A therapist explains how to know if ethical nonmonogamy is right for you.
Many of us grow up alongside narratives of a “happily ever after” one-soulmate-kind-of love, but this cultural ideal is far from a universal reality—or even a universal desire. Just like someone might have several friends who meet various social needs, there are a lot of people, myself included, who crave more than one romantic or sexual partner. And if that’s the case—and you’re already committed to one partner—it makes sense that you might be interested in the idea of an open relationship.
That decision is a hugely personal one of course, and it’s important to recognize that open relationships, where two partners consensually agree to seek sex and/or love outside of their existing relationship, aren’t for everyone. They can feel complicated and, at times, downright messy—not only because many of us live in societies that don’t support non-monogamy, but also because open relationships can bring up issues around jealousy, boundaries, and relationship goals that can all be pretty intense to navigate.
That said, they can also be incredibly fulfilling. To help you decide whether some kind of open arrangement makes sense for your love life, we asked Dulcinea Alex Pitagora, PhD, LCSW, a New York City–based therapist who specializes in nonmonogamous relationships, for the most important questions to ponder before opening up an existing relationship.
What does an “open relationship” mean to you?
If you’re researching this topic for the first time, you’ll likely come across a whole lot of new vocabulary, but the umbrella term for most types of open relationships is ethical nonmonogamy (ENM)—a dynamic in which transparency and communication are at the core of the choices you and your partner(s) make.
Polyamory—having more than one intimate relationship at once—is one way to practice ENM, but there are different types of polyamorous arrangements. For example, you may end up realizing that you align best with a “hierarchical polyamory” dynamic, in which you prioritize one primary relationship over the others. Or, you may prefer “nonhierarchical polyamory,” where every partnership is treated as equal.
Swinging is another form of ENM in which committed couples engage in strictly sexual activities with other couples or single people at the same time. Or maybe a couple wants to date other people together, whether that be with an occasional casual hook-up or in an entirely new relationship structure (like a triad, with three partners being equally committed to one another).
Whether you identify strongly with a preexisting structure or not, though, it’s important to remember that ethical nonmonogamy can be about rewriting the scripts we’re often given when it comes to love and sex—and that ultimately means you’re free to create whatever structure works for you and your partner(s).
Why do you really want to do this?
There are a lot of reasons why a couple might consider opening up their existing relationship. A 2022 article published in the journal Sexologies outlined eight potential motivations for polyamory, including fulfillment of needs not met in a monogamous relationship, expression of political values, and the desire to belong to a community.
Asking yourself and your partner whether you’re drawn to having more sex, more love, or some combination of the two can help you start to identify your motivations for exploring an open relationship—as well as whether or not you could both get your needs met by ENM.
Are you hoping to “fix” a troubled relationship?
Ethical nonmonogamy isn’t a magical cure for any and all relationship problems. For example, sometimes one partner has come to identify as nonmonogamous while the other hasn’t—but perhaps feels they should embrace nonmonogamy in order to “save” the relationship. In these instances, Dr. Pitagora says doing so might mean that one or both partners end up having to compromise facets of their identities or relationship goals—which can ultimately cause the relationship to break down.
The same is true for partners who are struggling in potentially irreparable ways, but are perhaps “too enmeshed or codependent to break up,” they say. This might look like irreconcilable differences in the desire to become a parent (maybe one person wants children, while the other does not), conflicting morals and values, or the age-old issue that is simply falling out of love.
“Exploring nonmonogamy tends to highlight strengths and weaknesses in relationships, which provides opportunities for personal and relationship growth,” they add. “Along with that growth might come a realization that an open arrangement could help both partners feel more satisfied—or that the relationship isn’t working.”
Do you feel comfortable talking about boundaries?
Even in the most established relationships (between parent and child, close friends, or romantic partners), many of us struggle to communicate our needs. For folks opening up their relationships, however, learning each other’s boundaries and fully respecting them is crucial, Dr. Pitagora says.
There are a lot of necessary conversations to have when you’re considering bringing other people into your romantic life, including discussions around the practicalities of your situation: where you’ll meet other people; where you’ll be intimate; whether you’ll be introducing them to friends, family, or children; how you’d like to divide your time; and many more. And these boundaries may need to be negotiated, to make sure both people are comfortable with the perimeters.
If you struggle with communicating your boundaries, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a healthy open relationship. Dr. Pitagora suggests first telling your partner about your fears. You can say something like, “I’m curious about an open relationship but I’m worried that I won’t be able to be honest with you about my feelings, or that you won’t respect my needs.” If your partner isn’t receptive and reassuring, that’s a sign that opening the relationship probably isn’t a good idea, they say, since, again, communication and respecting boundaries are crucial for ENM to work.
If even having that conversation freaks you out, it’s okay to take your time getting used to boundary-setting before you explore ENM further. Dr. Pitagora recommends first practicing communicating your needs in “low stakes situations,” like verbalizing an implicit boundary with a close friend—something like, “I appreciate how we don’t text after 10 p.m. when I have to get up early for work the next day, can we keep doing that and call it a boundary?”
You might then try a more challenging boundary—maybe asking a not-so-close friend not to text you after 10. Finally, you can raise the stakes further still by telling your partner what you are and aren’t comfortable with when it comes to an open relationship. “It’s an ongoing practice that eventually will feel easier with time and repetition,” Dr. Pitagora says. They also note that if you have a hard time expressing your needs and boundaries in relationships, individual therapy can be extremely beneficial.
How do you deal with jealousy?
Whether you’re monogamous or nonmonogamous, jealousy is one of those very human emotions that can creep up even when you don’t necessarily expect it. If you’re opening up your relationship, however, you’ll have to be willing to dissect the heck out of those feelings and contemplate the ways your jealousy might be a problem.
For instance, do you lash out with aggression, or become insular and unwilling to discuss your feelings? Or maybe you ignore those feelings entirely and pretend everything is okay while they eat you up inside? All of these reactions are signs that your jealousy could get in the way of the healthy communication required for a successful open relationship.
“Jealousy, like all emotions, contains valuable information about something we need to heal from or some need that’s not being met,” Dr. Pitagora explains. The reality of a newly open relationship is that it might bring jealousy to the forefront, but ultimately this can give partners an opportunity to reflect. Slowing down, contemplating your feelings, and collaborating with your partner is a healthy approach to jealousy, and you can also practice it in advance of opening up a relationship, they add.
For example, maybe the thought of multiple partners makes you feel insecure about the strength of your primary partnership, and dedicated couple time might help ease that discomfort. Or perhaps you realize that you’re feeling undervalued, and a more even distribution of household chores would help you feel more appreciated before you consider an open arrangement.
Do you rely on other people to validate your worth?
Self-acceptance is being marketed to us left and right these days and there’s a lot of noise out there about how you need to love yourself before you can love somebody else (or multiple somebody elses, in this case). But that journey isn’t typically linear, and you don’t necessarily have to “love yourself fully” (whatever that means) before you welcome other types of love into your life.
“Humans need other humans to live, and feeling validated through love from others is healthy, regardless of one’s level of security,” Dr. Pitagora explains. In fact, feeling loved or validated by others can ultimately increase personal feelings of self-worth, they say, in a psychological phenomenon known as positive “reflected appraisals”—when people perceive someone else’s appraisal of them as positive, their self-perception can become more positive, too.
That said, “if someone is completely reliant on someone else’s love and validation for a feeling of self-worth, that can be problematic, in that they may not be able to function if that other person is no longer available to provide love and validation,” Dr. Pitagora says. “And if working on self-compassion feels really uncomfortable to someone, I would say it’s likely they fall into that category.”
Basically, you shouldn’t necessarily rely on someone else (or multiple partners) for your entire sense of self-worth or fulfillment, but there’s no shame in craving more love and validation from others. And if that love and validation come in the form of an open relationship that feels good to all parties involved, then ethical nonmonogamy might be your happily ever after.
As Dr. Pitagora puts it, if both partners feel that an open relationship could help satisfy some of their unmet emotional and/or physical needs and “a couple has good communication practices in place, a foundation of trust, and a willingness to put in the hard work that usually takes place in the beginning of a nonmonogamous learning curve, then I say go for it.”