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

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

by Carrie Weisman
Originally Published: 
woman and man holding hands as they walk down the street

While successful open relationships certainly require more from the involved parties, plenty of couples have found a way to have a happy and healthy open marriage. The secret? Clear boundaries and lots of communication.

Yes, monogamy has traditionally governed the world of romantic relationships. But open marriages and open relationships are becoming more acceptable as modern couples look for alternatives to traditional coupling. Steering away from convention, however, doesn’t mean diving into the Wild West of love and sex. Open marriages have just as many — if not more — guidelines for keeping all of the involved parties happy. There are many variations of open relationship rules, but they all require trust and understanding.

So what do these rules look like? We spoke to a variety of couples in open relationships who offered some advice for couples who are curious. Expanding the bounds of your relationship takes works, and it takes discipline, they all said. It can also offer a new level of emotional and physical intimacy. Here are the big open marriage rules to live and love by.

5 Rules for a Successful Open Relationship

  1. Don’t Leave Your Lovers in the Dark

One of the perks of an open marriage is that it gives you a 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 the 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.”

  1. 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 the 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.

  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.

  1. 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 go the open marriage route, 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.

  1. Remain Flexible

It’s important to have structure when diving into new territory, this applies to open marriages as well. “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.”

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