Q&A: Open Relationships – Are They Dysfunctional?
Posted July 13, 2009
QUESTION: My husband and I have been together for almost 7 years, and for most of that time we've had an "open" relationship. We are extremely happy together, but I can't imagine only having sex with one person for the rest of my life. It doesn't feel wrong to us, but I realize that our behavior is "deviant" by societal standards. Are we dysfunctional?
People work out their relationships in numerous ways. In American culture, serial monogamy is one of the more commonly practiced relationship structure among couples – especially those that identify as heterosexual.
The term “serial monogamy” refers to the practice of having more than one relationship in one’s lifetime, but having each of the relationships be monogamous.
You may know someone who fits into this mold if you perhaps have a friend who had a monogamous relationship when she was in her early twenties and after it ended she may have dated other people for a few months or a few years until she found someone else to be in a monogamous relationship, and so on.
Not One “Right” Way
Although this is a common structure for many couples, it is by no means the only way to have a satisfying, enjoyable, or meaningful relationship. Some couples – like you and your husband – prefer to be in an open relationship and there is no reason to believe that the desire to be in an open relationship is related to anything psychologically wrong or damaging.
There is nothing necessarily “wrong” with people for wanting to be in an open relationship just as there is nothing necessarily “wrong” with people for wanting to be in a monogamous relationship. They are simply different relationship preferences, each with their own challenges and advantages.
As you likely know, there are many different ways to have open relationships just as there are different ways to have monogamous relationships. In some open relationships, only one partner has sex with other people. In other open relationships, both partners may have sex with people besides their primary partner.
Some couples are very specific about what types of sex acts can occur with other people and, for some, only sex in which they both participate with others (such as threesomes or group sex) are permitted.
Less Social Support
Because open relationships are less commonly talked about in mainstream American culture, there is less social support for them. Some researchers believe that this lower level of social support can make open relationships challenging to sustain.
This doesn’t mean that open relationships can’t make it over the long term, but it does mean that it can be helpful to identify friends or family who will support you and the choices you make that help you to feel whole, healthy, happy and satisfied.
In recent years, more books have been written about open relationships and the unique challenges that come with these relationships as well as the relationship and communication skills that can be helpful in helping them to thrive. For additional perspectives and insights, you might find it helpful to read The Ethical Slut or Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.