What is an Open Marriage? & Is It Right For You?

What is the point of an open marriage?
on May 29, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

For most people, marriage is all about monogamy. 

While traditionally this is the case, it doesn’t have to be that way, with ethical or consensual non-monogamy also applicable to these relationships. Enter the open marriage, where couples open their relationship up to others, usually from a sexual standpoint. 

Depending on their sexual and emotional needs, this can involve swinging (with other couples) or pursuing relationships outside of their primary partner. Traditionalists might balk at the concept and brand this behavior as a prelude to divorce, but can open marriages actually be healthy? 

Key Takeaways
  • An open marriage is a form of consensual non-monogamy where both partners agree to engage in sexual and potentially emotional relationships outside of their primary partnership. This arrangement allows for flexibility in fulfilling sexual and emotional needs while maintaining the primary relationship.
  • Honest communication and mutual consent are foundational to the success of an open marriage. Couples must openly discuss their desires, boundaries, and feelings about their relationships outside the marriage.
  • Open marriages can foster improved communication skills as partners navigate their external relationships and ensure their primary relationship remains strong.
  • Navigating jealousy and ensuring emotional security are significant challenges. Regular check-ins and honest communication are vital to manage these aspects effectively.

What is the meaning of an open marriage? 

An open marriage is similar to an open relationship, whereby both partners practice consensual non-monogamy. 

While most married couples opt for a traditional marriage, with a monogamous relationship, this new model involves a primary relationship and additional involvement with sexual partners. This involvement can vary from couple to couple, with some people more interested in swinging, while others practice polyamory. 

To some people, the idea of an open marriage might seem toxic or unhealthy, but it doesn’t have to be like this! With the right kind of emotional boundaries, it’s possible to have a successful open marriage — that allows both partners to fulfill their sexual needs while preserving the well-being of the relationship!

How to have an open marriage 

Depending on the chosen type of relationship, each partner has varying input levels on their spouse’s activities. 

“Get curious about if opening your relationship comes from a desire to expand your sense of self, relationship, and sexual expression. Or if it comes from a place of fear, that the only way to keep your relationship intact is by giving an option to one or both partners to sleep with other people,” instructs Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist. 

“When opening your marriage comes out of a more frantic decision that is a bandaid over a larger communication issue, opening the marriage is not going to be a magical fix.”

If you’re interested in a polyamorous relationship or marriage, you can be both romantically and sexually open. However, the primary partner can have direct input into how these other intimate relationships work. They might decide what new relationships they can take part in, or what sexual activities are allowed or not allowed with this person. 

On the other hand, some couples may consent to this kind of ethical non-monogamy without wanting to know too much information about their other sexual relationships. As long as they are both practicing safe sex and consent is present throughout, they might feel they don’t need to know the details about their sex life. 

These rules are totally malleable to suit the couple, with boundaries present just like in monogamous marriages. 

How do couples set boundaries in an open marriage?

For a non-monogamous relationship to work, emotional and physical boundaries should be in place to preserve your individual mental health and the relationship's overall well-being. 

Just like with an open relationship, both partners have to agree to this dynamic — with neither feeling pressured to open the marriage to make it work. Some couples may have mismatched libidos, and therefore feel happy to open it up to satisfy their partner’s sex drive or to fulfill their own needs. 

Or, they may believe in non-monogamy and are confident they can open the relationship up without their emotional connection suffering or jealousy interfering. No matter the reasonings behind opening the marriage, boundaries, and rules make it much easier for this dynamic to work. 

Rules of an open marriage 

  1. Honest communication: From the outset, couples should agree to openly and honestly communicate with each other about their other romantic relationships. They may decide what details they want to disclose (depending on their comfort levels) but they should never withhold information or lie about their relationships outside the marriage. 

  2. Consent: Couples have to consent to an open marriage every step of the way. This consent can be withdrawn at any time if one partner no longer feels comfortable with the dynamic or wants to reset the rules or boundaries. 

  3. Practical boundaries: While emotional boundaries are incredibly important, putting some physical boundaries in place is also important. For example, you may agree to only having single sexual interactions with other partners or certain sexual activities might be off the table. 

  4. Emotional security: For an open marriage to work, both partners need to feel secure enough in their connection and commitment to one another, that they are willing to let other intimate partners get involved. 

  5. Regular check-ins: Both partners should regularly check in with each other to make sure they feel safe and comfortable throughout. 

  6. Safe sex: If you’re in an open marriage, you should be practicing safe sex at all times so as not to expose your partner to STIs. Even if you’re being safe, it’s equally important to get regular STD checks if you’re sleeping with multiple partners. 

  7. Discretion: Since open marriage strays from tradition, you may not want other people to know that you have opened your relationship. You should agree on this with your partner, so you both feel comfortable with who knows what!

  8. Respect: When you’re in an open marriage, you should treat everyone with respect — including your partner and the other sexual partners that are involved.

  9. Jealousy management: While some jealousy in a relationship can be healthy, excessive jealousy can hurt your connection. If your partner is getting jealous, it’s important to realign your boundaries to ensure you’re both comfortable. 

  10. Consider counseling: Before you enter an open marriage, it can be helpful to discuss the rules and boundaries with a professional counselor. They can provide advice on the best way to approach this dynamic, to ensure everyone is happy and the practices are healthy. 

Do open marriages work?

While some couples are naturally skeptical of both open relationships and marriages, as they are worried about the impact this can have on their relationship satisfaction, or that it’s the first step toward divorce. 

However, new research shows that open relationships actually have a 92% to 97% success rate, similar to monogamous relationships. More than that, 45% of couples report feeling happier after opening the relationship — with a higher rate of overall sexual satisfaction than those in monogamous relationships. 

Despite all of these pros, the research also highlights that 40% of couples in open relationships reported feeling stigma or discrimination because of their choice to be open. However, open marriages don’t have to be unhealthy or toxic with the right attitude and boundaries in place. 

They can actually be very beneficial to the relationship if both partners are secure and on board with the dynamic. 

Is an open marriage healthy?

  1. Communication: Open marriages can help facilitate communication in a relationship, as both partners are encouraged to express their feelings and be honest about their sexual activities. This can help communication overall in the relationship, boosting the couple's overall satisfaction. 

  2. Excitement: Opening up the marriage can lend a certain amount of fun or excitement to the dynamic, and may even boost the couple’s own sex life! 

  3. Trust: Open marriages are built on trust and respect, with both partners trusting each other to abide by the rules and boundaries they have put in place. 

  4. Less jealousy: Even though some couples don’t cope well with jealousy in a relationship, in healthy doses — it can actually benefit the couple overall!

  5. Less pressure: Instead of feeling pressure to fulfill your partner’s sexual desires, opening the relationship removes this kind of tension. 

  6. Appreciation: At the end of the day, open marriages can boost your overall happiness in a relationship — as you are both satisfied and content sexually. This can lead to a greater appreciation for your partner and your relationship, as you feel fulfilled and content in every way. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between swinging and open marriage?

    Swinging and open marriages are both forms of non-monogamy but differ in their structure, intentions, and practices. Swinging primarily involves couples exchanging partners with other couples or engaging in sexual activities with additional people. The focus is on sexual variety and experiences, rather than forming emotional or romantic connections with others. On the other hand, open marriages allow for sexual and potentially emotional relationships outside the primary partnership. The rules and boundaries are highly customizable and agreed upon by all parties involved.
  • What percentage of open marriages end in divorce?

    Considering that open relationships have a 92% to 97% success rate, the same theory can be applied to open marriages. However, these non-monogamous dynamics are not for everyone, with some couples trying them as an attempt to “save their marriage” when it’s not what they really wanted.
  • Is open marriage legal in the US?

    In the United States, the legality of an open marriage isn't about the relationship structure itself but rather about how marriage is defined and regulated by law. Marriage, as recognized by U.S. law, is a legal contract between two people that grants them certain rights and obligations. The law does not govern the personal dynamics within a marriage, such as whether a couple chooses to have an open relationship — therefore there is no illegality pertaining to this relationship dynamic (even though there may be religious connotations to consider!)
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