Can an open relationship work? New research says yes, if it includes the right mixture of openness, respect, and communication.
An open relationship is one that allows for sexual exploration outside of the traditional couple dynamic and can occur in a variety of ways, from inviting a third person into the mix to selectively opening up different windows or scenarios that allow for new partners to join, while maintaining the primary bond between the two original partners.
While previous research has largely explored whether such relationships will be successful, researchers at the University of Rochester set out to determine what about these dynamics contribute to success. They found that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, there are certain conditions that will improve the success of non-monogamous relationships. They dubbed these characteristics the “Triple-C Model” of mutual consent, communication, and comfort. Essentially, couples that were open about their behaviors, equally communicated their intention, and felt comfortable in their relationships were more likely to be successful in their extra-monogamous affairs.
"We know that communication is helpful to all couples. However, it is critical for couples in non-monogamous relationships as they navigate the extra challenges of maintaining a nontraditional relationship in a monogamy-dominated culture,” said study author Ronald Rogge in a statement.
“Secrecy surrounding sexual activity with others can all too easily become toxic and lead to feelings of neglect, insecurity, rejection, jealousy, and betrayal, even in non-monogamous relationships."
To come to their conclusions, the researchers analyzed online questionnaire answers from more than 1,600 respondents, a majority of whom were in their 20s and 30s, white, female, and in a long-term relationship averaging 4.5 years. These respondents were divided into five groups, monogamous groups either in the early or late stages of their relationship, those that were in partially open relationships, couples that were equally interested in consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) characterized as swingers or polyamorous, and one-sided relationships where one partner desired monogamy while the other engaged in agreed-upon sex outside of the relationship.
“The monogamous and CNM groups demonstrated high levels of relationship and individual functioning, whereas the partially-open and one-sided non-monogamous groups demonstrated lower functioning,” wrote the authors in The Journal of Sex Research.
Both monogamous groups largely had healthy relationships as well as the lowest levels of loneliness, psychological distress, and were less likely to seek sensation outside of their relationship, suggesting that monogamous couples are more likely to have "fairly restrained and mainstream” attitudes toward casual sex. CNM groups had similarly successful relationships and had the highest number of cohabitators.
Those in partially open or one-sided relationships tended to be less dedicated and affectionate, and were largely dissatisfied with their romantic partner. These respondents also had the highest levels of discomfort and emotional attachment, distress, and loneliness.
"Sexual activity with someone else besides the primary partner, without mutual consent, comfort, or communication can easily be understood as a form of betrayal or cheating," said study author Forrest Hangen. "And that, understandably, can seriously undermine or jeopardize the relationship."
The study does come with notable limitations, including its focus on just cross-sectional data rather than tracking relationships in the long-term. The study authors are also quick to note that their survey was exploratory in nature and only collected data from one partner in each relationship.