in open relationships often find themselves conflicted.

There appears to be little real data on open marriage outcomes, successes, or failures.

There is speculation, however, that there are a great many failures in open marriages due to everything from poor communication and misunderstandings to outright jealousy and ego problems.

Do Open Relationships Work?

Open relationships are about important things like communication as much as they are about sex. Like most healthy relationships to have a chance at success, both spouses must agree and be clear about their intentions.

Some relationship experts consider this type of relationship a good idea for some marriages. They would argue that some married people might benefit from taking the next step, having more sexual freedom thereby becoming better partners as a result.

Those open marriages that do work well share the following formula:

Set Clear Intentions.   If a couple is in crisis, simply opening the current relationship and allowing others in will not fix core issues. Instead, it will make them worse. Partners should be very clear about their intentions of being open.

Is it about fulfilling one’s sexual desires through the sexual act itself? Is it simply to have other sexual experiences? Or is it to run away from the existing problems or an attempt to fix them?

Open Discussion.   Couples must have conversations about the concept of an open marriage in a neutral state of mind. The partners should discuss what opening the relationship will mean and what effect it may potentially have on either or both of them. Discussing open marriage requires that couples talk honestly about their sexual connection and their respective sexual drives.

Establish Precise Boundaries.   If a couple decides that an open marriage is right for them, clear boundaries need to be set. Partners need to do the hard work of  setting the ground rules and being specific about sex with others, including sexual acts, protected-sex practices, and screening for sexually transmitted infections.

Specifics such as penetrative sex, oral sex, anal sex and any one or more of a wider range of sex acts needs to be discussed before boundaries b=can be agreed upon.

Emotional boundaries.   Couples need to discuss their emotional needs and jealousy. What will they do if one of them starts to feel jealous and insecure? What will they do if they develop romantic relationships despite their intent not to?

Personal boundaries.   Couples should discuss what’s fair game? How do they feel about friends, co-workers, or ex-partners? Are strangers off the table? How many partners are allowed outside the primary relationship? Whether one partner can decide on a dating partner for the other? They might also want to discuss gender identity and sexual orientation for themselves and other potential partners.

Split Time.   Couples should set guidelines on how much time they can spend with their outside partners.
Sharing Information

Sharing Information.   Partners should discuss if they are comfortable disclosing their open relationships with friends or family. Many couples are discreet about their open relationships and may limit knowledge of this to only the closest of friends.

Be Brutally Honest.   Couples must be honest about their set boundaries, emotional desires, and sexual appetite to feel safe and secure. Open, honest communication between the married partners is essential for a consensual non-monogamous relationship to work. If a partner is dishonest, breaches trust and breaks the agreement, it is viewed as an infidelity and can have devastating consequences.

The Argument For Open Marriages

Advocates of open relationships site the following as benefits:

  • Sexually Enhancing. Open marriages will enhance a couple’s sex life as they will experience better sex.
  • Sexual fulfillment. Opening the marriage takes the burden off the one person with a lower libido as the higher libido partner may go elsewhere to satisfy their sexual needs.
  • Freedom of expression. Couples in open relationships put all their cards on the table and express their needs and fantasies freely. (It is a good thing to do this in any marriage but essential for an open marriage to work).
  • Less pressure. Spouses do not have to fulfill all their partner’s sexual needs and interests, resulting in less emotional distress. There is also less likely a concern for secret affairs to be a problem.

The Argument Against Open Marriages

Those opposing open marriages site the following as reasons for doing so.

  • Jealousy. Although jealousy is not inevitable, there may be a higher risk for an open marriage to experience jealousy. There is an obvious potential for a spouse to be concerned about comparing their sexual abilities to a third party, causing insecurity and jealousy.
  • Negative thoughts. Increased vulnerability can cause negative feelings, resulting in a loss of confidence.
  • Criticism. Both partners are likely to face criticism from friends and family members. Open relationships are typically frowned upon and misunderstood.
  • Loss of interest in spouse. Having sex with multiple partners may become so compelling that sex with one’s spouse becomes secondary. This loss of interest can create a disconnect that might damage the original relationship.
  • STIs. Having multiple sexual partners can increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections.

Even in clearly defined and well-intentioned open relationships, partners may still develop strong emotional attachments to third parties. There is always that risk.

We live in a society where many behaviors including attitudes towards sex, gender and relationships have changed radically in just a few decades. This is both liberating for many but somewhat concerning for others.

Experimenting with an open marriage may be just that, an experiment. This experiment is not just taking place in big progressive cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and others, but as well in many smaller towns and cities throughout the country.

At the end of the day, for those who choose an open marriage, the way to survive, as with any marriage, is to be completely authentic, with open and honest communication.

Other articles of interest:

What Is Cheating? What Counts and What Does Not.

Affairs Cheating and Infidelity.

About the Author

Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with couples struggling with powerful issues such as infidelity and intimacy.