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Open Relationship

By Jayne Renault

An open relationship is an arrangement within a two person intimate partnership which allows one or both partners to engage sexually with others outside the otherwise exclusive boundaries of their relationship. 

Open relationships fall under the umbrella of ethical non-monogamy, which refers to any relationship model or philosophy that allows for forming relationships or pursuing intimate relations with more than one person, often simultaneously.

Open Relationships and Hierarchical Non-Monogamy

The notion of a relationship being “opened” implies a main relationship prioritized over any others who may enter it. When a main or primary relationship is present where non-monogamy is concerned, it is considered to have a hierarchical structure. This means that the primary relationship takes precedence over any other affair or relationship that may be pursued. 

One’s primary partner receives the most attention and likely has more influence over important life and home decisions. These partners may live together, be legally married, and/or have and raise children together.

Sexual Implications of Open Relationships

The intimate encounters one pursues under the terms of their open relationship arrangement could be loving, affectionate, romantic, and/or sexual in nature. However most often, this approach to non-monogamy tends towards the pursuit of sexual encounters outside the primary relationships. 

The open relationship model gives permission to one or both partners to pursue sexual encounters outside the relationship if and when they arise. This model can also include or be exclusive to the inviting a third person into the primary relationship’s dynamic for sexual threesomes or other casual group sex activities. 

Compared to polyamory which often involves multiple committed relationships, open relationships typically lend themselves to more cursory or casual sexual affairs. The romantic needs are met by the primary relationship while sexual newness, exploration, and experimentation are permitted with other people.

Regardless of the subjective terms of a given couple’s arrangement, open relationships tend to assume that the primary relationship takes precedence over any other romantic or sexual pursuit, indicating a hierarchy of importance.

Open Relationships and Cheating

Relationship infidelity, or cheating, is the breach of boundaries and terms of a given relationship. Cheating can happen in any relationship structure. However, open relationships are not synonymous with cheating. Healthy open relationships stress that all partners involved be informed of and consenting to the arrangement. It is only cheating if it goes against the terms laid out by the involved parties.

Like any form of non-monogamy, a healthy open relationship emphasizes communication practices, negotiation of terms prior to opening the relationship, and regular check-ins to assure the wellbeing of everyone involved is being respected and to manage any concerns or jealousy that may arise.

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