With more and more people being well, open about their open relationships, ethical non-monogamy is having its moment. While it’s been in practice for a very long time, it’s becoming increasingly common for couples to talk about what monogamy or non-monogamy means to them and what they’re looking for in their relationship. 

Which begs the question, what exactly goes on in an open relationship and how do you make it work? 

Have an open conversation about how you want this relationship to play out

Are you looking to have a full outside relationship or are you looking for a little fun on the side every now and then? Do you want to pursue this on your own or do you want your partner there beside you? These questions will help determine what kind of open relationship you’re looking for. 

Ethical non-monogamy can be looked at as a spectrum. On one side, there’s polyamory. On the other side, there’s swinging. Lots of people fall somewhere in the middle. 

Polyamory is the most autonomous, independent form of an open relationship. While it’s hugely rewarding, it’s not a good fit for a LOT of couples. In polyamory, both you and your partner have full, complete relationships without the other person. In my case, it means that I have a husband and a long-term boyfriend. I live with each of them, 50/50. They are friends, but they are not dating each other. While media representation loves to focus on triads, sometimes called “throuples,” of people who all date together, this is by far the exception to the rule in polyamory. 

On the other side is swinging, sometimes called “the lifestyle.” Swingers are very couple-bonded and most only have sex with their partner present. The most common form of swinging is a swap where two couples trade partners for the night sexually. This usually happens in the same room or at least very nearby. While the couples might form friendships with other couples, it’s understood that the main couple takes priority. 

Many open relationships fall somewhere in the middle. Lots of poly folks also have threesomes or group sex with their partners, and a lot of swingers have “hall passes” for their partners to enjoy a threesome or a same-sex experience solo. 

Get clear on your rules and boundaries

Many couples just starting out in opening their relationship will go through a series of changes to the agreements they make. Maybe you’re not comfortable with your partner spending the night yet or having barrier-free sex. Now is the time to have those conversations before there’s another person or people being drawn into a painful situation because you didn’t do your homework. 

Keep checking in with your partner or partners

Some folks swear by weekly or monthly check-ins to gauge how everyone is feeling. While this usually ends up dropping by the wayside (after years and years in the same poly set-up, there just isn’t that much to report), it’s a good idea for getting started. This allows everyone to bring up questions, insecurities, and fears without being accused of starting a fight or being dramatic. After all, that’s exactly what the check-ins are for getting all the feelings out in the open so they don’t fester and become resentments. 

Give yourself the space to feel your feelings

Everyone freaks out about jealousy like it’s a lethal emotion you couldn’t ever live with. Instead, try sitting with the jealousy, indulging in a little self-care, and letting it wash over you. It’s a great way to figure out where you really stand. Is having your partner out on a date really impossible to live with, or do you just need the reassurance that they’re coming back home to you later? If you and your partner are swapping with another couple, is it intolerable to see them with someone else, or does it become hot in that context? Give yourself some introspection. You might be surprised. 

Respect the feelings of everyone involved

It’s a common newbie mistake to focus on making sure everyone in the original couple is comfortable at all times while disregarding the human emotions of the other people involved. Don’t do this. If you and your partner have decided that the other has “veto power” to shut the whole thing down, be the bigger person and warn your new partner. If you and your partner are still figuring out your boundaries, give the other person a head’s up. Treat them the way you’d want to be treated by a partner.