What it feels like... to be in an open relationship

Curious about hooking up with others while maintaining your current romantic relationship? Say no more.

A woman lying in the grass considering beingi in an open relationship
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dating can feel like a minefield at the best of times. Dating sites which are supposed to make it easier can, if anything, make things more complex. You might wonder why anyone would want to make it even more complicated by adding extra people into the mix - but among twenty- and thirty-somethings, the practice of polyamory, also known as an open relationship or ethical non-monogamy, is becoming increasingly popular.

At face value, you can see why. Being able to have a loving and committed relationship with someone while still enjoying the flirting and the nervous butterflies that come from a new relationship sounds like the best of both worlds, right? 

Well, the reality is a little more complicated than that - as one woman who was in an open relationship for four years explains. Here, she shares what navigating an open relationship is really like, plus details the most important lessons she learnt while being in one. Read what it feels like to have premature female ejaculation, to sleep with your best friend, and to have your first threesome, while you're here. 

What being in an open relationship is really like

What is an open relationship?

An open relationship simply means maintaining your current relationship while dating and having sexual relations with other people.

Professor of psychology David Barash from the University of Washington shares that the exact definition of an open relationship differs from person-to-person, relationship-to-relationship. "There are a wide variety of open-relationship models out there which can vary drastically from one couple to another," he shares.

"Having an open relationship can work really well for some people but not for others - as people, we're also inclined to be sexually jealous of a partner being with someone else. From a biological standpoint, we're resistant to that partner having another relationship," he continues.

"I was in an open relationship for four years - for a while, I loved it."

Laurie* found navigating an open relationship challenging - and share's it's not all fun and games.

"I was in an open relationship for four years before meeting my current partner and deciding to be monogamous. For a while, I loved it. My relationship became longer term and more domestic while I got to date and even sleep with other guys."

"In some ways, it was brilliant. I was at university in the States and my boyfriend was back in London, which, if we'd been monogamous, might have been difficult. While most relationships that pre-date university don't survive it, ours worked pretty well, on the basis that I could go out and have fun with my friends without feeling guilty if the dancing got a bit raunchy or I indulged a drunken kiss."

"The open nature of the relationship lent itself to us giving each other space and being allowed to get on with our lives."

"When you're non-monogamous, the first thing people ask you is always about jealousy, and I get it. When you're used to the idea that the person you're dating is only supposed to have eyes for you, it's hard to understand that you could be okay with it."

"The reality is that yes, of course you get jealous. Being open doesn't mean you've had the envy chip removed. It just means that you've decided jealousy, anger and sadness are all part of a normal emotional range. After all, people in monogamous relationships get jealous too. It's not about feeling it or not feeling it, it's about how you process it. In an open relationship, you're encouraged to communicate with your partner about your jealousy and discuss what's causing it. When it works, the process can leave you feeling closer than ever."

Why I ended up ditching polyamory for monogamy?

"Everyone has their wants and needs, and when the relationship is bigger those wants and needs increase. That can mean that sometimes you don't get your needs met."

"Then there's the issue of priority. Who are you supposed to put first? My ex was married, so it was pretty clear cut. His wife was equally committed to an open relationship (and had a boyfriend of her own) but she came first, because they'd committed their lives to each other."

"The pay-off for having my own life and university and being able to sleep with whoever I wanted, was that I couldn't demand my boyfriend's time or attention. It had to be scheduled in, and unless it was an emergency, I had to fit in around everyone else."

"For some people, particularly people who have multiple partners or a demanding career, the part time nature of open dating can be advantageous, but if you're someone who - like me - values constant communication and contact, it's really hard. So when it came to settling down with my other half, we felt that we would rather focus exclusively on each other."

Why do some open relationships work while others don't?

Of course, open relationships are just like any other relationship: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

"I'm pretty sure that it's actually more about the people involved than the structure of the relationship itself. Whether you think non monogamy is a great idea, or your worst nightmare, the fact that different relationship type and structures are becoming socially acceptable has got to be a good thing - it means you've got the option when you're first seeing someone to discuss how you'd like things to work, rather than sleepwalking into a certain type of relationship."

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Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and is a stickler for a strong stat, too, seeing over nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.