Each week, The CSPH answers questions that have been submitted anonymously through our Formspring or other channels. This week’s question is:
In your professional opinion, are open relationships healthy? Under what circumstances would they not be?
Open relationships are just one type of intimate relationship people can have; whether monogamous, polyamorous, open, or anything in between, a wide variety of factors can influence the health of a relationship. There is no inherently healthy relationship structure. Respect, communication, trust, honesty, fairness (which is not the same as equality), support, and keeping individual identities while in a relationship are all essential. Though one shouldn’t enter a new relationship with the intent of filling a void or making oneself “complete”, part of a healthy relationship is ensuring that all parties’ needs (be aware: needs are different from wants) are being met. This can include emotional support and connection, intellectual stimulation, shared interests, sexual desires, and much more. No matter how many parties are involved or what label is applied, a relationship that fulfills these needs and takes the essentials mentioned here into account is more likely to be considered healthy.
What can make an open relationship unhealthy applies to any type of relationship: lack of trust, honesty, or respect; feeling unequal or unsupported; tying too much self-worth or identity to one’s partner; not communicating regularly; or being dishonest or misleading one’s partner are just some examples. These can all negatively affect a relationship, sometimes beyond repair. One key difference is that an unhealthy open relationship can affect multiple people—all partners involved—so the ramifications of unhealthy behavior can spread farther than in a monogamous relationship. Though every relationship may slip into unhealthy territory at one point or another, by addressing needs and maintaining the essentials, this can be a temporary state to learn and grow from, instead of an ultimatum.
Everyone’s needs are different, and correspondingly, everyone’s relationships are different. Being in an intimate relationship involves a mutual agreement of what the rules or boundaries are, and how they will be observed. Boundaries establish what each partner is comfortable with and help to encourage reasonable behavior to maintain comfort and happiness; however, being too controlling or manipulative can be a sign of an abusive relationship, so keep those warning signs in mind. With monogamy, societal expectations have established basic rules when it comes to sexual activity outside of a relationship. In fact, some monogamous couples rarely if ever discuss those boundaries (though they should, for the sake of clarity), but they may set other rules specific to their relationship, e.g. smoking is not tolerated, one Girl/Guy’s night out a week, etc.
With an open relationship, there are more boundaries to discuss as partners start to differentiate between implied vs. understood boundaries for sex and affection. Are new partners limited to strangers? Friends? What sexual acts are ok or not ok? Where will new encounters take place? There is a lot to consider to ensure everyone’s comfort. Additionally, there may be more emotionally charged moments (e.g. dealing with jealousy, anger, or matters of self-esteem on a regular basis) so boundaries may also be set on how each person approaches or deals with these moments. However, once these rules are set and agreed upon by everyone involved, they hold the same weight—and potential consequences for breaking them—as any other rules in the relationship. Breaking these rules can be a sign of an unhealthy relationship, though it may also mean the rules need to be reexamined or modified. All relationships need ongoing care to make sure everyone is content and, as time passes and people change, that the rules still apply.
Let’s look at one example of a monogamous couple; keep in mind that this is simply an example and does not dictate the benchmark for any type of relationship, gender, or orientation. This couple is bonded emotionally but one partner has little interest in sex and the other identifies as asexual, so they very rarely engage in sexual activities, if at all. They get along very well, have separate identities, support each other, and communicate regularly. All their needs are being met. Both partners are mutually satisfied with their relationship, and based on that, it could be considered healthy. Though others may consider a higher level of regular sexual activity/interest to be a requirement for their own relationship, this arrangement meets this couple’s needs and works perfectly for them.
Using this same example couple, let’s make a change to the scenario: one partner still identifies as asexual while the other has become more interested in sex and is now unsatisfied with the level of sexual activity in their relationship. Their individual sexual needs are not being met, but every other aspect of the relationship is ideal. By communicating their thoughts with their partner, they discuss a variety of options and come to a mutual decision to try an open relationship. As this is unfamiliar territory, they do some research using trusted sources like OpeningUp.net—a site with wonderful resources like checklists and self evaluations to encourage discussion—and Practical Polyamory, as well as books like Opening Up, The Ethical Slut, Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage, and Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits (all available to borrow from The CSPH). By continuing to focus on the essentials of what makes any relationship healthy (communication, trust, honesty, etc.), they are able to transition to a type of open relationship that works for both of them. The asexual partner remains monogamous while the other partner pursues new sexual partners within the guidelines they set for their relationship, all while maintaining their emotional ties. (Again, this is one example and is not indicative of all open relationships.) Some studies even assert that people in open relationships may find sex more pleasurable and engage in it more frequently than the average monogamous couple.
Here’s a quick scenario for this example couple that shows a shift to an unhealthy relationship: though both of their sexual needs are being met (through monogamy in the first example and an open relationship in the second), one partner could become wrapped up in their work life, become distant, and stop supporting the other emotionally. The type of relationship they have is not related to the partners’ shift away from healthy communication and support. It becomes unhealthy because there is a disregard for one partner’s needs, shifting the balance away from respect and fairness. If the distant partner realizes how their behavior is affecting the relationship, either by themselves or if the other partner brings it up by communicating openly and honestly with them, the relationship can move back into a healthy space.
Being self-aware enough to know what boundaries need to be in place, what’s flexible, and what the consequences are is a great start for any relationship. Planned Parenthood’s “Is Your Relationship Good For You?” can help establish whether a current relationship is healthy or not. Keep in mind that not all open relationships are created equal, and depending on someone’s personal belief and values, it may be the wrong fit entirely. However, every relationship—no matter the number of participants—can make use of behaviors advocated by the polyamory community, such as a focus on self awareness, honesty with oneself and others, safe sex, communication, open-mindedness, compassion, and trust, all in the name of strengthening not only the relationship, but also the individuals involved.