What Does Open Relationship Mean?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on July 06, 2023
3 min read

An open relationship means having more than one romantic or sexual partner at a time. It’s an arrangement that both parties agree is non-exclusive or non-monogamous. As one or both partners engage in romantic or sexual activities outside the relationship, the arrangement’s agreement aspect is key. 

If the two parties don’t agree to an open relationship or marriage and one or both still engage in multiple partnerships, it’s known as a nonconsensual, non-monogamous (NCNM) relationship. 

Another name for an open relationship is “consensual non-monogamy.” Both parties agree that a relationship is non-monogamous. “Non-monogamy,” “polyamory,” and “polyamorous relationship” also refer to an open relationship. 

Polygamy” refers to having more than one spouse at the same time. This is not legal in the U.S. If a marriage is non-monogamous, it may be called an “open marriage.”

Because many have the expectation that relationships and marriages are monogamous, it can be challenging to discuss an open relationship with loved ones. Religious or familial beliefs may make it something very difficult for people to accept.

When you express that you want to explore something outside of the relationship, your partner may become sad, jealous, or defensive. But being as honest as possible about your feelings will only help the relationship, even if that means discovering you can’t meet the other person’s needs any longer and that it must end. 

It’s important to approach the topic with patience and understanding. It’s possible that your partner may not be interested in an open relationship. Give them time and space to explore the idea and think of questions. Don’t demand an answer right away or get upset if they decide it isn’t right for them.

If your partner is interested in exploring an open relationship, it’s essential that you both agree to rules or best practices. For example, you both may agree to use safe sex practices such as condoms. It’s crucial that you’re both on the same page and stick to the agreements that are made.

Sometimes couples engage in therapy to discuss these issues and explore their feelings.

Even if your partner is on board with an open relationship, friends and family may have strong opinions. There may be some people you can talk to about the arrangement, and some you can’t. However, if more people can discuss desires and situations that don’t align with traditional ideas of marriage, they may become more common and less taboo.

An open relationship isn’t for everyone. Here are some warning signs that it’s not going to work:

  • One or both partners become jealous or uncomfortable
  • One partner is not on board with the arrangement
  • The marriage or partnership is strained and no longer happy
  • One partner becomes dishonest or secretive
  • Boundaries are crossed

It’s important that the two people in the partnership agree about an open relationship for it to be beneficial to both parties. Boundaries should be clearly discussed and set. Then everyone can voice what they’re not comfortable with.