Open relationships are usually defined as those in which two people agree that one or both partners can pursue sexual relationships outside the primary committed partnership. Since both people are aware, an open relationship is not considered cheating. But that doesn’t mean open relationships don’t come with plenty of ups and downs.
To find out what it’s really like to be in an open relationship, we talked to women who are or were in them. Here’s what they have to say about what led them to it and some of the pros and cons of being open.
“Crazy travel schedules and long months apart led to our open relationship. At times, it’s hard to avoid getting jealous, and it can be challenging to sustain communication across the miles and time zones. Missing each other doesn’t help, either. When one of us gets back to home base and we’re together for the first time in a long time, we spend a night discussing everything: who we’ve been with, how many partners, how long, was it serious at the time, whether the other person knew about our relationship and finally, are we able to put it behind us and move forward and never bring it up again, even if we have a scuffle? What works with our open relationship is experiencing different partners without guilt. Another good part is that the open communication leads to communication about everything.” — Sloane, 45, Los Angeles, California, has been in an open relationship for four years
Seeing other women
“My husband knew when we started dating that I was bisexual, but I fell in love with him and he was the one I chose as my life partner. We’ve been married for two years, and despite him being my husband, we’ve had an understanding that I can see other women outside the marriage. We don’t see it as cheating because he knows it’s a part of who I am and a part that doesn’t get satisfied within our marriage. Some of the challenges that have come up are that at times, he can feel neglected since he doesn’t see anyone else. Even though we agree that I put him and the relationship first, he can get jealous. Many may wonder how our open relationship could possibly make our marriage strong, but it does. Everyone’s needs are always met, which I think makes us both happier.” — Valerya, 29, New York, New York
“My husband and I have been married almost three years. We were both raised Mormon and we met while attending BYU. My husband is bisexual, but almost exclusively dated women before we got married. Because of our conservative upbringings, we felt there were some formative experiences we missed as young people. Neither one of us had much opportunity to explore our sexualities. One day, my husband was confiding in me that he wished he had felt freer as a teenager and young adult to explore his interest in men. I felt this sincere regret on his behalf, and before I knew it, I was telling him he had my blessing to explore his sexuality outside our marriage.
“Opening our marriage felt so incredibly right and natural, but we are not without our challenges. I don’t feel comfortable telling others about the dynamic of my marriage. And of course you have to consider the fact that maybe your partner finds a lot of opportunities outside your marriage. Assuming that an open relationship means no rules would be a huge danger. You have to trust each other, but part of that trust is establishing boundaries. For me, opening our relationship has deepened my commitment to my husband, and it has helped me confront my insecurities. Somehow, seeing that my husband has the option to be with anyone he wants but still chooses to make a life with me has helped me realize how much he loves me.” — Jillian, 35, Portland, Maine
Just about sex
“We just opened our marriage up to dating other people three months ago, and so far, so good. We got married right out of college, and while we do still love each other, there is that sexual aspect that died years ago. And trust me, we’ve tried everything from marriage and sex therapy to scheduled date nights, and nothing seemed to bring that spark back. For us, the other partners are just about sex. Right now, it feels like we work better as friends and partners trying to raise our two kids, although to be honest, I’m starting to get a little jealous. I worry that he might fall in love with someone else even though we agreed it was just to satisfy our sexual urges. We are also careful about what we say in front of the children. They’re still pretty young. In time, we may tell them if we’re still open. We decided not to share details about who we were meeting and what we were doing with each other, but would be transparent if one of us had questions.” — Santita, 36, Chicago, Illinois
From open to over
“Attempting an open relationship was the worst thing for my relationship. I was the one who convinced my boyfriend of eight years that we should try it. We were both very into our careers at the time, and it was very hard for both of us to prioritize our relationship. Since we knew we couldn’t put as much into the relationship as we could when we first started dating, we agreed that we would be together, but allowed to see other people at the same time. We thought it would ensure all our needs were being met and we wouldn’t be disappointing one another. Looking back, we should’ve just broken up and saved ourselves all the trouble.
“Even though I talked him into it, I was the one who got so jealous, I couldn’t take it. I found myself spending more time interrogating him about the girls he was seeing than I ever did working on our own relationship. I had a single one-night stand, and I felt awful about it. He, meanwhile, slept with at least six other girls. After only seven months of attempting an open relationship, we decided it would be best if we split up. I haven’t heard from him since then. That was over a year ago.” — Bianca, 30, Miami, Florida
Filling a temporary void
“I was in a short-term open relationship with my husband of 17 years for four years. He’s an engineer and when he got promoted, he started traveling often for long stints of time. He was the one who suggested the concept because he knew how hard it was for me to be alone all the time. We don’t have kids, so I would often get bored and lonely, missing that companionship. We agreed that I could ‘hang out’ with other men as long as there was no actual sex. We called it ‘hanging out’ rather than dating because I wasn’t looking for a new relationship, just male companionship.
“It was weird at first, going out with another man, and I kept feeling like I was going behind my husband’s back. A few times, I ran into friends while out with someone I was casually seeing. I often had to lie to them about who the other man was because my husband and I didn’t tell any friends or family about our agreement. Regardless of the social taboo, an open relationship helped fill a void and I completely stopped seeing others when his travel stopped. I really think an open relationship can work and help couples, but it depends on their personalities and the strength of the relationship. Make sure both of you are 100 percent OK with it, or I could see how jealously could easily destroy the relationship.” — Marilyn, 53, Long Island, New York