Making an Open Marriage Work
Jay and Elle are not your typical married couple. Every week, aside from spending time with each other, they also spend time with their partners outside of their 25-year marriage.
Elle spends a day with her partner Joseph, while Jay might have a sleepover with each of his two partners, Ann and Beth, once per week.
Jay and Elle have been in an open marriage for the past eight years and they've been together with their current long-term partners for around three years.
No, they are not leading separate lives outside of marriage. Contrarily, they are so familiar with each other's partners that once every few months, everyone gets together—even with their partners' partners—for dinner or a game night. Elle, Ann and Beth also have a girls' day out or a mani-pedi session together once in a while.
This is part and parcel of the usual routine in their open marriage.
What constitutes an open marriage?
Researchers classify open relationships as part of consensual non-monogamy (CNM), an umbrella term for relationships in which all partners give explicit consent to engage in romantic, intimate and/or sexual relationships with multiple people.
These are consensual relationships and should not be confused with infidelity, according to American Psychological Association Division 44 Committee on Consensual Non-Monogamy. The Committee on CNM is an interdisciplinary task force made up of more than 80 researchers, mental and medical health professionals, legal scholars, educators and graduate students who come together to promote research, evidence-based practices and social justice for people engaged in diverse forms of intimate relationships.
According to the committee, CNM can take a variety of forms, including polyamory, open relationships and swinging relationships.
Studies conducted in the U.S. and Canada in 2017 with more than 10,000 participants found that about 1 in 5 people were in CNM relationships at some point in their lives, and 4 to 5 percent were in CNM relationships.
Why have an open marriage?
For Jay and Elle, who are currently in their 50s and have been married to each other since their early 20s, their first foray into relationships outside of their marriage stemmed from a conversation about swinging nine years into their monogamous marriage.
"Initially swinging was my idea, in early summer 1997," Jay said. "We were walking through the neighborhood and I asked Elle if she knew what swingers were. She didn't, and that started a discussion that resulted in our first adventure about a month or so later."
"We started out our marriage barely knowing each other, as a lot of young couples do," Elle said. "I believe we each were becoming bored and restless."
Similarly, Amanda and her husband Mike, who are in their late thirties and early forties respectively, were in a monogamous marriage for eight years before opening their marriage four years ago.
Both of them were curious about open marriages and didn't have many good dating experiences. Amanda explained that her husband was formerly married to an older woman who physically, emotionally and sexually abused him for 10 years.
"He never got to date or have that 'young single man' lifestyle," she said.
"I had experiences, albeit most were horrible because I was super morbidly obese my whole life," Amanda continued. "So...I initially offered a threesome. That conversation led to another conversation and another. I wanted him to have experiences and he wanted me to know what life was like, dating as a beautiful thin woman."
A more authentic relationship
According to Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN) research specialist Jessica Wood, who has published several papers from 2018 to 2021 on CNM during her Ph.D. and post-doctorate years at the University of Guelph and York University, reasons for couples opening their relationships include the possibilities of fulfilling certain needs. Those needs may be ones they're unable to get in their current monogamous relationship, or perhaps they're looking for sexual novelty, variety and excitement.
"Some people in our studies viewed CNM as a natural part of who they were and said they had always felt they needed to be in CNM relationships," Wood said. "Others highlighted that they adopted beliefs about CNM through reading about it and realizing CNM is in line with their beliefs and values and then decided to try it out."
Wood has interviewed approximately 1,000 individuals in CNM relationships, and in one study involving 540 people in CNM relationships, 26.5 percent of participants were married.
Most of the time, CNM is considered "more authentic," said co-chair of APA Div 44 Committee on CNM, Heath Schechinger. As a therapist whose area of expertise includes CNM, the majority of his private practice clients are either in an open relationship or are seeking support to open their relationship.
'Reasons for couples opening their relationships include the possibilities of fulfilling certain needs. Those needs may be ones they're unable to get in their current monogamous relationship, or perhaps they're looking for sexual novelty, variety and excitement.'
For some people, the sexual aspect is important, but, "For the overwhelming majority, opening a relationship is about being honest, meeting other like-minded people, improving their relationship and getting to know themselves better," he said.
Contrary to popular belief, in one of Wood's studies, couples in open relationships were found to be as satisfied as couples in monogamous relationships.
"Both CNM and monogamous people reported high levels of satisfaction with their primary partner," Wood said. "In another study, CNM participants reported high levels of relationship satisfaction and sexual need fulfillment with both partners."
While it's already not easy being in a monogamous marriage, navigating open marriages is naturally more difficult and it takes a lot of trust, care, communication and perseverance to succeed.
What success looks like
How would we define a successful open marriage? Wood finds that fulfilling, loving and respectful intimate and sexual relationships share key foundational concepts, regardless of relationship configuration.
"For example, good communication; building trust with one another; being able to discuss needs in a consensual, non-judgmental way; being able to depend on one another; [and] building up a good support system outside of your partner so that you have people to talk with and lean on and move through life with. Those foundations are key to relationships whether it is open or monogamous," Wood explained.
Experts and couples we spoke to offered some guidance for couples to build successful open marriages:
1. Be aware of the reasons you want to open your marriage.
You and your partner may have different motivations for creating an open marriage and it's important you are both aware of why each of you want this arrangement, as well as whether you and your partner hold the same beliefs.
You need to, "Recognize [your] reasons may differ from [your] partner's reasons," Wood said.
It may not ultimately matter if you go into this new relationship phase for different reasons but it's important to communicate and discuss those reasons with each other before commitments are made.
"Start discussing what you might want [your relationship] to look like...and keep the conversation non-judgmental!" Schechinger said.
Relational and sex therapist Carm De Santis—who is a lecturer in the Department of Sexuality, Marriage and Family Studies at St. Jerome's University and has published several research papers on CNM—emphasized the importance of being honest with yourself on the reasons why you would want to open your marriage.
"Once [you] are honest with [yourself], [you] can bring this forward to [your] partner," De Santis said. "If you have a good track record with your partner in bringing topics forward—where both of you have heard, respected, validated and formed a plan of action to address the issues—you are well on your way. You will be able to move forward and find common ground that works for all parties."
2. Always act in goodwill and care for your partner.
As a veteran of a successful open marriage, Jay emphasized the importance for both partners to "act in goodwill."
"We have read about and have known so many couples who get into it and immediately stop looking after their partner," Jay said. "A far too common situation is where one has eyes on someone and they attempt to reverse engineer the situation to get their spouse to agree to the concept of open marriage, but the fact is they already have someone specific lined up. That is dishonest. That's not making sure your spouse is protected and taken care of.
"How would you like it if your spouse set a trap for you like that?" Jay added. "That's right, you'd feel tricked. That's a horrible thing to do to your life partner. Taking care of our people and making sure they feel valued, loved, protected and cherished are all things that enable us to be confident enough to explore."
3. Discuss your expectations with each other.
What do both of you want to achieve in your open marriage with other partners as well as with each other?
In any relationship, unhappiness often arises from unmet expectations, so make sure you discuss your expectations with each other and continue to have these conversations regularly—especially as expectations change along the way.
"It is important to be curious and considerate of your partner's desires," Schechinger said. "Once you are ready to start experimenting, it's important to discuss what initial agreements you want to experiment with. Most people's agreements evolve with time so feel free to check-in and adjust your agreements as often as necessary."
4. Communicate regularly and listen often.
Like in any marriage, communication is key to maintaining a long-term relationship. For couples who intend to open their marriages, it's crucial to recognize that doing so could weaken the original relationship if the new dynamic is built on weak foundations.
"Play the long game and understand that non-monogamy amplifies what's already there, good and bad," Jay said. "If you're in a great relationship, this will uncover some weaknesses. If you are in a rocky relationship, this will stress those weaknesses and could break them.
"Most people who get into this seem to wash out after a single year or two and many of those end badly," Jay continued. "Very few couples get past year five. In order to survive and do this sustainably for the long term, you need to act in goodwill, protect your partners, be honorable, don't overstep boundaries and talk and listen."
5. Get sufficient social and emotional support.
"Couples in open marriages might often face social stigma in their communities," Schechinger said. "People are susceptible to being fired from their jobs and have their children run the risk of being impacted by societal stigma. Some of the more notable experiences include concerns related to disclosure, isolation from family and friends, and legislation surrounding parenting, housing, marriage and workplace rights."
They might also find it difficult to come out to their family and friends.
Jay shared that when they first came out to their children in 2017, while their son was accepting, their daughter was initially upset.
"She was quite angry for a full year," Jay said. "Finally, after many conversations with Elle, she worked through it. Since then, she has met a couple of other non-monogamous young adults in her social circles and was able to compare and contrast our situation with theirs. Now she is proud of us for taking charge of our lives to seek and find happiness.
"Also, don't feel obligated to come out. Some people may need to stay closeted and that's OK. Every situation is unique."
"Undoing what society has taught us about monogamy is challenging for some people," De Santis said. "For example, some of the types of questions clients ask have been, how can we believe our partner can 'love' us and stay committed to us if they are falling in love with other people? Are we not good enough sexual partners? What if our partner is having mind-blowing sex with other people? What does it say about the quality of our relationship if we desire other romantic relationships with other people? Are we replaceable when our partner finds more compatible people?"
Schechinger advises couples who are thinking of opening their marriages to read resources online about open marriages and create a support network.
"Having at least one or two other people makes it much easier to navigate stigma," Schechinger advised. "Also, don't feel obligated to come out. Some people may need to stay closeted and that's OK. Every situation is unique. Try not to compare yourself to others—be you, take your time and attune to your unique needs."
For anyone seeking information on open marriages, look for additional resources on the APA Div 44 Committee on CNM website.