compass Explore next steps to improve your mental health. Get help for relationship issues

Open relationships: Rules, communication, and other keys to success

Open relationships: Rules, communication, and other keys to success

Though things like trust, openness, and communication are important in any relationship, open relationships require an abundance of both to function in a healthy way. 

Open relationships occur when one or both parties in a romantic relationship start seeing additional partners in a sexual and/or romantic way with the consent of their partner. Learn more about how they work and what it takes to have a healthy and successful open relationship.

What Is an Open Relationship? Understanding Open Relationships

An open relationship is a type of romantic relationship in which all parties have consented to at least one member of the relationship having more than one romantic and/or sexual partner. 

The term “open relationship” is often used as an umbrella term and may mean different things to different people, so it’s important to communicate clearly about how each member of a relationship might define an open relationship before beginning one. 

Open relationships can involve the presence of a new romantic but not sexual partner or vice versa, as well as more than one new sexual and/or romantic partner. Either one or both of the partners may start new relationships outside the primary relationship, depending on the arrangement.

Are Open Relationships and Polyamorous Relationships the Same Thing?

Open relationships and polyamorous relationships are not necessarily the same thing. Polyamory posits that an individual has the inherent capacity to love and fully involve themselves in multiple relationships that hold equal value. However, in an open relationship, secondary relationships can be somewhat emotionally involved or they can be more transactional.

A polyamorous relationship is a consensual relationship in which someone has multiple partners and involves a commitment to treating each partner with the same love and care. Often, all parties in a polyamorous relationship are involved with one another, whether that be through friendship, living together, or their own romantic relationship.

Within open relationships, partners often agree to stay emotionally committed to the primary partner but allow each other to participate in outside sexual or casual relationships. There may be more of a hierarchy within these relationships; it’s common for the primary partner to be the primary receiver of love and affection, whereas the secondary partner(s) may not receive equal expressions of love. 

Is an Open Relationship Healthy?

Yes, open relationships can be healthy. However, like in any relationship, keeping an open relationship healthy requires that all parties have active knowledge of and consent to each step of the process. Open relationships function well when all parties consent fully and understand the potential risks and rewards. 

Further, open relationships tend to require vulnerability and self-accountability on all levels. The onus is on each individual to speak up if they believe that a boundary is being crossed or they are being treated in a way that they did not consent to. 

Open relationships are constantly evolving; they are a “living” thing, so it’s important to regularly check in and communicate regarding what’s working, what’s not, and each person’s satisfaction and comfort level.

What Are the Boundaries of an Open Relationship?

Partners can establish many different types of boundaries within an open relationship, and each will need their own specific boundaries based on their unique needs in the relationship. To be effective, both parties need to fully, realistically, and readily consent to all boundaries. Without full agreement and cooperation, it’s likely that conflict will arise between the primary partners.

An example of a common boundary might be where each party stands on engaging in sexual intercourse with other partners, while others might request that their partner use safe sex measures, even if they don’t discuss outside sexual interactions. 

Successful and healthy open relationship boundaries are built on trust and respect. If a relationship lacks trust and respect at its foundation, it will not likely survive an open relationship.

What Not to Do in an Open Relationship

There are many things that may not be wise to do in an open relationship, but one of the biggest errors you can make is to violate your partner’s trust in any way. Violating previously discussed and agreed-upon boundaries and levels of comfort can invalidate your partner’s feelings, potentially causing the partner to rescind their consent to participate in the open relationship. 

Communication is key, and hiding things, lying, or choosing to not fully disclose actions, thoughts, and feelings can also lead to severe distress and a potential rupture within an open relationship.

What Is Allowed in an Open Relationship?

What is “allowed” will depend on what is within your current comfort levels and specified needs. The rules and boundaries of each open relationship are unique to the people in them. Before two partners decide to be open, they need to establish what they are okay with and what they believe shouldn’t be allowed.

We know that open relationships are constantly evolving and changing, so it’s okay to start small and test the function of boundaries with the goal of eventually widening or diversifying them over time. 

Do Open Relationships Last Longer?

Open relationships do not necessarily last longer than monogamous relationships or non-open relationships. In general, relationships that last the longest are ones with a foundation of trust, reciprocity, and compromise at their core. 

Open relationships have the potential to be long-lasting if both partners are actively engaged in communication, respect the boundaries specified by their primary partner, and actively discuss their needs and preferences as they arise and/or change.

Is It Cheating if You Have an Open Relationship?

If your partner has consented to you engaging in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with another person, it would likely not be considered “cheating” due to the nature of the relationship and the established understanding between the two partners. 

However, it could be possible to “cheat” in an open relationship, even if you have permission to engage in certain behaviors outside the primary relationship. For example, some might see a violation of agreed-upon boundaries as “cheating,” as the person chose to act in a way that was not consented to previously by their partner.

This is why communication and rules are vital parts of maintaining a healthy and trusting dynamic in an open relationship. Without clear, communicated boundaries, there is a large potential for inflicting damage, either knowingly or unknowingly.

Strategies for Nurturing a Successful Open Relationship

Attending professional counseling sessions can be extremely helpful if you’re considering an open relationship. A supportive, trained mental health professional can guide you through the process of identifying your personal preferences and boundaries within a relationship and help you explore ways to ensure emotional safety as you navigate an open relationship. 

Again, consistent communication and the preservation of trust are key factors that ensure the longevity of an open relationship. Further, being willing to compromise can be helpful, but it should be noted that compromise does not mean changing your personal values or preferences to fit the needs of your partner—it means finding a solution together that balances both your preferences and theirs.

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
Avatar photo

Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

Avatar photo
Theresa Lupcho, LPCLicensed Professional Counselor
See Theresa's availability

Theresa Lupcho is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

Picture of woman in front of flowers
Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

No comments yet

The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

If you’re in a crisis, do not use this site. Please call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use these resources to get immediate help.

Get the latest mental wellness tips and discussions, delivered straight to your inbox.