What Is An Open Relationship?

You may have heard the phrase “open relationship” and wondered what it meant. It’s a simple enough phrase, so the basics are probably clear to you: an open relationship is one where one or both members of the couple have permission to date outside of the marriage or committed relationship.

Obviously, though, it’s not that straightforward. And while one type of open relationship could be totally up your alley, another type may be a nightmare. It helps to know what you’re getting into before you take the plunge.

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First: Open Relationships Aren’t Cheating

Open relationships can be healthy and progressive ways of expressing the different in parts of a couple’s personal life. It’s difficult to know if open relationships are more popular than they used to be, or if people are just more open and them nowadays. One thing is for certain, though: there is a difference between an open relationship and cheating. In a true open relationship, both partners consent to at least one of them dating others.

Be aware, though, that there are plenty of people who say they’re in an open relationship may just be using that as cover for shady behavior. Trust your gut, and know that you have the right to ask someone if they’re truly in an open relationship—not that they’ll necessarily tell you the truth.

The Different Types of Open Relationships

While there are any number of ways people define open relationships, here are some of the more common types:

  • Both parties date other people In this scenario, two people in a committed relationship decide that they have the option of going out and having casual relationships with other people. While this is an option for any couple, it’s a popular option for couples where one or both identifies as bisexual, pansexual, or any sexual orientation that means they’re sexually attracted to more than one gender.
  • Polyamorous couples There are so many versions of polyamorous relationships—not just couples, but thrupples or polycules—that there are hundreds of articles, websites, and books on how to do polyamory “right.” Even the prior scenario could be considered polyamorous depending on how the couples defines it. Not every polyamorous relationship begins with a single couple, but many do. In those cases, one or both partners date with the full knowledge and consent of the other partners involved. These additional relationships could be flings or they could be long-term. They could be fully separate, or they could be incorporated into larger, group coupling (see the mentions of thrupples and polycules above). You may find yourself dating one member of this type of relationship, or you may find yourself involved with any or all members of the group.
  • Look-the-other-way couples There are some couples where one partner travels extensively, or one partner simply doesn’t have the same sex drive that the other does. In these scenarios, one partner has the other’s permission to casually date or hook up with someone, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the couple’s day-to-day life.

Things To Look Out For

The biggest hazard of any open dating scenario is ensuring that all parties are being truthful with one another. Open communication is they key to communication, no matter how many people are involved. If you’re the outsider in a look-the-other-way scenario, you’ve got almost no way to ensure your date is telling the truth. No one writes out a literal hall pass for their spouse.

And for every type of dating, “I’m in an open relationship” is one of the most common lies you’ll come across. Some primary partners in an open relationship never want to meet their significant other’s other love interests. That not only makes it hard to confirm you’re in a legitimate open relationship situation, but may make things feel more sordid than they actually are.

Many people in polyamorous relationships follow a concept known as “ethical nonmonogamy,” which can take many different forms but puts the emotional and physical wellbeing of all partners at the center of the interactions. It means being up front with boundaries and feelings, and the level of commitment each person has to offer.

Another major tenet of ethical non-monogamy is being up front about being non-monogamous from the start: someone who waits until you’re headed home together to let you know they have another partner isn’t someone trustworthy enough to have in your life.

The other thing to keep in mind is that dating someone who already has at least one other partner is likely not looking for someone to settle down with into a monogamous relationship. Don’t go into an open relationship expecting to change someone’s mind or displace someone’s primary partner. Additionally, there’s a concept called “couple’s privilege.”

Some open or polyamorous relationships do not have hierarchies, while others have a traditional two-person structure at the center, and other partners are secondary to that primary relationship. While some people can accept that, it can make other people feel left out, particularly when primary and secondary partners have competing interests or events (like birthdays or anniversaries).

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Author: Matt Seymour, MSF

Matthew J. Seymour is a dating industry expert with over a decade of experience coaching singles, reviewing dating apps, and analyzing trends within the industry. Matt is a published author with his most recent work “Get More Dates: How to Master Online Dating Apps” that hit shelves in 2023. With a Masters of Science in Finance (MSF) degree from the University of Florida and extensive knowledge of the innerworkings of the online dating industry, Matt frequently serves in an advisory role to some of the largest dating apps on the market. In Matt’s current role with Healthy Framework, he leads the interview team that regularly interviews key dating industry leaders, and leverages his financial knowledge and dating app experience to review and share what singles need to know to get the most out of dating online.