What is an Open Relationship
Sex is a large part of the intimacy landscape in a committed relationship.
If a couple can find a way to expand the canvas of their partnership, they can paint brand new adventures upon it; allowing them to explore a whole new spectrum of shared experiences.
But the thing about canvas is that if you don’t have a wooden frame to fit its measurements, the painting upon it can’t be seen for what it is. It can’t be unrolled and stretched out on full display because it doesn’t have the right structural support to reveal its full aspect.
The key is to look at the canvas you want to display and then you make a frame to fit it. Not the other way around.
In the same way, if a couple have set out on a journey to explore the opening of their relationship—but haven’t come up with a set of clearly-defined boundaries, the new relational possibilities can’t be realised, and their vision for their relationship can become irreparably skewed.
The partnership will unfold into other relationships, but without a custom-made structure to support them properly. And the consequences can be catastrophic, irreparable, and damage the intimacy it was supposed to deepen.
There are numerous definitions of what an open relationship is.
Some say that it is any relationship where a third person is consensually involved with either one or both partners from the same primary relationship. Others say that it is a situation where both partners in a primary relationship are free to pursue sex and/or love outside of it. Others still say that it is when a partner is free to pursue sex, but not love, outside of their primary relationship. It is a kind of relationship that has also been defined as both partners, within their primary relationship, having equal rights to pursue extra-relational sexual experiences.
For the sake of simplicity, I define an open relationship as one where two people in a committed relationship mutually agree that one, or both of them, can enjoy sexual expression outside of that relationship.
This sexual expression could look like two people agreeing that one or both of them are free to participate in a bare back orgy. But it could also look like a relationship where one person’s third-party sexual expression is limited to kissing or simply just sexting.
In essence, there are as many versions of an open relationship as there are open relationships.
Each one is unique.
Some only allow oral sex. Others just digital or web-cam relationships. Some allow for only sex. And some others only allow for emotional connection with third parties.
I have met couples where the husband and wife share a boyfriend. And I’ve met couples where only one partner is “permitted to play” as they called it. I have also met people in primary relationships who are fully open—without any boundaries at all. But this is the exception rather than the rule.
For you and your partner to explore the canvas and define the frame, you’ll need to have a few critical conversations. I recommend some places to start from in my book, OPEN.
How to Get the Open Relationship Conversation Started
I’m glad that my first wife Rachel was honest with me. It was a huge act of trust on her part to let me know that she was bisexual and wanted to have relationships with other women. That kind of information could have derailed us. Specifically because of how early on in the relationship we were—and not to mention my religious background.
If you’re thinking of asking your spouse or significant other to have an open relationship, the best thing to do is to be honest with yourself first. Ask yourself the following:
- Is having sexual variety something that you really want?
- What kind of variety do you want?
- How often?
- For how long?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, to what degree is this an uncontrollable desire of yours? 10 being that you’ve already cheated on your partner?
- Is it something you’re willing to stop once started?
- Are you willing to risk potentially hurting your partner just by bringing up the topic?
- Are you willing to engage with the pain you might feel when you receive an unexpected or unfavorable response?
As you take stock of your willingness to be honest and receive honesty in return, here are three commitments that you should make in anticipation of opening up the subject with your partner:
This will likely be a long conversation once you and your partner begin. And this is rightly so. Think of it the way you would think about having kids, taking on a mortgage, finishing a university degree, having a baby, writing a book, or starting a new business—all of which regularly tear intimate relationships apart. These and most other worthwhile, fulfilling things require hundreds of hours of commitment. These experiences in your life can be the most meaningful, and the most dangerous.
Starting an open relationship requires several conversations so you can reach a strong level of understanding and shared expectations with each other. It will require a large investment of time. Prepare yourself for at least a couple of hundred hours of discussion.
Be willing to hear a firm “No”
I said “no” to Rachel for a decade. As a bisexual, she waited to experience her first encounter with a woman until she was in her thirties. She did that for my sake, and I’m grateful for it. I’m also grateful that she was willing to hear my “no” while keeping the conversation flowing for as long as she did. She didn’t withdraw or shut down. And she never ran dry of patience with me. I felt so valued and honored by the way she waited for me to be ready, without despairing in the process.
Your partner may not be as ready for this conversation as you are. Prepare yourself to hear a firm “no” or something to do with you being absolutely crazy. More likely, though, you’ll hear some kind of fear or threat-based response like: “Why? Am I not enough for you?” or “If this is what you want then I’m ending things!” or “Does this mean you don’t love me anymore?” And this is because most people don’t think about the distinction between love and sex unless they’re invited to.
Sexual Strategy Theory
In my understanding of evolutionary psychology, there are two foundational purposes for human life: the first is to survive, and the second is to reproduce. For the human race to continue, we need to survive long enough to be reproductive. And then we need to help our offspring to survive long enough to be reproductive themselves. Everything else is a bonus.
Now we live in a civilised age when we’re safer than we’ve ever been before, and our societies are also less violent. We can manipulate the circumstances of human reproduction with birth control, abortion, adoption, and have a great sex life while intentionally choosing not to have children at all if we do not want to. Just keep in mind that this state of affairs in humanity is only about a hundred years old. The drives to survive and reproduce are about a million years old, and there’s a lot of momentum behind those million-year-old mechanisms in our primal brains.
The reason you like sex at all is because of the evolutionary imperative to reproduce. Your brain rewards you for having sex with a cocktail of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other fun chemicals that make you high and give you pleasure. It’s a reward for doing something that will advance the human race. We’re certainly much more civilised than the apes we descended from, but we haven’t shaken the primary necessity to have babies. The urge to have sex comes from that drive to have babies—so our genes can survive into the next generation.
It’s hardwired into us: the drive to have sex, and the reward that comes from it.
The need to reproduce is ingrained in our DNA. If it weren’t, humanity wouldn’t have survived for so long. The fact is: you’re the product of thousands of generations of the best survivors and top reproducers. The best at surviving and reproducing eventually survived long enough to produce you. Congratulations. Good job! And a big high-five to your ancestors!
Humans have always wanted to have sex because that’s our genetic programming. But babies are expensive. They take up precious personal and tribal resources, and having too many of them can be tough to feed. In this way, as humans slowly became civilised, we began to think separately about sex and procreation. Sexuality became a stand-alone issue, and we looked for ways to enjoy feeding the sex drive without bearing the long-term investment a baby would require. We became cautious and inventive about preventing the reproductive effect of sex. In modern times, inventions like condoms, birth control pills, and vasectomies have allowed us to think about sex almost entirely as something separate from procreation. But this is a new thing—radically new. It’s a recent innovation. In the million or so years of human evolution, this new sexual freedom has really only been around for the last century.
In order to understand common contemporary male and female sex drives and patterns of sexual behaviours, it’s helpful to keep one eye on current sexual behaviours among humans, and the other eye on what our ancient genetic programming has lead us to in terms of general tendencies in sexual desires. Let’s respect the million years of momentum that came before the hundred years of birth control and think about sex from the standpoint of primitive humans.
There are certainly outliers in every human generation that stand well outside of the generalized boxes of what researchers call Sexual Strategy Theory (SST), but the vast majority of humans are navigating their sex lives with the weight of a thousand generations of evolutionary psychological biases and heuristics governing their modern desires. In my book, OPEN, I try to make SST accessible for my readers, but if you want to learn more, I recommend reading Buss and Schmitt (2017), Hopcroft R. (2016), and Delhez, J. (2019) to get you started.
 Buss, D. M., and Schmitt, D. P. (2017). “Sexual Strategies Theory,” in Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, eds T. K. Shackelford and V. A. Weekes-Shackelford (Cham: Springer International Publishing), 1–5. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1861-1; Hopcroft R. (2016). Evolution and Gender: Why It Matters for Contemporary Life. New York and London: Routledge.; Delhez, J. (2019). Evolutionary perspectives on human sex differences and their discontents, Evolution, Mind and Behaviour EMB, 17(1), 48-53.