To many people the idea of having an open relationship holds a lot of appeal. An open relationship is one in which a couple agrees to not be sexually exclusive with one another. It is sometimes referred to as "ethical non-monogamy". Ethical, in this case, because new sexual partners are pursued with the blessing of both partners in a couple which separates an "open" relationship from cheating.
Our society is full of attractive, exciting people and the concept of being able to pursue them while also maintaining a long-term, romantic relationship feels like having the best of both worlds. On the one hand we have the stability and intimacy that comes from having a committed relationship and, on the other, we have fun, new people we can get to know and date. The idea of combining the two into one experience seems like a great opportunity, like mixing peanut butter with chocolate!
However, before you take a pry bar to your existing romantic relationship and open it up, there are several things I believe you should consider and a handful you should discuss with your partner. Here are some things for you to think about before you open up your relationship.
What shape will your open relationship take?
Before you and your partner decide to open your relationship, take some time to consider what form you want your new dynamic to take. There are many forms of "open" to be had and when you say "open" you should make sure your current partner has the same idea in mind. Does "open" in this case mean you both get to date whomever you want, separate from each other? Does it mean the two of you will look for another couple to date together? Will you be inviting single people to join the two of you for the occasional ménage à trois, but keep things casual? Will you actively be trying to date and form ongoing, romantic relationships with other people?
This part is super important to get sorted out ahead of time. If you are thinking "open" means inviting the occasional third-party over to spice up sex with you and your spouse while meanwhile they are dreaming about how cool it will be to date new people on their own, then you've got a problem. Make sure you both have the same vision of what "open" means. Will it be romantic or casual, done together or separately, what power (if any) do you each have over who the other person can pursue? Which brings me to...
How do you pick new partners?
Let's say you and your partner agree you can open the relationship and date new people. Are there limitations on who you can date? Can you date her best friend? Can he date your boss? How do you feel about your partner dating a member of the same sex versus someone of the opposite sex? Do you want to mostly date people you already know, or should you be chatting up strangers? Some people feel weird about their friends knowing they have an open marriage while others feel that dating a close friend is comfortable because you've already gotten to know them. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page with this.
On a related note, what happens if one of you wants to pursue someone the other dislikes? Ideally you'll both like the same people, the same potential suitors, but what if your partner brings home someone that you can't stand? How will you resolve this? Do you grant your partner the option of sending away anyone they don't like or do you find ways to work around things so your existing spouse and new squeeze don't need to interact with each other? This can be a tricky topic because whatever power you may want over who your spouse chooses to date, they should be granted the same ability to filter out who you bring home.
One of you is likely to have better luck in the dating pool
Perhaps the allure of an open relationship is the thought of how much fun you can have. You have visions of hot new dates and exciting new adventures in your life! However, something to keep in mind is that, and it's difficult to sugar coat this, dating can be difficult. And, generally speaking, one member of a couple is likely to have more luck when it comes to re-entering the dating pool. Maybe one of you is more outgoing, or has hobbies that take you out of the house more, or is more comfortable striking up conversations with strangers. Whatever the difference may be, chances are one of you is going to get more flirtatious messages, more hits on dating websites, and more invitations for steamy rendezvous. It's not fair, but it is likely going to be the reality of the situation.
Whichever partner you happen to be, the one in demand or the one feeling left out, how you react to the imbalance is important. If you are in demand, it is important to check in with your partner and make sure they feel they are getting enough of your time. Pace yourself so you're not always out chasing a hot, new dating opportunity. Remember to maintain your relationship and make sure your long-term partner feels you are there for them. Take that positive, flirty energy you are experiencing and share it with your spouse so they feel opening things up is still a positive experience, even if they aren't getting as many new dates.
On the other hand, if you're the partner sitting at home without any Tinder matches, try not to take out any frustration or loneliness on your partner. They are (hopefully) having fun and success in the dating pool and it's nice if you can be happy for them. Of course, if you are feeling frustrated and lonely, also be sure to let them know and encourage your partner to set aside time to have dates with you. Let them know you want more time with them without making them feel guilty for being in demand in the dating world.
Talk about everything - before, during, and after
One of the key components to an open relationship, and you will hear this often if you hang out with other open people, whether in person or on-line, is you need to communicate. You and your partner will need open, clear, and honest communication. It sounds obvious, after all most relationships require communication and trust to survive, but you really need to double-down on your communication when you open your relationship.
You are going to need to talk about your expectations, your rules, your fears, and your desires. You're going to need to be able to explain what you want, what you don't want, how a situation makes you feel. In most open dynamics you are going to need to be able to tell your partner about a date you want to go on, work around any scheduling conflicts, check in to see how they feel about you having a visit with another person. If you and your partner are going on double dates together you'll need to check in with each other during the session, compare notes on how you each feel about the other person or couple you're visiting with, be willing to bail if one of you has an issue. Then after the date you need to be able to debrief, compare notes on the evening, share how you felt, and hear how they felt.
The bottom line is if this is going to work, you need to be able to talk about all the things and listen to your partner when they talk. Some of the stuff they will tell you may be hard to hear. It may involve them having sex with another person, their jealousy when you have sex with another person, there may be a lot of self exploration involved.
Boundaries, rules, and safe sex
Some of the things you will probably want to talk about up front include topics like what boundaries and rules you both want to have in place. These might include things like whether you can date mutual friends, what guidelines you have in place for practising safe sex, and how often you'll get tested for sexually transmitted infections. You might also want to consider putting aside special time for the two of you to enjoy without outside distractions, like having a date night with your spouse every other Saturday.
Some couples like to set aside space for themselves and might request their spouse never have sex with another person in their bed, or insist on always having Valentine's Day together, or never having unprotected sex except with each other.
You may also want to discuss what your boundaries are with regards to other people. Do you want to tell your families that you're in an open relationship? What about your friends, kids, or co-workers? How do you feel about your husband posting weekend getaway photos on social media when you're not in the pictures? How do you feel about your wife friending her new boyfriend on Facebook for all the world to see and wonder about? Make sure you discuss these things up front before they potentially become an issue.
Do not expect opening up to fix your existing relationship
All of this communication and honesty leads me into the next point: don't expect opening your relationship to fix it. Don't get me wrong, opening up a long-term relationship can be fun and exciting and may add a great spark to a couple's sex life. There are a lot of married couples out there who have rekindled their sex lives and appreciation for each other through opening up their dynamic. In almost every case those couples were already strong, already had a firm foundation of trust, and could talk honestly about everything. Opening up was like adding sprinkles to their relationship sundae.
The key here is that those couples already had the ice cream and fudge in place. What they had was already good and solid - a fine treat on its own. They didn't need to add anything to make it work, but chose to add a new element to spice things up. Trying to open up a relationship that is already rocky is likely to end in disaster; sprinkles without ice cream is an uninviting treat.
Basically, opening a relationship magnifies everything. The good parts - the love, communication, and commitment - become more clear. Any bad parts - mistrust, misaligned expectations, and poor communication - get amplified too. So make sure you and your partner are in a good place before considering bringing other people into your lives.
Take things slowly and be willing to change direction
When people first dive into something new and fun, like kink or open relationships, there is an understandable urge to go a little crazy with it. If you and your spouse are suddenly talking about having hot sex with another couple, it's understandable if you feel like throwing yourself into it, looking for more dates, flirting with more potential partners, talking about it over every dinner.
The excitement is natural and good, however try to pace yourself. Things will probably go better if you ease into these new experiences. Consider visiting an open relationship gathering, like a swingers dance or a poly-relationship round table. Go to an open relationship workshop in your area. Meet other open couples and ask them for tips. Do some research before you start going on dates of your own.
Then, when it comes time to go on a date with a new person (or a new couple) take things slow. You don't all need to hop into bed right away. Chat, get a feel for the new people, talk with your partner about how they feel. Don't dive straight into sex; enjoy a few dates or make-out sessions first. Then check in with your partner, then consider taking the next step. Opening up a relationship is often best done as a gradual multi-step process, not as a race.
Taking things one step at a time, and talking over how the situation feels with your long-term partner, gives you a chance to spot potential problems early and adjust for them before you run into more serious situations. It also gives you a chance to step back, or pause the "open experiment" if you want. I think it is important to be willing to take a step back, sort through potential problems you or your spouse identified, and then try again later. Just because you decided to go open at one point doesn't mean you can't stop and be monogamous again if you prefer things that way.
Expect jealousy and channel it positively
Speaking of potential problems, virtually everyone in an open relationship experiences jealousy at some point. People who swing or date additional people are not immune to jealousy, they just find ways to handle it positively.
My philosophy on jealousy is that it is an indicator of something else happening below the surface. In other words jealousy is typically caused by another emotion and it acts like a flag to let you know to pause and investigate further.
For example, if your partner is out on a date and you're sitting at home feeling jealous at the thought of them kissing another person, try to pause and consider what about the situation makes you feel badly. Are you worried your spouse is going to fall for the other person and leave you? In which case some reassurance and keeping things casual in your open relationship might be worthwhile. Are you feeling lonely and want attention? Then putting your energy into planning your own date with your spouse will probably lead to better outcomes than if you get upset over them being out for the evening.
Basically, jealousy usually indicates you feel like you are either missing something or afraid of losing something. Identifying what that thing is and asking your partner for it in a positive way is going to get you farther than trying to stop them from doing the new activities they enjoy with other people.
In a similar vein, if your partner is feeling jealous, don't dismiss it. Don't tell them they have nothing to worry about or that they are overreacting. Help them identify what about the situation makes them uncomfortable and work towards making them feel more secure and cared for so you can both feel better about the situation.
New sex partners are people too
Finally, give some consideration to the new people you hope to date or have sex with after you open your relationship. The people you are going to date or invite into your bedroom are, well, people. They have their own hopes, dreams, desires, and goals.
You might want a lady to come join you and your husband for some sexy, fantasy-fulfilling naughtiness, but what does she get out of it? You might be thrilled to finally get to date your hot neighbour, but how is she going to feel dating you knowing that your wife can vote her out of your life at any moment? If you and your spouse are planning to date other people, will you invite them to family gatherings? Will they be coming over for Christmas dinner? When you and your wife go away on vacation will they be invited or staying home alone?
Many couples try to place their long-term partner first, to maintain the original romantic relationship above all else. Which is a good goal to have, but keep in mind who stands to lose in those situations. The other people you date or take to bed or hide from your extended family are people with feelings and goals. Chances are those goals are to be cared for, have fun, and to feel important to someone. They probably aren't looking to merely be a fun side-note in your weekend or to get sacrificed on the alter of preserving your relationship. Make sure you ask your potential new sex buddy what they want and what their expectations are when they become your +1 or +2 to your existing relationship. They deserve to feel special too.
Seek other resources
All of this is a lot to think about and it is really just a short overview of things to consider before opening your relationship. There are a lot of guides out there on the types of open relationships and how they can work. I recommend seeking out more complete guides than this one, such as the book Opening Up. There are also Facebook and Reddit groups like /r/non-monogamy and social media sites like FetLife where you can discuss opening your relationship.