Here's What the Experts Want You to Know About Open Relationships

How common are they really nowadays, anyway?
Open Relationship
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Dina Cheney - The Knot Contributor.
Dina Cheney
Dina Cheney - The Knot Contributor.
Dina Cheney
The Knot Contributor
  • Dina writes for The Knot Worldwide, specializing in food, travel and relationships.
  • With more than 20 years of experience in service journalism, she also pens articles and recipes for publications, such as Good Housekeeping, Parents, SELF, Health, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, Prevention, Fine Cooking, Weight Watchers and Diabetic Living.
  • Dina graduated from Columbia College, Columbia University and The Institute of Cul...
Updated Jun 30, 2023

It's the ultimate relationship version of having your cake and eating it, too: An open relationship offers the stability of a partnership, plus the excitement of additional partners on the side. And, if you're a part of the modern dating world, you may be noticing the term popping up more and more frequently, as lingering taboo around consensual nonmonogamy continues to dissipate.

For insight into open relationships and how to make them work, we spoke with two experts: Janet W. Hardy is a sex educator, coauthor of The Ethical Slut and author of the forthcoming Notes of an Aging Pervert. And Elisabeth "Dr. Eli" Sheff, Ph.D. is a relationship coach, sociology researcher and author of The Polyamorists Next Door.

What Is an Open Relationship

According to Hardy, open relationships can be defined as "an agreement between two or more established partners that outside sexual or romantic relationships can be pursued, with the consent of all concerned."

Having existed since relationships in general have been around, open relationships usually include some sort of sensual interaction with the other partners, continues Dr. Eli—though this is not necessarily full-on sex. "You could just kiss or snuggle."

Also note the word "agreement" in this definition, she adds. "If it hasn't been agreed upon, it isn't an open relationship."

How Common Are Open Relationships

Open relationships are more common than you might expect. Within the U.S., 20% of the population has engaged in some form of consensual nonmonogamy, such as a threesome, reports Dr. Eli. When it comes to ongoing open relationships, the number is 4-5%, she says.

"In some ways, you may already be in an open relationship, whether or not you recognize it as such," Hardy adds. "If a person has a life partner and a best friend with whom they share their time and emotions, they're already managing some of the challenges of an open relationship."

Types of Open Relationships

Although each open relationship can have its own distinguishers, there are some common varieties of open relationships. Just note that their definitions aren't set in stone. "They vary from one community to the next and change with the shifting winds," explains Hardy.


This is the most popular type of open relationship according to Dr. Eli, who adds that the scene tends to be heterosexual. Here, people seek out sex-only liaisons, either privately or in a club created for that purpose. Typically, a couple will arrive as a unit, swap partners with another couple, then leave with their original partner. To avoid involving emotions, some swingers don't have sex with a partner more than a certain number of times. Meanwhile, there are other swingers who merely watch other people have sex.


Think of this lifestyle as being open to having multiple full relationships with everyone's knowledge and consent. Since love and emotion are involved, polyamory can be more difficult to sustain than swinging, notes Dr. Eli.

Polyamory can be broken down into three additional varieties:

  • Non-hierarchical: Multiple relationships stand on their own with none taking precedence.
  • Hierarchical: One relationship is primary, with other partners secondary or tertiary.
  • Kitchen table: In this generally non-hierarchical form, all members of a group spend time together. "The goal is to share your partners unselfishly and with glee," explains Dr. Eli.

Relationship Anarchy

According to this non-hierarchical philosophy, no one relationship or relationship style is privileged over others, says Hardy. For instance, a relationship anarchist may value their friendships as highly as their domestic partnerships.

Additional Open Relationship Terms

Here are some other labels commonly associated with open relationships, with the caveat that a few overlap with the main types above.

  • Polyfidelity: Members of a group commit to limiting sexual or romantic feelings or behaviors within their group.
  • Friends with benefits: Friends who have sex without exclusivity or commitment.
  • Fluid-bonding: Members of a group commit to limiting certain higher-risk sex acts within their group (or use protection if they practice them outside the group).
  • Queerplatonic relationships: People whose values reflect queerness who don't have sex within their relationship (for example, platonic cis-gendered women who buy a home and live together in a sort of domestic partnership).
  • Monogamish relationships: Committed couples who agree to some romantic and sexual relationships with others.

Pros and Cons of an Open Relationship

With the emotions of several people occasionally involved, the stakes can sometimes be high in open relationships—especially if communication isn't being prioritized. Here are some pros and cons of the arrangement.


The specific pros of any open relationship depend on the form of consensual nonmonogamy you're practicing, says Dr. Eli. For instance, if it's polyamory (where people are sharing more of their lives), you can get a built-in support system. "If someone is sick, their lovers and their partner's other partners (called metamours) can help," she explains. "For some people, it provides the community that religion used to."

In general though, the pros of open relationships include:

  • Meaningful or sexual connection with multiple people
  • Fulfillment of needs not being within a primary relationship
  • The opportunity for variety and excitement, while having a stable relationship as a foundation


One challenge with open relationships is figuring out how to divide time and money among multiple partners, especially if those partners have different needs. For example, one person might feel safer in their primary relationship if their partner shares details about their other partners. However, one of those other partners might demand privacy. "It can be very difficult trying to balance conflicting needs," says Dr. Eli.

Additionally, open relationships can be risky, she adds. "You could be playing with fire since people respond in ways they didn't anticipate." They might plan to just have fun, but end up falling in love, and jealousy and insecurity can arise. And of course, individuals need to protect themselves against pregnancy and STIs when having sexual interaction with multiple partners.

Another issue is the social stigma still surrounding open relationships, Dr. Eli notes. (It does still linger, no matter what Tinder is telling you.) Due to prejudice, people can be fired from their jobs and even lose their housing and custody of their children, according to Dr. Eli. They can also be ostracized by their friends, families and faith communities.

Is An Open Relationship Right for You?

If you and your partner are content, self-aware and communicate well, you could be in a good position to explore opening your relationship, says Hardy. For example, you may both work well as life partners but have very different sexual preferences.

However, if your relationship is unhappy, opening it won't fix it. In fact, it will likely make matters worse. "Don't use open relationships as an exit strategy from your current relationship," says Dr. Eli. "It will hurt your current partner much worse than leaving them, and it will hurt the people you're dating. If you know you want to break up, break up."

How to Discuss an Open Relationship with Your Partner

Before moving forward, take extreme caution, Dr. Eli warns. If they're not open to the idea of consensual nonmonogamy, your partner could react poorly, putting your relationship at risk. Only bring up the topic if you're intent on pursuing this lifestyle and feel you could handle your partner being with someone else.

Then, choose a time when you're both relaxed and are in a calm environment with plenty of time to talk. If you're nervous about how your partner will react, show them an article or watch a TV show with relevant content. Then casually ask them what they think of this lifestyle.

If they seem intrigued, segue into discussing how each of you would envision an open relationship. (One person might picture orgies while the other imagines a steady side partner, notes Harvey.) Also, be sure to discuss what both scares and entices you about the arrangement.

Then, pick out one small step that feels manageable. Try it, discuss how it felt and possibly make some new agreements. Move on to the next small step and repeat.

Tips for Navigating Open Relationships

Dr. Eli's top tip for successfully navigating open relationships is to first reflect on which relationship type would best suit you and your partner. Be honest with both yourselves and one another. If you're after an expanded family or community, consider kitchen table polyamory. If you want your life to remain largely the same, ponder swinging.

Still, be ready for the reality to differ from your expectations. (Another important tip to keep in mind!) What you negotiated with your partner initially will likely need to be revisited. As with all relationships, open relationships are a work in progress.

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