All relationships can benefit from setting boundaries and expectations, but that’s even more true for open relationships. Even if you’ve been in an open relationship before, each is different from the previous one, so having some open relationship rules can help keep everyone involved happy and the partnership running smoothly.
Open relationships fall under the umbrella of ethical non-monogamy, sometimes referred to as consensual non-monogamy. They’re a type of relationship where one or both partners have the freedom to date or have sex with other people while keeping the primary partner their first priority.
“Simply stated, an open relationship is one in which partners agree to commit to each other, but that commitment does not necessitate monogamy,” says Dr. Tanisha M. Ranger, a licensed psychologist at Choosing Therapy.
“Open relationships can take a few different forms but at their core, it’s an agreement between partners to be together but not exclusive.”
Being in an open relationship means you’re not monogamous, you’re monogamish. But the exact parameters of what is or isn’t allowed is completely up to you and your partner — that’s why mutually agreeing on open relationship rules is crucial.
“Open relationships can absolutely be healthy,” says Dr. Ranger, who adds that ethically non-monogamous relationships often come with great communication between partners. You also don’t have the pressure to be your partner’s “everything,” she says.
Research finds that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships experience the same levels of relationship satisfaction, emotional well-being, and sexual satisfaction as those in monogamous relationships.
About a quarter of American adults is interested in having an open relationship, according to a 2021 YouGov poll of more than 23,000 Americans. Meanwhile, a study published in The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that about one in five people had been in an open relationship already.
But experts warn not to use open relationships as a way to fix a relationship on the rocks. “Oftentimes, people end up in an open relationship because their partner doesn’t wish to be monogamous. This doesn’t lead to anything healthy, as the person who is just going along in the hopes of holding onto someone they want or love ends up being emotionally damaged by the situation,” explains Dr. Ranger.
For that reason, open relationships might not be a good fit for everyone. “If a person with a significant history of attachment trauma tries to engage in an open relationship without having done the work of processing that trauma and the impact it had on them, this can be an emotionally dangerous situation,” says Dr. Ranger.
“This is difficult to answer as open relationships (when done correctly) are incredibly tailored to the needs and desires of the people involved,” says Dr. Ranger. “The strong undercurrent running through every healthy, successful open relationship is communication.”
Even though there’s no one-size-fits-all to non-monogamy, Dr. Ranger says there are a few common rules in an open relationship:
Time rules: these include rules about how much time the couple spends together as well as with any other partners.
People rules: these include rules about who is invited into the relationship, whether that applies to potential other partners or who gets to know about the status of the relationship
Safety rules: these include rules around STI testing regularly, the use of protection, protecting the family (especially where children are involved), and again who gets invited into the relationship.
No two open relationships are alike, and you and your partner may have different ideas about what’s acceptable or not.
Below are three general open relationship rules to help you set guidelines to navigate through.
Emotional boundaries in an open relationship can involve what types of extra relationships or people are OK, and which ones are off limits. An open relationship doesn’t necessarily mean being “open” to everyone.
You and your partner should agree on who you’re allowed to be with outside of the relationship, and what kinds of intimacy are acceptable.
Are you comfortable with your partner going on dates and vice versa? Would you both be free to see another person on an ongoing basis, or can it only be a one-and-done thing? Do they need to be a stranger, or is it ok if they’re part of your social circle?
You should also discuss whether you’re happy for your friends and family to know that your relationship is open. “Because let’s be honest, society remains very monogamy-focused and sometimes that’s not a conversation people want to keep having to get into with friends or family,” says Dr. Ranger.
Another rule you should agree on is what levels of physical intimacy you’re comfortable engaging in with other people. Discuss whether all types of sex are okay, or whether certain sexual acts are out of bounds.
Discuss safe sex practices, too. Partners should talk about expectations around birth control and protection. Will you use a condom and/or dental dam, for both penetrative and/or oral sex? Do you need each other’s external partners to get an STI test beforehand? Will you get screened regularly?
Communication is vital to any relationship, but it’s even more paramount in an open relationship.
“Ethical nonmonogamy requires a level of self-knowledge, self-love, and self-awareness that many people struggle to achieve. Being in an open relationship is all about healthy communication but you can’t communicate your needs and desires with your partner if you aren’t aware of (or willing to accept) what they are.”
Your goals and boundaries might change over time, and because of the dynamic of an open relationship, you can’t predict what situations or feelings might come up.
“You have to be honest with yourself about what you truly want/need and then you have to be honest with your partner about it if this is going to work,” says Dr. Ranger.
“Respect is incredibly important as well. Respect your own boundaries and that of your partner as you negotiate what the relationship is going to look like,” she adds.
“Be willing to lose this relationship rather than lose yourself in something that is ultimately not going to make you happy, nor will it fulfill you emotionally.”
Have regular relationship check-ins to discuss what is and isn’t working in the relationship, and discuss whether you need to revisit some of the rules you’ve set.
“It’s a requirement that conversations about the nature and status of the relationship are had early and often,” says Dr. Ranger.
“People change, and sometimes the things to which you agreed don’t work for you anymore, and boundaries need to be renegotiated.”