Every relationship, whether open or monogamous, is as unique as the people involved.

That’s why, if you ask me what makes an open relationship work, I can’t give you a pat answer.

There’s no simple formula for the ideal open relationship. Like any relationship, it takes honesty, communication, and attention.

Here’s an easier question: How common are open relationships?

In my experience, our society still maintains pretty puritanical ideas about commitment and sex.

So it might seem surprising that a 2019 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that 1 in 5 people surveyed had been in an open relationship at some point. Surveys about sexual habits tend to underreport people’s real-life behavior, so the real number might be even higher.

The 2019 study didn’t consider how participants would describe their specific open relationships. That matters because there’s no singular way to participate in openness.

As I see it, it’s not about a title or label. Instead, it’s about the boundaries, or lack thereof, that the individuals in the relationship have chosen.

On this front, I have some experience.

Sometimes I’ve had consistent secondary relationships with one party of a committed, open couple; it’s what I like to refer to as a “series regular.”

Sometimes my role as a third was as a partner in sexual encounters with one or both parties… a “guest starring” role, if you will.

Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:

When it comes to open relationships, one of the most common communication quandaries I’ve noticed is how to have conversations about opening an already established relationship.

First and foremost, honesty is necessary.

It might not be the kind of honesty you’re used to, like telling someone they have pepper in their teeth or admitting that it was you who dealt what you smelt.

It’s my experience that the decision to open a relationship can take a lot of vulnerability and work.

Part of that work is separating yourself from the relationship norms many of us have grown up with since childhood. These conversations can be easier if honesty has been a cornerstone of the partnership all along.

Boundaries are important in any relationship, monogamous or nonmonogamous. One common assumption I’ve noticed about open relationships is that there are “no rules.”

For some, that might be the case. But, in my view, the absence of rules is a rule. It should absolutely be discussed.

A word of caution: I don’t usually like to use the word “rules” at all. I find that terms such as “boundaries” or “agreements” feel a bit less restrictive.

Remember, for some people, “rules” are meant to be broken. Our little, lizard brains can’t help it.

More times than I can count, I’ve had one-off sexual encounters with people in open relationships who have a “no kissing” rule.

Would you like to know what happened during each of those encounters?

Kissing.

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By restricting a fairly basic part of the sexual experience, these couples set themselves up to cheat at their own game.

As a third, I’ve always appreciated when boundaries are shared with me beforehand so I’m on the same page.

Some couples have agreements where they aren’t allowed to stay overnight, some have agreements where they can only have sex together with a third, and some have agreements about when external encounters can occur based on work schedules and travel schedules.

There’s no limit as long as all parties are comfortable with the plan.

It’s also important to discuss how much you will share with one another.

In my first experience with being open, our agreement was to share everything in order to evaluate what we were comfortable discussing. In other words, how much information is too much, and how much is too little?

Neither of us truly knew our limits. Rather than begin by withholding anything, we chose complete transparency.

This will be different for every open relationship but should be discussed. Some people don’t communicate about their outside experiences at all. Some divulge every detail. Some like to be sent pictures or videos or even be looped in on a video chat to share in the experience.

If an open relationship involves either partner participating in penetrative sex with a third, or any activity where bodily fluids can be exchanged, it’s vital to discuss what steps every member of the relationship will take to reduce the risk for STIs.

The most common agreement I’ve encountered is a shared decision to always use condoms during sex with strangers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that wearing a condom is the most effective, realistic way for sexually active adults to reduce STI transmission.

Honesty and trust are crucial here.

Whether we admit it or not, unplanned condomless sex happens sometimes. Building trust with your partner or partners is essential so that, if condomless sex occurs, you both feel comfortable admitting it and getting tested.

Healthline

On that note, I’m a big supporter of getting tested regularly, in general. I’ve read advice that it’s a good idea to get tested before and after every new partner, but I know that’s not realistic for everyone.

Depending on the number of partners you have and other factors, the CDC suggests that every 3 to 6 months is a reasonable frequency.

An open relationship often brings new partners into our sex lives, individually or communally. That means taking necessary precautions for your health and sexual well-being.

Do you need to start taking some form of birth control? Should you start PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) to reduce your risk of contracting HIV? It’s a good idea to discuss these questions with your partner and your physician.

Open relationships have no set algorithm. Continued conversations with all partners involved is imperative.

Sometimes non-monogamy can last for an entire relationship. Sometimes periods of openness come and go throughout a relationship’s journey.

At all points, everyone needs to be on the same page. Non-monogamy requires consent. Non-monogamy without consent isn’t non-monogamy at all. It’s infidelity.

In my opinion, being part of an open partnership is a step, not a fix.

If a partnership is shaky for some reason — whether it be a lack of emotional connection, trust, or other frustrations — having sex with others won’t fix the relationship. It will just serve as a distraction.

Does sex solve any problems? Personally, I’ve noticed that sex with people other than your primary partner can help alleviate sexual needs that your primary partner can’t or doesn’t want to fulfill.

There are many reasons why a partner may not want or be able to participate in a sexual activity or kink. It might come down to distance, ability, genitalia, libido level, or lack of interest, among other possibilities. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your relationship.

Openness is one way that both partners can have their desires fulfilled, even when those desires don’t completely align. It can also help prevent resentment when libido and interests don’t match up.

Love and sex are not synonymous. It’s thrilling when the two are combined, but I’ve enjoyed both independently of one another with great success.

With honesty, consent, and good communication, open relationships can prosper happily and healthily, just like the old nursery rhyme… you and me and the hookup makes three.


Kenny Francoeur is a freelance writer focusing on queer culture and sexual health. His work has also been published by The Advocate, WOLFY Magazine, HIV Advocates Magazine, Twin Cities Pride Magazine, among others. Kenny is also the creator and host of Normalize This, a podcast that investigates sexuality, kink, identity, and sexual culture on a mission to create an honest, unsanitized educational resource. Connect with Kenny on Instagram @kenny.francoeur or Twitter @kenny_francoeur, and check out his work at www.kenny-francoeur.com.