3 rules to follow for a successful open relationship from a therapist

The open relationship between the celebrities – Shailene Woodley, Angelina Jolie, and perhaps most notably Will and Jada Pinkett Smith – has been the cornerstone of the conversation for years. The dynamic is often dismissed as a Hollywood arrangement that can only be sustained by armored NDAs.

However, in recent years, non-monogamy marriage has become more and more popular. One in four adults is interested in an open relationship, according to YouGov poll 2021 out of 23,000 Americans.

Avital Isaacs, a therapist at Manhattan Alternative Wellness Collective, a mental health practice that serves gay and transgender people, non-monogamous people and sex workers.

“In a monogamous relationship, there is a typical pattern of foreclosure,” she said. “Relationships are defined by what you don’t do, and it can feel like a real reduction in self. You just have to be actively doing it with your partner.”

Non-monogamy allows you to explore more experiences that you might not have in a monogamous relationship. It can also help remind someone that their partner is desirable. “Seeing them date someone else can spark feelings of wanting to win that person’s love and attention,” says Isaacs. “For some, that’s a big motivator, rather than taking each other for granted.”

3 rules for a successful open relationship

Megan Hanafee Major, a therapist who works with couples, marriage, gender and sexuality based in the greater Chicago area says:

“Most successful open relationships follow common rules of boundaries, communication, and goals,” she says.

If you’re interested in exploring an open relationship, here are three Major’s tips to get you started.

1. Determine what type or relationship is OK

Decide if any kind of relationship or person is “off the line,” says Major. “Communication if you or a key relationship partner would be preferred and think about the type of information you share with other partners.”

Being open can mean being physically close but not emotionally. Whatever it is, you need to communicate boundary.

“Take time to think about personal boundaries as well as relational boundaries,” she says. “Know that you can adjust these as needed, but respecting the boundaries of others and expecting them to do the same for you is imperative.”

2. More communication is always better

In any relationship, communication is paramount. In an open environment where expectations are even less clear, you need to be more conscious of what you’re negotiating with your partner, says Isaacs.

“When you’re in a monogamous relationship, you’re implementing the framework provided to you based on our society and culture,” she said. “We prioritize and understand romantic relationships to be exclusive. If you’re in an open relationship, our culture structure and system are not designed for you.”

That could take you into uncharted waters.

For example, she says, you get “plus points” at a wedding or a holiday party, not “plus points with whoever you’re in a relationship with.”

Major agrees that when you’re going against social norms and creating a more unique dynamic between you and your partner, clear communication becomes even more essential. “Personally, more communication is always better than less,” she says.

Be specific when discussing the parameters of your relationships. “Communicating with partners about expectations, logistics, such as time commitments and desires, allows trust and vulnerability to be built and maintained over time. This not only helps management handle any misunderstandings that arise – they’re inevitable – but also show your partner that you value them, their thoughts, and their time.”

3. Know what your goals are and notify if they change

Make sure you, your primary partner, and potential new partners are all on the same page.

Some questions you might ask yourself, Major says, include:

  • Are you hoping to spend time doing specific activities?
  • Do you want your partners to know each other?
  • Are there certain things that you would like to explore sexually or romantically?

“Goals can vary between relationships and are bound to change over time,” says Major. Being clear about them can ease feelings of vulnerability and mixed messages on the road.

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