How to Be in an Open Relationship and Protect Your Emotional Boundaries

Wondering if an open relationship would work for you? A relationship expert explains how to be in an open relationship and the ground rules to follow for a happy open relationship
by Sarah Finley
how to be in an open relationship

For some people, being in an open relationship — and having the freedom to date and have sexual relationships with other people — sounds like a dream. For others, a non-monogamous relationship could be their idea of a nightmare. 

Even if you’re happy to be in an open relationship with a partner, in practice it can cause problems within the relationship — as many of us don’t understand how to be non-monogamous. The key is understanding the dynamics and setting clear boundaries with your partner(s). 

While a polyamorous relationship involves becoming intimate with other people in the long term, an open relationship usually refers to you and/or your partner having multiple sexual or romantic partners while staying committed to each other. Both polyamory and open relationships fall under the umbrella of ethical non-monogamy (ENM) or consensual non-monogamy (CNM). 

So, can you learn how to be in an open relationship and what do successful open relationships look like? We talked to licensed psychotherapist Jack Hazan about how to be in an open relationship. 

Is an open relationship healthy?

“Open relationships can be healthy if they are set up in an effective way. If there are clear boundaries set and a couple can communicate openly and honestly, one or both partners can benefit from being in one,” explains Hazan.

Research shows that couples in open relationships are just as satisfied as married couples in monogamous relationships.

When both partners mutually agree on open relationship rules and they talk openly about their insecurities or concerns, then an open relationship can be a great way to have both your sexual desires met.

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What does it take to be in an open relationship?

While it can be rewarding, it takes a lot of work to be in an open relationship, says Hazan.

“You’ll need to establish rules and boundaries that work for both people. As always, honesty is the best policy, so be sure to voice your thoughts to your partner about what you want in terms of an open relationship,” he explains.

Successful open relationships have ground rules. For example, you may agree to tell your primary partner if you are meeting someone for a hookup, or using dating apps. If you’re sleeping with multiple partners, it’s important to practice safe sex to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

When honesty and communication in your current relationship are lost, you don’t listen to what your partner wants or you do something which you both decided should be off limits then trust breaks down (and this is when open relationships start to suffer).

Why is it so hard to be in an open relationship?

Open relationships or open marriages can be liberating, especially if you want to explore your sexual needs, but they don’t always work out.

“There could be a power difference between partners,” explains Haza. “If one person in the relationship has more sexual encounters or partners in general, it can bring up anger and resentment for the other person.”

Although open relationships, unlike polyamorous relationships, tend to be more about sexual freedom, that isn’t to say your mental health and the emotions of your primary partner won’t be affected. “There’s a lot of opportunities for emotions to get in the way. Things can get complicated if feelings towards the open relationship change for one of the partners, or if someone else catches feelings,” says Hazan.

How do you stop jealousy in an open relationship? 

Jealousy can show up whether you’re in an open relationship or not, but it can be more prevalent when partners have sexual relationships with other people. You might both feel jealous at some point, so it’s helpful to have some practices in place for when those emotions come up.

“Since you can’t necessarily stop it, you can do things to help improve how you feel,” explains Hazan. “Talk it through with your partner, and be honest about your feelings. This can help you explore where that feeling is coming from and hopefully, you can find a solution with your partner that addresses them.”

If feelings of jealousy are coming up a lot, it could be time to reassess your expectations and ground rules. “You can also talk about re-establishing boundaries that have changed and are no longer working for you both to help you feel more comfortable and safer.”

What are some of the other challenges of being in an open relationship?

“Something that can be a challenge is if there are infrequent check-ins with your partner. By doing check-ins, it allows you and your partner to talk about any updates of if rules need to be changed, or feelings need to be shared. When there is a lack of open communication, it can be especially difficult,” explains Hazan.

A good sex life with your primary partner should be a priority too. If this was one of the reasons you agreed to have an open marriage or open relationship, try not to ignore the real issues at play, as it could affect your emotional intimacy. Speaking to a sex therapist can help you explore it further.

What are the pros and cons of an open relationship?

Like anything, there are pros and cons to making an open relationship work.

Some pros of an open relationship include:

  • Emotional freedom. “Sometimes it can be difficult to rely on one person to meet all of your needs. This can be met through a monogamous relationship, but if you’re not feeling that your needs are being met, you can find fulfillment in others,” says Hazan.

  • Learning what you like with a new partner. “Another pro is you get to learn more about yourself in the process of being in an open relationship. While being in this type of relationship, it gives you the chance to explore your needs, boundaries, and desires.”

Some challenges to being in an open relationship include: 

  • Emotional upheaval. “If you think there are a lot of emotions when being in one relationship, think of the emotional whirlwind that’ll come up when there is a new partner to think about. The feeling of sharing your partner with anyone could bring up a lot of fear and anxiety.”

  • Sexual health. “Even if there’s communication and trust, this is still a big issue that can come up.”

How do you know if an open relationship is right for you?

Hazan says an open relationship isn’t for everyone, but if it’s something you are considering, it’s a good idea to do some self-exploration first. 

“Asking yourself questions like, ‘Am I someone who falls in love with, or is comfortable having sex with more than one person?’ is a good starting point. But it’s a different story if you don’t feel okay with your partner doing the same thing.”

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