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An open relationship is an interpersonal relationship in which the parties want to be together but agree to a form of non-monogamous relationship. This means that they agree that other people relating in a romantic or intimate way with their partner is accepted, permitted, or tolerated. Generally, an open relationship is when the parties involved have two or more romantic or sexual relationships occurring at the same time either as a short-term relationship, such as dating, or a long-term relationship, such as marriage. The concept of an open relationship has been recognized since the 1970s.
Types of open relationships
To a large degree, open relationships are a generalization of the concept of a relationship beyond monogamous relationships. A form of open relationship is the open marriage, in which the participants in a marriage have an open relationship.
There are several different styles of open relationships. Some examples include:
- Multi-partner relationships, between three or more partners where a sexual relationship does not occur between all of the parties involved.
- Hybrid relationships, when one partner is nonmonogamous and the other is monogamous.
- Swinging, in which singles or partners in a committed relationship engage in sexual activities with others as a recreational or social activity.
The term open relationship is sometimes used interchangeably with the closely related term polyamory, but the two concepts are not identical. The main unifying element to open relationship styles is non-exclusivity of romantic or sexual relationships.
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Some believe that open relationships occur more frequently in certain demographics, such as the young rather than the old in America, including, more specifically, the college-educated middle-class, rather than the uneducated working-class, or people of certain ethnic and/or other racial minorities. Open relationships may also be more common among females rather than males, especially those in the same categories, such as college-educated, middle-class, white, younger Americans. This may be because women have more to gain by stressing this idea of equal rights, and that the women’s rights movement supports the idea of open relationships.
A 1974 study showed that male students who either cohabit or live in a communal group are more likely to become involved in open relationships than females, and are still more interested in the concept than females even if not participating in open relationships. A survey taken by gay men's "health and life magazine", FS Magazine, 41% of gay men interviewed have been in an open relationship and of the men who have been in open relationships, 27% believe that it is a good thing.
Many couples within open relationships are dual-career, meaning that both primary partners have a stable job and/or a career. Both men and women in these, especially in closed groups, are also more likely to be in managerial jobs. Most also are either childfree, or post child-rearing.
Reasons for entering an open relationship
An open relationship may form for various reasons. These include:
- falling in love with another person and not wanting to end the old relationship
- being oneself where one is non-monogamous by nature (i.e. born that way)
- a difference emerging between two people in a relationship
- one partner realizing that they are unable to fulfill the other's needs
- varying sex drive between partners
- one or both partners desiring more freedom, companionship, intellectual variety, or a variety of sexual partners
- a need for challenge: some people feel that their relationship is inadequate unless they are being challenged. Open relationships may create a sense of jealousy, attachment, or possessiveness, all of which are challenges for a relationship to work through. These emotions can also lead to greater self-awareness which may be seen as satisfying to those in open relationships.
- the enjoyment of new relationship energy, the state of heightened emotional and sexual receptivity and excitement experienced during the formation of a new relationship
- being able to meet other couples and individuals with a similar outlook with whom the participants can connect with on an intellectual and emotional level
- being in a relationship of convenience, that is, one that is not primarily based on mutual feeling of love towards each other (anymore), but rather on economic or social factors (eg: the traditional practice of polyandry in rural Tibet)
- distance - when partners live in separate parts of the world for part or all of the time
- sex may be more pleasing, and the participants may engage in it more frequently than those in an average couple
Reasons for avoiding an open relationship
Many couples consider open relationships, but choose not to follow through with the idea. If a person attempts to approach their committed monogamous partner about transitioning to an open relationship, the monogamous partner may convince or coerce them to either stay monogamous or pursue a new partner. There may also be concern that when beginning an open relationship, a partner may become only concerned in their personal development and pay less attention to their partner.
Jealousy is often present in monogamous relationships, and adding one or more partners to the relationship may cause it to increase. Results of some studies have suggested that jealousy remains a problem in open relationships because the actual involvement of a third party is seen as a trigger. In Constantine & Constantine (1971), the researchers found that 80% of participants in open marriages had experienced jealousy at one point or another.
Cultural pressure may also dissuade initiating or switching to an open relationship. There is a commonly held societal stereotype that those involved in open relationships are less committed or mature than those who are in monogamous relationships; and films, media, and self-help books present the message that to desire more than one partner means not having a "true" relationship. In the post-WWII 1950s-1970s, it was traditional to "date around" (with guidelines such not going out with one particular suitor twice in a row) until ready to start "going steady" (the onset of exclusivity and sexual exploration); since then, non-exclusive dating around has lost favour and going directly to steady (now known simply as exclusive dating) has been elevated instead. Desiring an open relationship is these days often claimed to be a phase that a person is passing through before being ready to "settle down". The logistics of an open relationship may be difficult to cope with, especially if the partners reside together, split finances, own property, or parent children.
Successful open relationships
One of the most significant factors that aids a relationship in being successful is that it is about making the relationship fit the needs of all parties involved. No two open relationships will be the same, and the relationship will change due to the current circumstances at each specific moment. The style of the open relationship will mirror the parties' involved values, goals, desires, needs and philosophies.
The most successful relationships have been those that take longer to establish. By taking the time to develop a clear idea of what both partners want out of the openness of a relationship, it allows the parties involved to self-reflect, process their emotions, deal with possible conflicts, and (for those transitioning from monogamy to nonmonogamy) find ways to cope with the change.
Negotiating the details of the open relationship is important throughout the communication process. Topics that are commonly found in negotiations between couples include honesty, the level of maintenance, trust, boundaries and time management.
Other tools that couples utilize in the negotiation process include allowing partners to veto new relationships, prior permission, and interaction between partners. This helps to reassure each partner in the relationship that their opinion is important and matters. However, although ability to veto can be a useful tool in negotiation, a successful negotiation and open relationship can still occur without it. Some reject veto power because they believe it limits their partner from experiencing a new relationship and limits their freedom.
Types of boundaries include physical, which is along the lines of not touching someone without permission being given; sexual boundaries; and emotional boundaries, which is avoiding the discussion of specific emotions. Boundaries help to set out rules for what is and is not acceptable to the members of the relationship. They also help people to feel safe and that they are just as important in the open relationship as their partners.
Examples of boundaries that are set could include:
- Who (geographically and interpersonally, such as in the community, friends, family, et cetera) could be an additional partner;
- What types of physical limits are placed on that relationship (kissing, dating, or other sexual activities);
- Whether sexual relations will take place in a separate bedroom, playroom or premises (eg hotel).
Some couples create a physical relationship contract. These can be useful in not only negotiating, but also clearly articulating the needs, wants, limits, expectations, and commitments that are expected of the parties involved.
Adequate time management can contribute to the success of an open relationship. Even though having a serious commitment with one partner is common, negotiating the time spent among all partners is still important. Although the desire to give an unlimited amount of love, energy, and emotion to others is common, the limited amount of time in a day limits the actual time spent with each partner. Some find that if they cannot evenly distribute their time, they forego a partner. Time management can also be related to equity theory, which stresses the importance of fairness in relationships.
Swinging is a form of open relationship in which the partners in a committed relationship engage in sexual activities with others at the same time. Swingers may regard the practice as a recreational or social activity that adds variety or excitement into their otherwise conventional sex lives or for curiosity. Swingers who engage in casual sex maintain that sex among swingers is often more frank and deliberative and therefore more honest than infidelity. Some couples see swinging as a healthy outlet and means to strengthen their relationship. Swinging can take place in various contexts, including spontaneous sexual activity involving partner swapping at an informal social gathering of friends, a formal swinger party or partner-swapping party, and a regular gathering in a sex club (or swinger club) or residence.
Polyamory is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. It is often described as consensual, ethical, or responsible nonmonogamy. The word is sometimes used in a broader sense to refer to sexual or romantic relationships that are not sexually exclusive, though there is disagreement on how broadly it applies; an emphasis on ethics, honesty, and transparency all around is widely regarded as the crucial defining characteristic.
While "open relationship" is sometimes used as a synonym for "polyamory" or "polyamorous relationship", the terms are not synonymous. The "open" in "open relationship" usually refers to the sexual aspect of a nonclosed relationship, whereas "polyamory" refers to the extension of a relationship by allowing bonds to form (which may be sexual or otherwise) as additional long-term relationships.
A subset of polyamory is polyfidelity. These are relationships that use an evenly distributed rotating sleeping schedule that determines who sleeps together and when. In this type of relationship, no one sleeps with anyone outside of those originally involved in the group.
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