Can an Open Relationship Really Work?

When it comes to love, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. From strictly monogamous to verging on polyamory—there are all sorts of relationships out there. And one type of relationship getting a lot of buzz lately is an open one, but what does that exactly entail?

By Adarsh Soni
06 Nov 2021

Francis and Divyangana* got together the old-fashioned way: a mutual friend introduced them at a college party and they have been inseparable since. “We both had a very raw and immediate reaction to our first meeting. I don’t like the phrase ‘love at first sight’, but that’s what it was,” says Francis, 29, a graphic designer based in Mumbai. Apart from being in an inter-religious relationship, everything seemed to be sailing on placid seas. They would catch up every day during their lunch hour, spend weekends with each other, and even take long vacations together—things were going great. Well, at least for a while.

But after fourteen months of blissful togetherness—like every other relationship—they seemed to have fallen into a rut where comfort had seemingly replaced romance. “We were spending all this time together but it didn’t really compare to the initial few months. There was no excitement, no passion. I remember thinking to myself—If we’ve gotten bored in just a little over a year, how are we supposed to sustain this relationship?” says Divyangana, 27. The answer to their problems didn’t come prepackaged in the form of a love potion. It was a mutual agreement that they discussed for weeks on end—and finally reached common ground. The young couple had decided to open their relationship. And it made sense because both of them had jobs that demanded a great deal of travel and the idea of occasionally spending time with other people seemed to excite both of them. “It wasn’t necessarily a quick-fix for our relationship problems, but something that felt natural to the both of us,” says Divyangana. “I don’t know about other couples, but we’ve definitely gotten closer after opening our relationship. There’s more room for excitement and our love for each other has only grown stronger,” she adds.

What is an open relationship?

An open relationship is one where both parties aren’t exclusively dating each other. In other words, both people are openly allowed to have other sexual and/or romantic partners. But don’t let the textbook definition fool you into believing that it’s that simple. “Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term that includes a wide variety of relationship dynamics including polygamy, swinging, open relationships, polyamory, and the latest—monogamish,” says Dr Seema Hingorani, a Mumbai based clinical psychologist with almost two decades of experience in psychotherapy. “The specific agreements of open relationships can vary significantly as the only concrete rule here is that the couples get to make their own rules,” she adds. But what do these rules look like in flesh and blood?
“We have a very practical set of regulations that define this whole thing. We’re allowed to get physically intimate with other people but only when we’re in different cities,” says Francis. “Another important rule to keep in mind is that we never let things steer towards the romantic direction—that’s something we’ve strictly reserved for each other,” Divyangana adds.

This is just one example of what an open relationship looks like in real life. With more and more couples tapping into their experimental side, mutual agreements like these are bound to happen, and their set of rules might look completely different. But one thing that’s constant is the curiosity of exploring unfamiliar grounds.

How do people in open relationships manage jealousy?

The very first thing that people tend to ask non-monogamists is if they ever feel jealous. Many people are curious about open relationships but seem content with monogamy as the benefits of exploring an open relationship may not be worth the anticipated costs, something that primarily includes feelings of insecurity and jealousy. On the contrary, research suggests that monogamists are far more jealous than their non-monogamous counterparts. A study by Dr Alicia N Rubel, Department of Psychology, Brock University, USA, states that jealousy levels tend to be significantly higher in monogamous relationships. This is because open relationships thrive due to a sense of honesty and openness that is usually missing in traditional monogamous relationships. In simpler terms, monogamists are more likely to hide certain things, further fuelling feelings of jealousy.

“People who are a part of successful open relationships manage jealousy in a variety of ways and often tailor their relationships according to the issues that trigger them,” says Dr Hingorani. “It’s important to set up clear rules, engage in honest communication, and approach jealousy without judgment,” she adds.

What are some common myths related to open relationships?

With a subject as concealed and controversial as this, certain myths are bound to pop up from time to time. Let’s have a look at some major ones.

  • Myth: Open relationships don’t last long

    Fact: According to research by Dr Terri D Conley, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, USA, successful open relationships have equitable levels of commitment, longevity, satisfaction, passion, greater levels of trust, and lower levels of jealousy compared to monogamous relationships.

  • Myth: Open relationships can cause psychological harm

    Fact: Research by Dr Alicia N Rubel, Department of Psychology, Brock University, USA, suggests that psychological well-being is independent of relationship structure. Consensual non-monogamists have similar psychological well-being and relationship quality as monogamists.

  • Myth: People in open relationships are more likely to contract STDs and STIs

    Fact: According to research by Dr Terri D Conley, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, USA, people in honest open relationships are more likely to use safer sex practices. They’re also more likely to be tested for STIs and are more likely to discuss their STI-testing history with their partners. On the other hand, monogamous couples that delve in infidelity demonstrated significantly lower rates of protective sexual health behaviours.

  • Myth: Humans are naturally monogamous

    Fact: Ever since the dawn of time, practices like polygamy and polyamory have been commonplace in almost every human society. In fact, research suggests that modern humans are more likely to be monogamous than their ancestors. Which busts the myth that the concept of open relationships is something contemporary. Research by Dr Ryan Schacht, Department of Anthropology, East Carolina University, USA, states that, across human societies, monogamous, polyandrous and polygynous bonding patterns are present with most societies exhibiting multiple types of marriages and mating relationships. There’s no fact-based evidence to prove that monogamy is a part of our biology any more than non-monogamy.

*Names changed on request


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