It seems like lately there’s been more talk then ever about open relationships. Open relationships, or relationships that are consensually non-monogamous, include a variety of relationship structures in which all members have agreed not to be monogamous. This can include committed relationships where one or both partners have casual or purely sexual relationships outside of the primary couple, and relationships where one or both partners have more involved relationships outside of the primary relationship. Other non-monogamous relationships don’t use the term “primary relationship” because of the hierarchy of importance it implies. Instead, they have a network of multiple relationships.
Regardless of the particular structure of a consensually non-monogamous relationship, one might wonder if an open relationship can really work. This is a valid question, given our society’s focus on monogamy. From government benefits to the wedding industry to movies and television, the relationship structure that is emphasized is that of one couple (typically a heterosexual one, although this is changing), with no other romantic or sexual relationships outside of the couple. When we do hear about non-monogamy, it is often about the devastating effects of infidelity. Within this context, it makes sense that one might wonder if non-monogamous relationships can be successful.
In fact, consensually non-monogamous relationships may compare in satisfaction to monogamous relationships. Although more research is needed, one study found no difference in relationship satisfaction amongst non-monogamous gay couples compared to monogamous couples. In another study with consensually non-monogamous couples, participants noted numerous benefits to their open relationships, including an expanded support network and relationships to meet multiple needs.
Certainly there is the possibility that a consensually non-monogamous relationship will go poorly. There may be jealousy, strains on finances and time, or conflict and miscommunication. Of course, the same can be said of monogamous relationships. And many people believe they are in a monogamous relationship, but in fact they are not. As a relationship therapist, I have seen happy non-monogamous relationships and unhappy monogamous ones, and vice versa. Regardless of whether one’s relationship is monogamous or consensually non-monogamous, relationship satisfaction seems to come down to the strength of the connection between partners and the ability to communicate about difficult topics.