The concept of open marriage has long existed in society’s periphery. Couples consensually creating mutual arrangements that work for their needs is a good thing, but historically, the subject has been too taboo to be talked about openly. Thankfully, recent years have seen a shift in society’s attitude towards alternative relationship styles. Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s willingness to be candid about their open marriage—whether it’s on Jada’s web series Red Table Talk or in magazine profiles—and other celebs who’ve been outspoken about their flexible marriage agreements (like Mo’Nique and husband Sidney Hicks and Nico Tortorella and Bethany Meyers) have given way to a greater cultural understanding of open relationships or marriages. But still, misconceptions persist.
Sex educator, author, and therapist Lucie Fielding says open marriages get falsely characterized in all sorts of ways. For one, some people cast them off as desperate attempts to hold together relationships that are failing anyway. But Fielding says that’s far from what open marriage is about.
“There’s sometimes this misconception that you’re trying to fix something in your partner or in your relationship,” she tells Cosmopolitan. “It’s not about that. It’s about being honest, it’s about [creating] an agreement, it’s about growing with one another.”
She says some people fear open relationships because they fear jealousy. But Fielding says she believes the presence of jealousy is not actually a bad thing. “The presence of unprocessed jealousy is the problem,” she says. And opening up your marriage can help you work through some of those feelings together.
Atlanta-based sex educator Wendasha Jenkins Hall, PhD, founder of The Sensible Sexpert, says another misconception is that open marriages have no structure.
“When we think of open marriage, a lot of people assume it’s a free-for-all,” she says. But the truth is that open marriages often have tons of structure—it’s just structure that the spouses have created together, tailored to their specific needs, rather than a blind acceptance of the normative structure that defines monogamous marriages.
“More often than not, the [open] couple has boundaries around what takes place, when it takes place, and who they can engage sexually,” Hall explains.
There are plenty of reasons to open up a marriage, like exploring different desires, kinks, or sexualities. Maybe an open marriage is a way to make up for the discordance between aromantic and alloromantic spouses. But if you’ve only ever known monogamous relationships, it’s hard to know if an open marriage could be right for you. Read on for everything you’ve ever wanted to know about open marriages and why you might want to try one for yourself.
What is an open marriage, and what is it not?
Hall says an open marriage starts with “two individuals who’ve come together legally and spiritually” but who permit one another to engage in sexual or romantic relationships with other people.
“That’s just the baseline of what we think an open marriage is,” she says. “But there are specific boundaries that are put in place for each couple. The beauty of an open marriage is that it’s really up to the couple about what they consider an open marriage.”
She explains that open relationships of any kind—and open marriages especially—are a mix of rigorous boundary-making and total imaginative freedom. The limitlessness of an open marriage is grounded in a lot of hard work shared equally by the couple, and all parties should be aware of the expectations.
So what is an open marriage not? Static or binding. “What openness implies is there’s a possibility of closure,” Fielding says, meaning that, above all else, open marriages should be responsive to the needs of you and your spouse. If the two of you decide that, meh, this whole open marriage thing isn’t for you, you can close it right back up and carry on with your monogamous lifestyle.
The same way having kids is probably not going to repair a broken relationship, opening up your marriage is not a band-aid for other relationship problems. “Open marriage is never something to use to fix a relationship,” Fielding warns. “That will only exacerbate the issue.”
What are the different forms an open marriage can take?
Open marriages and relationships, more broadly, are highly specialized to the needs of you and your partner(s), so there’s really an infinite number of ways to express your relationship.
To appreciate the many forms an open marriage could take, Fielding refers clients to the Relationship Anarchy Smorgasbord. It’s basically a big flow chart full of relationship characteristics, wants, and needs—everything from ways you like to be touched to ways you relate hierarchically or financially. You and your partner(s) get to mark up the chart with your yeses and your nos and your maybe-in-the-futures, filling up your metaphorical plate with all the goods that you mutually agree would make your relationship the most delicious.
Some open marriage agreements have names that we all recognize. Swingers, for example, are couples who choose to engage with other couples together. They might go to a swingers’ club or party where they’ll hook up with other couples and engage in some partner-swapping. In that instance, Hall says, their rules might stipulate that they only engage with other couples when they’re together, and not individually. “That’s still an open marriage,” she says.
Some couples prefer to open their marriages in different ways, allowing each spouse to “have a girlfriend, boyfriend, or sexual partner on the outside” that their spouse isn’t involved with at all, Hall says.
Some outside partner(s) may actually live with the married couple. “It may be what we think of as polygamy, but it’s not always,” she explains. “You could have a married couple that has a live-in girlfriend, boyfriend, or romantic partner. It really is how the couple is defining it.”
What’s the difference between open marriages, polyamory, polygamy, ethical non-monogamy, and just plain cheating?
Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, but they describe different things. Polyamory, for example, typically involves more intimate, loving relationships between multiple people, whereas an open marriage could involve any kind of extraneous relationship on the attachment spectrum, from a deep emotional connection to a one-night stand. Where they overlap, though, is that both polyamory and open marriages are expressions of ethical non-monogamy. This, Hall says, means you have to inform your partner of your desire to open up your marriage, and they have to consent to it.
An open marriage without that mutual understanding would constitute cheating, unless you and your partner specified otherwise. “In an ethically non-monogamous open marriage, you have an agreement, you create boundaries,” she says, as opposed to “cheating” or “being manipulative.”
“If a person feels they have to do it in order to keep their partner—like, I have to engage in this threesome or I have to allow my partner to go out and sleep with people because that’s the only way they’ll stay with me—then you’re being coerced,” Hall adds. “That’s not consent.”
As for polygamy, while an open marriage may involve multiple loving, connected relationships, it does not always involve multiple marriages, which is what polygamy is. Fielding says there’s sometimes slippage in people’s understandings of polygamy and open marriages, but they’re typically two distinct relationship styles.
What if I’m interested in an open marriage but I don’t know where to start?
Fielding recommends that you educate yourself about open relationships and nontraditional relationship structures before you bring this desire to your partner. “Dig into the various structures that are possible and think of what feels best for you and your partner—the couple at the heart of this agreement,” she says. Browse through Liz Powell’s book Building Open Relationships, and Jessica Fern’s Polysecure. Scan online forums and groups like Ready for Polyamory. And once you feel ready to take your findings to your partner, be prepared to be flexible.
“The structure is developed in concert with each partner and what they need,” Fielding says.
If you need help navigating the transition with your partner—which, like, you’re trying something brand-new here! It’s totally chill to want some expert guidance—Fielding recommends seeking relationship therapy or coaching with a professional who specializes in non-monogamy, polyamory, and open relationships.
What if my partner and I don’t agree on opening up our marriage?
Sometimes, one spouse wants to open the marriage while the other doesn’t. Hall says this requires some compromise, which isn’t always even. “A lot of time, that compromise ends up coming from the person who wants to open things up,” she says. “That can cause problems and lead to resentment that spills into other aspects of the relationship.”
That being said, Fielding explains there’s a fine line between expressing your own relationship needs and pressuring a partner into opening a relationship. If one of you is resistant to opening the relationship, the goal shouldn’t be to convince the other partner, she says. “It’s not about setting an ultimatum because that’s exerting power and control over the relationship.”
She adds: “If you’re feeling coerced, there’s no agency or forum to process feelings, fears, anxieties, or jealousy. And that’s something to really look at.”
Not everyone is going to be open to the idea of an open marriage. But Hall notes that “there are plenty of partners who’ve successfully navigated the process of opening up their marriage.”
Some open up a marriage and quickly decide it’s not for them. That’s okay too. You can close it back up or adapt in whatever ways you and your spouse see fit.
“An agreement is a deep conversation between partners that is renegotiable over time, as things happen over a relationship,” Fielding says. “Our relationships are constantly going through transitions just as our bodies are. It’s an opportunity to grow.”
How can I know if an open marriage would work for me?
Because monogamy is the default dynamic for most couples, it’s normal to be curious about open relationships but unsure of how it might work for you.
It’s totally possible for marriages that started off as traditionally monogamous to transition into something open. If, as you grow as a couple, you see that your sexual or romantic needs aren’t being completely met by your spouse alone, then it might be time for a conversation about opening up your marriage.
“It’s never healthy to make your partner responsible for all of your sexual or romantic needs, wants, and overall happiness,” Hall says. “There are some things that your partner is not gonna be able to do for you all of the time, and you shouldn’t expect that.”
But in order to make your open marriage work, both spouses have to be willing to put in the necessary effort. “It’s a constant conversation. It’s not a ‘set it and forget it,’” Hall says. “Our relationships evolve, especially relationships we’ve been in for a long time.”
Opening up a marriage invites a lot of exciting possibilities but also a lot of emotional considerations. After all, an open marriage means you’re adding onto your existing dynamic. “When you’re inviting other people into your marriage, you’re also inviting other emotions and other personalities,” Hall says. “The people who we go and sleep with, they’re not our sex toys. They’re not just people that we use and dispose of. They have their own feelings, they have their own personalities that we have to manage as well.” How you handle and maintain those other relationships is also a conversation you should have with yourself, your partner, and everyone involved.
While, yes, there are a lot of moving parts, ultimately an open marriage is an opportunity to be honest with yourself and your partner about how best to meet both of your needs while still remaining committed to one another and the relationship you’ve built together. And that, in and of itself, can bring you closer.
“It’s important to remember that even within a monogamous or closed context there’s still a set of relationship agreements,” Fielding says. Open relationships just force you to outline them explicitly and intentionally—something every relationship could benefit from more of, no matter how you slice it.
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