The blissful open marriage. No doubt you’ve heard about it. Or read about it online—or possibly in some edgy, steamy work of fiction. But like flying cars, the sub-two-hour marathon, and unicorns, they don’t really exist, do they? Is it really possible to find a couple that’s happy together, yet maintains a healthy sex life outside of their own bed?
It turns out you can. More and more evidence is mounting that today’s couples are opening up their bedrooms to other sexual partners and they’re finding their relationships stronger for it. So we reached out to several top relationship experts for their tips on making an open relationship—or marriage—actually work. So if you think it sounds like something you’d be interested in, read on.
1. Make Sure You Both Really Want One
“In order for an open marriage/relationship to be successful, it is absolutely essential for both primary partners to agree to it 100 percent,” says Christene Lozano, licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in sex and relationships. “Oftentimes, there may be one partner that wants it significantly more than the other, and this increases the likelihood of conflict and resentment in the future.”
2. Prioritize Communication
“Clear, direct and frequent communication will make or break an open relationship,” says Angie Gunn, LCSW, a sex, trauma, and relationship therapist based in Portland, Oregon. “The communication topics shift a lot depending on what phase of opening up you’re in,” she adds. Generally, she advises that you talk about how open exactly you want your relationship to be, what the structure will be like, and exactly how much you want to know about your spouse’s other partners. It’s also a good idea to set up regular “check-ins” to talk about what you’ve been up to dating-wise and make sure you’re both feeling good about how things are going.
3. Do Your Research
In the same way that you do a ton of research before deciding which car, camera, or computer to buy, it’s better not to go all-in on an open relationship without knowing what you’re going into. Talk to others who have done it and do some reading on the subject. “I highly recommend people read some of the amazing books on the subject such as Opening Up or More Than Two,” says Gunn.
4. Set the Ground Rules
It’s all about the boundaries, people. Negotiating and discussing them is really key before opening up your marriage, says Gunn. “Throughout these conversations you can identify landmines, sensitivities, and areas that need additional support. While you can’t assuage all worries, fears, or uncertainties, you can come up with strategies to help your partner feel heard, supported, and empowered through the opening up process.” Having clear ground rules is also essential if you’re looking to date a colleague.
5. Make Sure You’re Actually Comfortable With It
“Many times, a partner will want to have an open relationship so they can have relationships with other people, but are not prepared when their partner begins to engage in relationships with others, as well,” explains Chanta Blue, LCSW, a sexuality and relationship therapist. So it’s best to really think through how you’ll feel about your spouse having romantic interactions with others before jumping into it at full speed. “This is a double standard that can stir up a lot of jealousy and could possibly end a marriage,” she adds.
6. Talk About How You Feel About Marriage in General
If you’re married already, it’s likely that you see some value in the concept of marriage (hopefully!), but many people have varying ideas about what exactly marriage is “supposed” to be. “You need to look at assumptions from both partners on what ‘marriage’ is defined as in their mind,” says Lisa Bahar, a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices in California. Understanding what each spouse expects from marriage and having a clear idea of each other’s’ point of view makes the process of setting up an open marriage, understanding why it’s happening, and maintaining it much easier. Though you probably should have had that conversation (and others) before you got married.
7. Never Make It Part of an Ultimatum
One way to be sure your open marriage won’t work out? Making the alternative divorce. “It’s not cool for you to say, ‘If we’re going to stay together, you’re going to have to give me some sexual freedom,’” says Robert Weiss, LCSW, an infidelity and addiction expert. Don’t do this. And if you’re even considering divorce, you should know how smart men never break up.
8. Discuss Safety Issues Beforehand
Better safe than sorry, right? “STD protection, where each partner plans to meet new partners, and other safety issues need to be discussed and agreed on beforehand,” says Susan De Luca, LCSW, an individual, couples, and family therapist in private practice. While it might not be the most fun thing to talk about, it’s important to make sure that each partner is going about their non-primary relationships in a way that doesn’t put either party in any type of danger.
9. Be Prepared for the Unexpected
Just because you expect your open marriage to be a certain way doesn’t mean that’s definitely how it will turn out—for better or worse. “Be open to the fact that things are different in reality than they are in theory,” says Page Turner, a relationship coach who specializes in non-monogamous clientele. “Sometimes, this means you were afraid of something happening and now that you’re in the thick of things, it’s not such a big deal. Sometimes it’s the opposite. You may have problems that you never anticipated.” This is one of those times when you’re just going to have to go with the flow.
10. See A Therapist Before You Start
While it’s not required, it can make the the transition from closed to open a whole lot easier. “Seeing a therapist can facilitate creating a solid set of rules and boundaries, open expression of their concerns, and understanding of which potential conflicts may arise,” says Lozano. Doing this with a trained professional can help the couple be mindful of concerns that they may miss.” She also notes that a therapist can gently challenge a couple to really reflect on whether both parties are truly on board, which is essential for the success of the open marriage.
11. Map Out A Strategy for Road Bumps
“Another helpful tip to make an open marriage work is discussing what the protocol is if a boundary is crossed by one or both primary partners,” says Lozano. For example, maybe you have set the rule that you don’t want to meet your spouse’s other partners, but you accidentally run into them. What do you do?! “It can be beneficial to discuss this ahead of time so that both partners can be proactive and prepare for how potential boundary crossings will be managed,” she explains.
12. Network With Other Open Couples
Having friends that are in the same boat can make a world of difference, says Turner. “Join forums online or find meetups. Get to know these people. They’re a good social support, and you can learn a lot from watching other people navigate similar issues,” she says.
13. Make Your Check-Ins Fun
If you look forward to having “check-ins” with your spouse, they’ll be easier to get through and much more likely to actually happen. “Check-ins don’t have to be all doom and gloom. Many couples have found success tying it to something they enjoy: Relationship processing during a nice dinner or over drinks, or combined with going to the zoo or on a nice nature walk. Something that’s a treat for you,” she says. That way, you’ll be happy to have these conversations instead of dreading them.
14. Don’t Sweep Negative Emotions Under The Rug
It might seem better to keep in any bad feelings you have about being open, but Bahar says they could potentially snowball and cause major problems. “Communicate about feelings related to jealousy, abandonment or envy,” she advises. “Talk about what is working and not working and why. Be willing to see both the pros and cons of being open.” After all, no situation is perfect, but being able to see and discuss both the good and the bad in your relationship will strengthen your bond with your spouse.
15. Decide If and When You’ll Close The Marriage
Not all open marriages or relationships stay open forever. “The possibility of this should be thoroughly discussed while rules and boundaries are being made, prior to opening the marriage,” says Lozano. That way, if one of you wants to close the open marriage, you’ll already have a game plan in place for how to do it.