You don't have to go poly to embrace these healthy relationship practices that are crucial for open couples.
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If you've ever had an unfaithful partner or are one bad relationship away from slapping "has trust issues" in your Bumble profile, just the phrase "open relationship" likely sends shivers down your spine. Or, if you've only had ~blissful~ monogamous relationships, you may associate open relationships with free-spirited hippies, swingers, or people who can't keep themselves from cheating.
Even though interest in open relationships has increased, researchers from the University of Michigan found that people generally hold onto negative stereotypes about consensual non-monogamous (CNM) relationships and the people who engage in them. However, they're not as rare as you might think: Anywhere from 4.3 to 10.5 percent of relationships are non-monogamous, according to the study published in Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.
"People tend to think that an open relationship is the solution to being a commitment-phobe or that it's a workaround to developing relationship skills—but nothing could be further from the truth," says Darcy Sterling, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., a dating and relationship trend expert for Tinder and co-owner of Alternatives Counseling in New York City.
Whether an open relationship is your cup of tea or your idea of poison, there's one thing experts agree on: To make an open relationship work, you need to have some killer relationship skills, and those same skills are just as useful in a monogamous relationship. Here, some cues you should take from successful open partners.
Establish Clear Boundaries
"In an open relationship, you have to be very clear about the type of agreement you're making and what each person expects," says Jessa Zimmerman, a Seattle-based sex and relationship therapist and author of Sex Without Stress. (Because, FYI, not all open relationships are the same.)
Ditto for traditional monogamous relationships: Though it may seem straightforward, monogamy doesn't mean one specific thing. "In a monogamous relationship, you may not have the same assumptions," says Zimmerman. "It's very important to be clear about what monogamy means to each of you, what you each expect, and that you're in agreement about it."
For example: Is flirting cheating? How about kissing? Having sex with someone of the opposite sex? What about the same sex? "A lot of people don't know they have different expectations until they run into trouble," she says.
"Structures and boundaries need to be very clear, whether your relationship is open or not," says Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., a relationship psychotherapist in New York City. That means sitting down with your partner and having the DTR convo—even if you kinda already did. This time, define exactly what "crosses the line." (Related: Is It Illegal to Go Through Your Partner's Phone?)
Try going at it from a really positive place, says Zimmerman. Emphasize that you want the relationship to be as strong as it can be and to make sure you're on the same page. "If you come at it from, 'I want to understand you, my partner,' you're probably going to be very well received," she says.
Know Yourself First
You've probably heard the phrase, "You have to learn to love yourself before you can love someone else" in some podcast or on an Instagram post somewhere. While loving yourself is important, so is knowing yourself.
"People in open relationships need to have a lot of awareness about their wants and needs and boundaries; what they're okay with and what they're not; what their emotions are going to do and what they've done in the past," says Zimmerman. "That kind of self-awareness is incredibly useful in monogamous relationships too. Being able to understand your emotions and communicate them, to understand what you want and need, to know where you need to set boundaries—that sort of attention to self is crucial." (Next up: Why Everyone Should Go to Therapy at Least Once)
Have On-Point Communication
"For people to succeed in an open relationship, the amount of communication needed among partners is epic," says Sterling. That means being able to talk through your wants, needs, and emotions so you can get through things together versus avoiding difficult topics completely. Because, inevitably, ~things~ will come up. (Here's how to keep your fights civil, not savage.)
"Great relationships aren't about partners who don't have conflict. They're about partners who know how to navigate conflict," says Sterling. "And a funny thing happens when you have the ability to manage conflicts: You bond with your partner(s), you deepen the connection, and you increase intimacy."
But beware of overcommunicating: "Knowing what to share and what to refrain from sharing is so important," says Sterling. For example, in an open relationship, you probably wouldn't want to tell your partner how great someone else was in bed, as that may prompt jealousy. In a monogamous relationship, you may not want to tell your S.O. about the person who hit on you at the bar if it doesn't impact your relationship. (Related: How Performing In a Trapeze Show with My Boyfriend Changed Our Relationship)
Show Appreciation On the Reg
"Everyone is so busy juggling their careers and managing day-to-day responsibilities that we can forget that our relationships deserve and require attention," says Sterling. "It's so easy to fall into a choreographed pattern, forgetting that our partners agreed to become our partners because, in the beginning, we courted them. We made an effort to keep things exciting." Even once you've committed to each other in a monogamous relationship, that same effort is still necessary as the relationship progresses. "Relationships require attention and excitement to continue thriving," she says.
In an open relationship, you're not locked in. Instead, "you have an attitude where you're choosing every day to be in that relationship and to make sure that your partner wants to choose you every day too," says Zimmerman. That often means you're less likely to take each other for granted.
The fix: Think of your relationship as that succulent in your apartment. It's chill, but you still need to water it and swap the soil every once in a while. "You need to tend to the relationship, evaluate how it's working for you and your partner, value how happy they are, and what's working for them, and adapt if necessary," says Zimmerman.
Know That One Person Can't Meet All Your Needs
There's so much hype in romance culture about finding "the one." You're supposed to find your lobster. Your other half. Your "everythingship."
But, TBH, it's not realistic to think you can get all your complex, human-interaction needs from one person.
Open relationships allow you to meet sexual needs and intimate needs with other people. Of course, that likely won't fly in a monogamous relationship—"but you're going to run into problems if you think your partner is going to meet all of your needs for connection and stimulation," says Zimmerman.
Instead of treating your S.O. as your number-one confidant, source of intimacy, best friend, lover, and guidance counselor, you should use friends, hobbies, social groups, therapy, and other things to support yourself. (After all, science says friendships are the key to lasting happiness.) "Get away from this idea that there's one soulmate who's your other half. It's good to do things apart, to have separate lives and separate interests," says Zimmerman.
Learn the Art of Compersion
Meet your fave new vocab word: compersion. Essentially, it's the opposite of jealousy—it's the act of experiencing joy at your partner's pleasure and growth. In a non-monogamous relationship, we're talking about finding joy in knowing your partner is getting sexual and emotional pleasure, even if it's outside the relationship. However, you can feel compersion for your partner even in a monogamous relationship. "Get behind your partner's growth and change, even if it seems threatening," says Zimmerman. "Value their desire and happiness separate from yours. You don't have to hold them back." (Related: Your Vocab Needs These Different Words for Love from Foreign Languages)
Sound like it's easier said than done? Fair. You can cultivate compersion by shifting your mindset and being emotionally self-aware.
"A lot of it is awareness and being able to manage all your own anxieties and insecurities that might come up," says Zimmerman. Shift your mindset to a place where you can acknowledge that your partner's growth matters and their happiness matters even if it takes them away from you.
And, of course, with any of these relationship skills: Practice makes perfect.