Whether you’re just starting to get serious or have been together for years, broaching the subject of starting an open relationship is totally uncharted water. Even if you’ve tried the whole open thing before, each relationship—and the ground rules that keep things from turning into a jealous mess—is different.
That doesn’t mean polyamorous relationships don’t work—or even that they can’t be as rock-solid as monogamous ones. But experts say strong open relationships do tend to have one thing in common: a mutually agreed-upon set of ground rules.
Part of the reason for setting some rules is just practical—like using protection to reduce your risk of getting, or sharing, an STI. There are also rules that are intended to provide emotional safety for all parties involved. Most of these—though not all—are designed to prevent the fallout from jealousy.
The most important thing is to ask each person is what an open relationship means to them. Because, while generally “open” implies that one has a sort of ethical permission to seek or stumble upon a new partner, there’s some wiggle room in the exact definition of an open relationship—10 couples would probably give you 10 different answers on how they define the arrangement.
While these will inevitably change as you try out the whole open relationship thing and see how it affects your partner and your relationship, it does help to establish some ground rules upfront. Let’s have a look at what those might be.
Set Sex Boundaries.
One of the first rules you should agree on as a couple is what types of sex are okay to have with other people (if sex is okay at all) and what you consider to be out of bounds. Don’t shy away from getting specific here: Is penetrative sex okay? Oral? Kissing? Are you allowed to explore things like BDSM that you don’t do with your partner?
It’s better to talk these things through in advance rather than risking a partner’s surprise hurt or disappointment after the fact. Your sex rules should also include safe-sex practices. Again, be specific. Will you use a condom for any penetrative sex? Do you expect your partner to use a dental dam for any oral sex? Will you both want each other’s hookups to have been screened for STIs? Will you regularly get screened? It’s always better to talk through what you and your partner need to feel really safe.
Set Emotional Boundaries.
It’s also important to define what social and emotional behaviors are okay. For example, maybe you’re totally cool with your partner having random Tinder hookups but you’re not comfortable with them going on dates or seeing other partners in a social context.
Navigating the emotional guidelines can be even trickier than the physical ones. Even though people say they don’t think they’ll get jealous, they often do. Two key questions to discuss with your partner are: Can you have sex without developing feelings for someone? And if you do develop feelings, how will you and your partner address that situation?
Establish Who It’s Cool to Hook Up With.
Open relationships don’t (usually) mean “open to anyone. Before you enter into an open relationship, it’s important to agree on who is fair game to get intimate with. For example, you might agree that you’re only cool with having sex with strangers—no chance of awkwardly running into them at the office holiday party. On the flip side, some open couples prefer to choose outside partners from people they already know and trust.
Another rule to consider adding to this discussion is the relationship status of your outside partners. Agreeing to only have sexual relationships with someone who either doesn’t have a partner or whose partner is cool with it, for example, is an important thing to discuss.
Figure Out How Much Time You’ll Spend with Other Partners.
Once you’ve established boundaries, experts recommend taking the time to dig into the nitty-gritty—like how much time you’ll each spend on your open-relationship activities. Decide how much time each week you’re allowed to spend with other partners.
One key thing to agree on is whether you’ll each be actively or passively exploring other relationships. In other words, will you be dusting off your Tinder profile and eating into your date-night schedule with your current partner to see other people, or will you take advantage of your open relationship status only when someone happens to fall in your path? Whichever you agree upon, you should also set some rules around how much time you’re allowed to spend with other partners.
For example, decide how much time each week you’re allowed to spend with other partners and what the protocol is if you want to skip movie night with your main partner to go on a date.
Decide How You’ll Talk About Your Relationships With Each Other.
One of the hardest rules to figure out, according to the experts, is how open to be with each other about your open relationship.
There are two main points to discuss here: Will you tell each other about outside hookups at all? And if so, how much detail will you share? There’s likely going to be some element of trial and error here. You might find that hearing that your partner was just with someone else makes you angry—or you might find that hearing the dirty details turns you on.
After figuring out how to discuss your open relationship with each other, you should agree on how to talk about it with others, if at all.
Be Honest and Open To Reviewing the Rules
The one golden rule you should follow above all others? Like all issues that come up in your relationship, be honest. If one of your open relationship rules is no longer working, revisit it to make some edits.
If you’re already in a polygamous relationship or considering exploring the world of open relationships, share your views in the comments below and let us know if you think the rules discussed would apply to you.