MOST OF us grew up believing that a monogamous marriage was #relationshipgoals. But with Will Smith owning his open relationship and a throuple showing up on House Hunters, a growing number of people are wondering if strict exclusivity is human nature or if it’s yet another myth that society sneakily sells us.
Ethical nonmonogamy, or ENM—in which members of a couple consent to having additional sexual and/or romantic partners—is gaining popularity. More than a fifth of single American adults have engaged in ENM, according to a recent study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, and a 2017 study in The Journal of Sex Research found that Google searches for “polyamory” and “open relationships” rose steadily from January 2006 to December 2015. In a 2021 YouGov poll, about 25 percent of more than 23,000 Americans said they’re interested in an open relationship.
“The social stigma around alternative sexualities has been slowly but surely waning over the last decade, with more positive media representation than ever,” says Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., who teaches human sexuality at New York University and runs a course and event series about open relationships. Plus, ENM is getting simpler to pull off: “Dating apps make finding multiple partners easier than ever,” she adds. “Honesty and consent have become more important to us post-#MeToo. And the pandemic forced so many of us into a period of extreme monotony, which exposed the limitations of monogamy to many couples.”
There are tons of ways to practice nonmonogamy, from hitting up the occasional sex party to having multiple committed life partners. Those who’ve never tried this stuff sometimes assume these arrangements are doomed to fail, but that’s no truer for ENM relationships than it is for traditional ones, says Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and a member of the Men’s Health advisory panel: “What the research shows is that people in monogamous and consensually nonmonogamous relationships have similar levels of relationship satisfaction and commitment.”
Still, ENM requires self-reflection, communication, flexibility, and compassion— the same skills that go into any successful relationship, monogamous or not. Here’s how couples make ENM work—and how newbies can explore it, too.
Polyamory (and Throuples)
PEOPLE WHO are polyamorous have multiple loving, intimate relationships at the same time. Some have additional partners outside their primary relationship; others are in throuples, quads, or larger relational units, which are relationships involving three, four, or more people.
Charles, a 56-year-old queer man who works as a chef, and his wife, Brooke, a 35-year-old queer woman who makes a living as a bartender, have been polyamorous from the get-go. Most of their outside relationships involve more than just sex. They’ll each go on dates, and even weekend trips, with other people—sometimes all three of them together. They hope to find a permanent third partner to live with them. (FYI for those seeking three-person relationships: Lehmiller recommends checking out the app Feeld, which is geared toward unconventional arrangements like this.)
While some nonmonogamous partners get permission from each other before let one another explore new relationships as they wish. “For us, the whole purpose of nonmonogamy is individuality, autonomy, [and] expressing, giving, and receiving our own love and affection in different ways and with different people,” Charles says.
Sometimes they’ll get jealous, particularly when one of them spends a lot of time with another partner. If jealousy comes up, Lehmiller suggests asking yourself, “Why do you feel jealous? Is there anything that could be done to resolve those feelings? What is it that you need in order to feel safe and secure?” Then talk to your partner. There have been times when Charles stopped seeing people because they weren’t respectful toward Brooke—but generally, the two put aside their jealousy to prioritize each other’s happiness.
“We love seeing each other loved,” Charles says. “She just told me, ‘You deserve to have your dick sucked 24/7. If, for whatever reason, I’m unavailable, there should be someone there to handle that for you.’ And we both feel that way.” Marriage is a team sport, after all.
“OPEN RELATIONSHIP” is a broad term for couples who are down for seeing other people separately on the side but who tend to keep these relationships mostly sexual.
On a road trip in 2018, Nicole, a 39-year-old artist, told her husband, Brian, a 44-year-old pansexual man who works as head of community for a tech company, that she was asexual. (Asexual people have little to no desire for sexual activity.) Differences in sex drive had always been a struggle, so they looked at ENM as a possible solution. Brian pursues romantic and sexual relationships with other people, and Nicole goes on dates with others as well, though she looks for companionship. For the record, nonmonogamy is not the only solution for mismatched sex drives, Lehmiller says. There are other ways to boost your bedroom satisfaction, like sex therapy.
When friends, family, and coworkers heard about Brian and Nicole spending time with other people, they initially suspected infidelity. To avoid constantly having to explain themselves, Brian wrote a blog post about their ENM arrangement.
“One of the first places I ever ‘came out’ with this was at work, so that I didn’t have to constantly be cautious of what I said around others,” he says. “If people think you’re a cheater, that can have a direct effect on your career.”
“Radically open communication,” as Brian puts it, is essential for an open relationship to work. In order to maintain trust, Lehmiller explains, “it’s important to establish an agreement that specifies ground rules and boundaries, and to recognize that the rules may need to be renegotiated over time. It can be hard to determine all of the rules up front if you’re completely new to this.”
Brian and Nicole check in with each other and ask how their arrangement is working out for them. Whenever Brian becomes involved with someone new, he asks Nicole how much she wants to know. It’s also important to them that all additional partners know about their marriage, so that they understand what they’re getting into. Brian says, “The trust is built on the fact that there’s nothing to hide.”
SWINGERS ARE people in relationships who have sex with others, typically together with their partner.
When Maegan, a 38-year-old bisexual stay-at-home mom, and Jason, a straight 44-year-old carpenter and designer, first considered swinging, they realized they each had a “desire to see the other lost in pleasure with another person,” Maegan recalls. They began exploring situations such as having threesomes with other men, playing with another couple, and letting Maegan play with women on her own.
Soon after they started exploring, Jason was badly injured in an accident, and ENM became a way for Maegan to get her needs met when he wasn’t up for sex. He occasionally feels insecure about others giving her something he can’t, but he reminds himself how much he likes to see her enjoy hooking up with other people—an experience known as “compersion.”
“When your partner is happy with someone else but still keeps coming back to you, this can feel very validating,” Lehmiller says. “It can provide reassurance that you provide something no one else does. At the same time, it can also be a relief—it takes some of the pressure off to be anything and everything to one person.”
Maegan’s favorite part of the swinger lifestyle “is seeing the look on my husband’s face when I am in the throes of ecstasy with another person,” she says. “And then coming together afterward and never feeling closer or more in love. It’s the best thing. It’s the best thing ever.”
BEFORE YOU have a talk with your partner about ENM, it’s important to have one with yourself, Lehmiller says: Ask “what is it that you want and need, and what kinds of rules and boundaries are important to you.” Once you know the answers, ask your partner the same questions.
If everyone’s on board, take baby steps. Instead of jumping into an orgy, find a third person on a dating app, take them to dinner, and see how you get along. After each experience, discuss what’s working (and what isn’t). “Any form of [ENM] takes some practice to get it right,” Lehmiller says, “and a heck of a lot of communication for everyone involved.”