How To Maintain Rules And Boundaries In An Open Relationship

Monogamy, the practice of being in romantic relationships with one partner at a time, is the most accepted form of relationship in most modern societies. It wasn't the norm with our ancestors, but monogamy is an ordained foundation of marriage in most parts of the world today. However, just as polyamory or polygamy — having multiple romantic or sexual partners at the same time — isn't for everyone, neither is monogamy. "[Some] individuals may feel that monogamy is a prison that traps them in a permanent arrangement that is sexually frustrating and devoid of emotional intimacy," explains professor of psychology Dr. Lawrence Josephs on Psychology Today.

According to a YouGov America survey of over 23,000 Americans, nearly 25% of U.S citizens say they would be keen to explore an open relationship. Unlike cheating, partners involved in these non-monogamous relationships lay all their cards on the table. There's no such thing as dishonesty or adultery in an agreed-upon open relationship. Per a psychological study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, people in consensual, non-monogamous relationships experience the same levels of relationship satisfaction as those in monogamous relationships. That said, navigating an open relationship remains a hazy subject for many and ground rules and boundaries are needed to give it clarity. Here are some tips on making the course of an open relationship run smoothly.

1. Set out priorities and allocate time appropriately

According to counselor Kathy Labriola's models of open relationships published in the Journal of Lesbian Studies, an open relationship usually consists of a primary relationship and the "secondary" relationships surrounding it. The primary relationship is usually the long-term one and has dominance over outside relationships that recently emerge and might last temporarily. So basically, there are primary lovers, and there are secondary lovers. The rule of thumb is that secondary relationships always play second fiddle to primary ones, and secondary lovers are not in a place to negotiate for what they want. Primary lovers should always be given priority, including time and attention. Therefore, you should appropriately allocate the time spent with each lover to prevent overlapping and upstaging.

The most important thing is to make sure that all the partners involved in an open relationship agree on the arrangements. "Agreements imply that both (or all) people are agreeing to something, making it an ethical and collaborative decision," says psychotherapist Rachel Wright (via mindbodygreen). It is up to the couple to determine if they desire a long-term, short-term, sexual, or non-sexual relationship. An open relationship can only succeed if everyone in the relationship is comfortable with the ground rules and expectations that have been established. If anyone wants more leeway in a relationship, they will have no choice but to be patient and play by the rules.

2. Set sexual boundaries

Since an open relationship might involve multiple sexual partners, you should agree on what types of sexual encounters are acceptable and what are considered off-limits, says relationship therapist Matt Lundquist (via Women's Health). For instance, discuss with your partner whether you're allowed to have penetrative sex or kiss other partners, how regularly you and your hookups should be screened for sexual infections, and whether public displays of affection with other partners are okay. You should also talk about who not to hook up with. For instance, no sleeping with anyone from the same neighborhood or no hooking up with anyone your partner hasn't met.

Since the definition of an open relationship is open to interpretation, the partners involved should have an explicit understanding of what they're signing up for and make arrangements as they see fit. To help you get to the heart of the matter more easily, dating coach and founder of The Broom List, Tennesha Wood (via TZR) introduces four popular types of open relationships. They include monogamish, swinging, polyamory, and relationship anarchy. A monogamish relationship is where partners are romantically exclusive but allows for strictly sexual encounters every once in a while. Swinging refers to the act of swapping sexual partners or having sex outside one's primary relationship. Polyamory is the practice of having more than one sexual and romantic relationship simultaneously with the informed consent of all partners. In a relationship anarchy, there's no primary relationship, and everyone enjoys equal priority.

3. Have a healthy sex life

Any sexual relationship comes with certain health risks, and safety should be a top concern for all partners. For example, people who engage in BDSM are more likely to sustain nerve damage and falls, while oral sex might transmit hepatitis A and B as well as intestinal parasites. In addition, having multiple sexual partners can raise the risk of developing sexually transmitted infections, according to a study conducted by the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. These infections can snowball into more severe health conditions like cervical cancer, liver cancer, HIV, and infertility.

The key to staying safe in any type of sexual relationship is honesty and consensuality. It's hard to come clean about your sexual history, health conditions, and sexual habits, but open communication can reduce the risks of sexual diseases for the partners involved and give you carefree, quality sex. If your partner's not in for sexual protection, give that relationship a pass. Your long-term health should be prioritized over temporary sexual pleasure. Per Burnett Foundation Aotearoa, the easiest and most reliable approach to keep everyone safe during sex is to make it a rule to use condoms and lube all the time and get regular STIs screening. If you suspect that you have an infection, you should let your sexual partners know immediately so they can also get timely health check-ups.

4. Set limits for emotional intimacy

The biggest challenge to overcome in an open relationship is probably the emotional line. That's why you need to set emotional boundaries in advance to avoid hurting your long-term partner. Every couple may have a distinct set of limits that suit them the best. For example, one couple may decide that outside lovers should be objects of sexual gratification only, while others may not have problems with their partners spending time with their hookups in social settings. "No one is a mind-reader; if you want or don't want something, it must be articulated," says Chris Leeth, a professor of counseling at the University of Texas (via Insider).

If you have a bit of a jealousy streak, you should let your partner know in advance and work out an arrangement that doesn't make you want to guilt-trip your partner when they spend time with other people. On the other hand, if you're the type of person who can't have sex without catching feelings, you should also tell that to your partner so you can address the issue promptly. A technique that you can try to avoid catching feelings post-sex is to avoid eye contact with your sexual partner, researcher Dr. Larry Young at Emory University tells Vice. The reason being is when you make an intimate connection with your sexual partner's face and eyes, the information goes into your brain. If you want to divert it, make no eye contact when having sex.

5. Assess the state of your relationship every month

Every once in a while, you should check in with your long-term partner to assess how your non-exclusive relationship is doing. You might enjoy what's going on, but your partner might have a hard time following the rules and boundaries. "[A monthly check-in] allows the couple to air out concerns or set new expectations they may have learned throughout the month," says researcher and sex and relationship expert Dr. Tara Suwinyattichaiporn (via Bustle).

An open discussion enables partners to share their feelings, alter the rules as needed, and decide whether they still want to be in an open relationship. It takes two to tango, and it takes all willing partners for an open relationship to work. Regular check-ins also give you a chance to nurture your primary relationship. Some people don't mind if their mate has sex with someone else, but they may feel hurt when they feel emotionally ignored, says educational consultant Dr. Eli Sheff (via The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center). Prioritizing the needs and wants of your primary partner is essential if you want to successfully practice non-monogamy.