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5 Rules for a Successful Open Marriage, According to Couples in Open Marriages

Steering away from tradition doesn’t mean driving into the Wild West of love and sex.

We humans are a pretty social species. But where there is contact, there can be chaos. That’s why we have a solidified set of social norms in place. When in the company of strangers, we wait our turn in line; we say “please” and “thank you”; we willingly engage in all sorts of everyday pleasantries. Things may be a little less formal back at home, but there’s still a code to follow. Throw some romance into the mix and the guidelines get even thicker. Throw multiple romances into the mix, as is the case with open marriages, and you might just find yourself in over your head.

Yes, monogamy has traditionally governed the world of romantic relationships. But steering away from convention doesn’t mean diving into the Wild West of love and sex. We spoke to a variety of couples in open relationships who offered some advice for those who want to get started. Expanding the bounds of your relationship takes works, and it takes discipline, they said. It can also offer a new level of emotional and physical intimacy. Here are the big rules they mentioned.

5 Rules for an Open Relationship

  1. Talk About Protection
    While open relationships require flexibility, there are some non-negotiables to establish. Entertaining a conversation concerning safe sex is one of them. “It’s crucial that these ground rules be discussed and agreed upon in advance. This is a matter of ethics and consent,” says Patricia Jonson. She’s been with her partner Mark for nearly 20 years. During that time, they’ve engaged in various forms of non-monogamy. They’ve even put together some books on the subject. Some folks may insist on condoms during each encounter. Others cater the rules to the specific relationships they’re involved in. Judith has been involved in an open relationship for the past eight years. Her rule is that condoms must be used for at least six months into a new sexual relationship. “That’s the time it takes for me to vet someone,” she says. Talk to your partner(s), and figure out what works for everyone involved. 
  2. Don’t Leave Your Lovers in the Dark
    One of the perks of an open relationship is that it gives you license to pursue sexual encounters outside of your relationship. With that level of leniency, and that kind of explicit permission put in place, there really is no reason to lie. If you’re gearing up to go out on a date, keep your partner in the know. Maybe they want to meet the person. Maybe they want to share with you their thoughts surrounding a first impression. John and his wife have been practicing non-monogamy for the better part of their relationship. Initially, she gave him permission to sleep with other people, so long as he didn’t tell her about it. But John rejected that idea. He knew she would eventually find out, and he knew that would hurt her. “My rule is that everybody gets to know, and they get to know before I really get involved,” he said. “It’s important to get your partner’s honest, gut reaction.”
  3. Don’t Treat Your Secondary Partner Like a Second-Class Partner
    In the world of polyamory, there are “primary partners,” and there are “secondary partners.” Primary partnerships typically supersede secondary relationships. You might, for instance, be legally married to your primary partner. You may share a home. You may have children together. You may a series of shared responsibilities that force you to prioritize that relationship over others you will eventually fall into. That does not, however, give you license to treat your secondary partners with any less respect or consideration than you give to your primary partner. “Polyamory is still in a developmental state and it’s not really clear how everybody can be good to everybody,” says John. Though, he notes, it’s not all that hard to remain compassionate. It’s not all that hard to remain mindful of other people’s feelings. 
  4. Sort Out the Sleeping Arrangements
    Different couples will come to different agreements concerning sleeping arrangements. If you live alone, or with your primary partner, then spending an occasional night out might not be such a big deal. But if you have a family at home, things can get messy. When John and his wife first decided to open up the marriage, they had two young children at home. “We established a rule where we would agree to come home at the end of the night. We would both be back in bed together,” he explained. “We wanted to protect our kids. We wanted to emphasize our dyadic relationship.” As time went on, they started to bend the rules. “Within a year we were comfortable enough with poly that we were fine with one of us going away for a weekend with a lover while the other stayed home with the kids.” Again, different families demand different kinds of structure. Do your best to figure out which one works for you and yours.
  5. Remain Flexible
    It’s important to have structure when diving into new territory. “Having rules is a way of ensuring emotional alignment while establishing a foundation for exploring more freely,” says Patricia. But it’s also important to recognize that people change. And when that happens, it might be time to adjust the rules accordingly. “Don’t complicate things more than you have to,” says Judith. “Be negotiable.” And, remember, people aren’t perfect. The more rules we have in place, the more opportunity we have to slip up. When that happens, it’s important we don’t despair. “Be forgiving,” says Judith. “We are all human. I made some pretty significant errors in judgment when I first started out in this lifestyle. I didn’t know any better. I was still living by society’s traditional rulebook. But you have to realize that this particular relationship style removes us from their values and morals. You have to shift your view and look at things with a new set of eyes.”