Ever thought about sleeping with someone who isn’t your partner? Ever acted on it? You already know you’re not alone: Nearly half of marriages end in divorce and anywhere from 20% to 40% of those divorces are caused by infidelity. Maybe the key to happy relationships, then, is leaving space for a little penalty-free fooling around on the side?
Before you pose this oh-so-philosophical question to your partner, here’s what you need to know about asking them to open up your existing monogamous relationship.
Ask yourself some questions first
Horniness is human nature, so the answer to “Do I want to get in another person’s pants?” might be an easy “yes” for you, but according to dating coach Adam Lyons, you have to ask yourself something else before you take any other steps: Am I willing to lose my partner over this?
Because you might, and you need to be prepared for that. Some people really value monogamy, so your partner might not answer “yes” when asked if they want to sleep with someone else. Opening up the relationship could eliminate a lot of dishonesty and strengthen your partnership, but it could also work to destroy it.
Even after you pop the initial question, you’re not entirely free from the possibility of getting dumped. As one 29-year-old who asked only to be identified as Vanessa told Lifehacker, “Some people say they’re ready and they’re not.”
She described how she started talking to a guy who said he was in an open relationship and that his girlfriend was cool with him pursuing her—but his girlfriend called off their relationship after finding out he really was putting the moves on other women, even though they’d agreed that was allowed. That put Vanessa in an uncomfortable spot: Feeling guilty over their breakup and generally weirded out, she ended up not moving forward in any kind of relationship with the guy, which meant he started out thinking he’d be sleeping with two women, but ended up sexless.
“Before diving into an open relationship, be sure to firmly establish a solid dynamic with your partner,” explained Roy, who is in an open marriage. “It’s cliché, but true (for us, at least): communication and trust are key to a fulfilling and healthy relationship. If you don’t have that, an open relationship is not going to fill those holes, no pun intended.” (Roy is not his real name, either, by the way.)
This is a personal topic, and while third-party lovers will likely be aware they’re knocking boots with someone in a unique arrangement, it’s not uncommon for people in open relationships to keep that information on a need-to-know basis. In Lyons’ experience, someone in an open relationship, “may have compete transparency with their partner but not want world at large to know what’s going on.” So, the next questions to ask yourself are whether you want to do this discreetly, and whether that’s even possible for you.
If you live in a small town or have a nosy family, you might find yourself having to explain why it’s actually okay that someone you know found your profile on a hook-up app. What’s more, by asking your partner to open the relationship, you’re also asking them to potentially face that same line of questioning—or, worse, to become the subject of rumors.
The final question to ask yourself is whether your sex on the side is worth putting yourself and your partner through possible embarrassment at the hands of people who at best don’t need to know about your sex life, and at worst might be unkind about it. (There’s also a risk it could cost you more than friends—like your job.)
Ease into the conversation
After you’ve weighed the risks of losing or embarrassing your partner, if you still want to ask them about opening the relationship and they agree, you’ll have plenty of time to act on your fantasies and impulses. You don’t need to rush. After all, you’re doing this because you value your existing relationship and don’t want to end it.
As Lyons pointed out, if you didn’t care about your partnership, you’d just cheat. Since you’re not cheating, you need to make sure both of you are comfortable as you move forward with this conversation and, provided that goes well, into a new phase of your relationship.
Lyons, who’s been teaching and advising on consent since 2007, suggested getting permission from your partner to have a potentially awkward conversation, maybe over a nice dinner. “Getting permission to do anything—not just sex—is so important,” he says.
Once you have clearance to broach the topic, lead by prioritizing their needs and wants. Create a hypothetical scenario and leave “room for play” so they can express themselves. Phrasing to consider: “‘Be honest with me—since we’ve been together, have you ever entertained the idea of sleeping with someone else, even in a fantasy?”
If they say no, at least you know how to tailor your half of the conversation going forward. Just be honest.
Sometimes, as in the case of Roy, the segue into an open relationship can be a little more organic, but it depends on your unique situation.
Roy explained that he and his now-husband were each other’s first same-sex partners after they’d both previously dated women. After five years of a solid relationship, they slowly started experimenting with a willing male friend who spent a lot of late nights at their house, then delved into more threesomes and foursomes with interested friends, and finally, actively pursued group sex on apps. The progression continued naturally and they eventually started talking about playing separately with other men.
In the midst of all that, they got engaged and married. So take heart: This can work, but only if you are both on the same page.
Set some hard rules
Roy mentioned that the main issue he and his husband had early in the open stage of their relationship was figuring out “how to walk the line of having sex without developing feelings for the third party,” which, “required a lot of difficult, transparent conversations about what each of us was looking for from each other and from the open relationship.”
If you think you’ll walk away from the initial conversation about opening things up with a free pass to jump indiscriminately into bed with strangers, think again.
“An open relationship isn’t just, ‘We can have sex with everyone and we’re sluts,’” said Lyons. “[Successful] open relationships are [with] someone who’s willing to be open to rules of a relationship and define unique rules that suit [them].”
Roy and his husband have a rule against developing feelings for the other parties. Some people in open relationships regale one another with stories of their sexual exploits, while others have rules against revealing specifics like names or when an encounter took place.
Obviously you need to establish rules about how to keep yourself safe. Roy and his husband take PrEP, for instance, which he said reduces a lot of anxiety for them. Frankly discuss your expectations for condom use and off-limits behavior with your partner.
“Initially, the rule was that we had to disclose to each other either before or after we slept with someone,” said Roy. “As the years wore on, that became less of a requirement and more of a suggestion. Now, we’ll really only disclose if we’re planning to meet up with someone when we would otherwise be at home (based on our normal, pre-pandemic work schedules), just so we know not to expect the other to be home on time and so we don’t worry about them. Otherwise, we don’t really talk about it very much. We trust each other and we don’t really want to know the details.”
You already know what we’re getting at here: Communication is key. It has to come from a place of blamelessness and with a mutual goal of making one another happy, said Lyons. But, he added, communication also means expressing and accepting that “fair isn’t always equal.”
In other words, if one of you is really into casual sex and the other isn’t, but you agree to be in an open relationship, what’s fair is for the casual sex-haver to have their needs met, and to reciprocate by making sure the one who isn’t into that also has their unique needs met, whatever they may be. What’s equal would be for both to be having casual sex—but that doesn’t work when one of the partners doesn’t want to, so a rule that simply states you both can have casual sex might leave one partner’s needs unmet. And that can lead to—you guessed it—resentment… and a breakup.
Hashing out what is fair, what is equal, what is acceptable, and what is a deal-breaker are some of the most important elements of making an open relationship work. If you can’t have a candid conversation about your rules and expectations, you need to take a look at whether the relationship is really healthy in the first place.
Stick with the plan
During the initial conversation about opening your relationship, all the subsequent conversations you will inevitably have about the status of that relationship, and all your consensual extracurricular encounters, remember why you went into this in the first place: You care about your partner and want what’s best for both of you. You don’t want to lie. You don’t want to cheat. You want your needs met and their needs met so you can have the healthiest connection possible.
Don’t be dishonest, even when the conversations are awkward, because you’re coming from a good place here. And don’t break any of your rules. If you do, fess up.
“I’m not really sure how we eventually landed where we are now, but I think the most important part was having open communication and never withholding how we were feeling,” mused Roy. “We trusted each other and even when we unintentionally hurt each other in the process, we knew the intentions were good and [we were] willing to work through the growing pains to end up at a place where we’re both fulfilled sexually and in our marriage.”