Monogomy has long been the most popular way to conduct a sexual relationship in our culture, yet some anthropologists think that polygamy has actually been the norm though human history. This may explain why as a society, we often aspire to be monogamous, putting fidelity on a pedestal, but then aren’t always that good at it in practice.
You only need to look at statistics on the number of people who say they have cheated on a partner to see this. In Relate’s The Way We Are Now 2015 study with Marriage Care and Relationships Scotland, this came out at 24 per cent, while some other studies have found the figure to be higher.
For some couples, giving their partner permission to act out their sexual desires with other people feels like a more honest and realistic option. Many couples also report that open relationships bring them closer together. This is backed up by a 2014 study published in the 'Sexual and Relationship Therapy' journal which concluded that older adults in open relationships reported being happier, healthier, and more sexually active than the general population of similar age and relationship status.
At Relate, due to the nature of our work, we tend to hear about open relationships when they go wrong, but there are quite clearly many people living in healthy, happy and successful ones. Could you and your partner be one of these couples? It’s certainly not for everyone and if you are tempted to carry it through, it’s a good idea to consider and discuss at length exactly what it might mean for both of you.
Consider your ideal relationship
As a starting point, it’s worth considering what an ideal open relationship might look like for you and your partner. Having an open relationship usually means that each partner is free to engage with other people sexually and emotionally but it’s really an umbrella term and non-monogomy can come in many different forms. Maybe you don’t want to actively seek thrilling diversions elsewhere but would like an agreement that if either of you wanted to, you could embark on the odd liaison free of guilt and worry. This might come under the label of ‘monogomish’, which has been coined by the US love and sex advice columnist, Dan Savage.
For some people, an open relationship is a liberating prospect and experience which makes certain that the hum drum of everyday life with the same person never has the chance to take hold. But according to a YouGov survey, 72 per cent of people would never consider it. Maybe your partner is also in the 13 per cent of people who would consider it, but what if you’ve got it wrong?
The emotional fallout
Unfortunately, once a partner has suggested the possibility of getting it together with others, even if nothing takes off, the other person may be left with the sinking feeling that they aren’t enough for them. For some people who do end up entering into an open relationship, even though there’s an understanding between partners that the primary relationship still stands, the hurt that’s experienced when your other half actually carries the fantasy through is overwhelming.
The reason is that we still tend to seek a one to oneness with someone who is special to us. Someone who we can rely on for comfort, intimacy and for the most part, exclusivity. Of course on occasions, exclusivity slips into ‘ownership’, with one partner actively discouraging their partner from making friends and having a healthy sense of being in a partnership, but also having their own individual identity. These actions domestic abuse and usually require professional support for each partner to recognise that what is happening isn’t OK.
You could argue of course that having an open relationship agreement is the antithesis of "rights to exclusivity" problems. Everyone is free to come and go, no hearts broken and certainly no guilt. Everyone is on the same page. But unless both of you share very similar thinking, the bottom line is that open relationships do sometimes cause a great deal of pain and misery.
The importance of boundaries
Why are some couples able to make open relationships work? The answer is that boundaries have been clearly defined, the couple know exactly where the other is coming from and there’s no sense of being deserted simply for not being "enough" for each other.
Whether it's casual sex or more intimate relationships, neither feels abandoned. Of course you’d have to hope that anyone entering this arrangement for sex or emotional intimacy, or both, also shares exactly the same agenda as the couple and intends to return to their life once it’s over.
And here also lies the main problem which can arise with open relationships. Even with the best will in the world, with all participants on the same page to begin with, people change. A familiar story for relationship therapists is where one partner has now fallen in love with the person they’ve been seeing. It wasn’t what was intended but it’s happened and their other half is devastated that the previously agreed rules have been broken. Suddenly, all the feelings that have been put to one side make a powerful appearance and accusations of having an affair are rife. While this might come as a relief in some respects because the pressure is off, the emotional damage can be enormous.
Love and sex news: in pictures
Love and sex news: in pictures
1/20 Male contraceptive gel that 'blocks sperm' could be available in less than two years
A new injectable contraceptive for men could be on the market as soon as 2018, US researchers hope. Currently, men are limited to options including condoms and a vasectomy if they want to protect their partner from pregnancy. Scientists have said that the new method will be long-lasting and reversible, without the need for men to take hormones to supress fertility. Vasagel works by blocking the duct from which sperm leaves the testes and enters the urethra: the canal where semen and urine leave the penis. The contraceptive is administered by an injection into the vas deferens
2/20 Heartbreak can actually change the rhythm of your heart
Losing a loved one really can break your heart, research suggests, although not for ever. People who lose a partner are at an increased risk of developing an irregular heartbeat for the next 12 months, scientists found. The risk seems to be greatest among the under 60s and when the loss of the partner was least expected
3/20 'Weird' sexual fetishes are actually very normal
A number of sexual fetishes considered anomalous in psychiatry are actually common in the general population, a study has found. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), sexual interests fall into two categories: normal (normophilic) and anomalous (paraphilic). Researchers asked 1,040 Quebec residents, representative of the general population, about their experiences of sexual behaviour considered abnormal by the DSM-5. The study, published in The Journal of Sex Research, found that of the eight types of anomalous behaviour listed in the DSM-5, four were found to be neither rare or unusual among the experiences and desires reported by men and women
4/20 Gym 'used as a hook-up spot'
People who hope to find love and get fit in the New Year may find it surprisingly easy to tick off both goals, as a new survey has revealed that half of adults use the gym as a hook-up venue, while a quarter admit to having sex there. Apparently not put off by the surroundings, a new survey of how Britons behave in the gym has found that 25 per cent claimed to have had sex there at least once in the past 12 months
5/20 Erectile dysfunction 'linked to risk of early death'
Men who suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED) are 70 per cent more likely to die early, a new study has found. US scientists believe that the disorder may be linked to poor cardiovascular health, and suggested that men with ED should be screened for health issues that could cut their lives short
6/20 39 per cent of workers have sex at Christmas parties
The festive season may be a time for good will and sharing – but it’s also apparently the perfect excuse to hook-up with the cute person from accounts, according to a survey which has revealed that 39 per cent of people have had sex at their work Christmas party. Even more people admitted that the annual knees-up offered the chance to kiss a co-worker, with over locking lips at the event. A survey of 2,000 UK adults by high-street lingerie retailer Ann Summers revealed that IT and HR are the professions most likely to snog or have sex with a colleague or get incredibly drunk at the Christmas party, at 63 per cent and 56 per cent respectively.This was compared with 27 per cent of those in education and 29 per cent in health
7/20 Durex calls for a condom emoji
Emojis have come a long way in recent years - since they were first integrated into Unicode in 2010, we've gained emojis of all different ethnicities, emojis for every flag in the world, and even the middle finger emoji. However, we're still missing a condom emoji. Durex wants to change that. It's easy to suggest sex with emojis (think aubergine, peach, the 'OK' sign), but there's nothing that shows safe sex. So, to coincide with World AIDS Day on 1 December, Durex is encouraging its customers to call upon the Unicode Consortium, who oversee the introduction of new emoji, to give the world a condom emoji in their next update
8/20 Spliting the housework equally is the secret to a better sex life
Better communication, getting more exercise, oysters, more date nights, time away from the kids – these are just a few common theories for how couples can improve their sex life. But now, a new study has offered up a different one, suggesting that the key to being more satisfied between the sheets could in part be down to taking it in turns to wash them. According to the study from the University of Alberta, couples enjoyed more frequent and satisfying sex for both partners when the housework is split equally across men and women
9/20 Arguing with a partner is beneficial
Arguing in a relationship is not often seen as having a positive impact on both partners. But a new study from US psychologists suggests that if each party feels understood, falling out does not have a detrimental impact on their satisfaction in the relationship. Researchers at the University of California said feeling understood appeared to improve a relationship on its own, regardless of any practical consequence of that understanding. And when people felt their partners understood them, the conflict was not only not harmful but actually good for the relationship
10/20 Ireland gay marriage
Same-sex couples in the Republic of Ireland can officially get married after the country voted overwhelmingly for the change in a referendum in May. Legislation legalising gay civil marriage, passed following the vote, came into effect on 16 November 2015. The first couples to be affected will be gay couples who married legally abroad – whose unions will now automatically be recognised by the Irish state. But the race is now on to see who which couple will become the first gay newlyweds to legally marry in Eire itself
11/20 'Female Viagra' approved
A drug dubbed the ‘female Viagra’ has finally been approved by the US Food and Drug administration but concerns have been raised over the drug’s possible side effects. Flibanserin, produced by Sprout Pharmaceuticals, was approved by the FDA on the third application in five years – after twice failing over concerns regarding possible side-effects.
12/20 Grindr users surveyed on sexual preferences
Grindr users are not that gay, at least according to a new survey. More than 300 users on the gay dating app, contacted by Pink News as part of an informal study, did not identifying as exclusively attracted to men. The study used the Kinsey scale, based on the work of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, which ranges from 0 (exclusively straight) to 6 (exclusively gay) and also allows identification as asexual (X). Pink News found that the average answer was around five, with the most frequent answer being five, followed by six and then four when they contacted users from their office in central London.
13/20 Watching porn does not cause negative attitudes to women
The average porn user may have more egalitarian views towards women than non-users, a contentious new study has suggested. Researchers at Western University in Canada have even argued that many pornography fans might be “useful allies” in women’s struggles for equality in the workplace and in public office. They reported in the Journal of Sex Research that the 23 per cent of people who said they had watched an “X-rated” film during the previous year were no more or less likely to identify as feminists than those who did not watch porn.
14/20 The characteristics of men who pay for sex
Men who pay for sex share similar traits to rapists and sex offenders, according to new research. A study from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), claims that men who have sex with female sex workers feel less empathy for them than men who do not buy sex. Part of this reason is due to the fact that they view them as "intrinsically different from other women,” according to the authors.
15/20 How much sex we have (and how much we'd like)
As a nation, we don’t have as much sex as we would like, a survey has (somewhat unsurprisingly) confirmed. In a poll of 1523 people by YouGov, 64 per cent of Britons said they would wish to have sex at least a few times a month. The same sample said that only 38 per cent had sex at least a few times a month. In addition, 10 per cent said they wished to have sex every day, a goal which only 1 per cent admitted reaching.
16/20 One per cent of Britons 'have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all'
An estimated 1% of Britons have almost no interest in sexual activity, according to researchers. The identity, which describes rarely or never experiencing sexual attraction, has moved from a diagnosis of mental disorder in the past to a sexual orientation in its own right today. As public interest in “asexuality” grows, researchers at Glasgow University have found that romance and intimacy is still very much on the cards for those who take the label.
17/20 Women really are more attracted to men who make them laugh
Researchers at an American university have claimed that humour is a key factor in human “sexual selection”, with women appearing to be more attracted to men who make them laugh. Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas, found that when two strangers meet, the more times a man tries to be funny and a woman laughs, the more likely she is to be interested in dating. The reverse was not true for women who attempted humour, according to his study “Sexual Selection and Humour in Courtship: A Case for Warmth and Extroversion,” which has been published in the Evolutionary Psychology journal.
18/20 What makes a perfect penis?
Scientists have now answered one of these great unknowns. According to a new study, “general cosmetic appearance” is the most important penile aspect when it comes to what women value down there. This is swiftly followed by the appearance of pubic hair, penile skin, and girth. Length comes in at number six, with the look of the scrotum trailing closely behind. The least important facet of the phallus, say the scientists, is the “position and shape of meatus”, the vertical slit at the opening of the urethra.
19/20 Students who marry after studying the same subject
Picking a university subject is already difficult enough for young people. But here’s an extra piece of data to weigh on your decision: you may be picking a life partner as well. Dan Kopf of the blog, Priceonomics, analysed US Census data and found that the percentage of Americans who marry someone within their own major is actually fairly high. About half of Americans are married, according to the 2012 American Community Survey (part of the Census). And about 28 per cent of married couples over the age of 22 both graduated from college. (The survey didn’t recognise same-sex marriages for the 2012 data, but it will for 2013 onwards, says Kopf)
20/20 Half of divorcees had doubts on their wedding day
Over half of divorcees considered abandoning their husband or wife-to-be at the altar on their wedding day, a new study has revealed. On top of likely worrying about wedding favours and making sure guests behave on their big day, 49 per cent of divorcees admitted they were unsure before the ceremony that their marriage would last. Some 15 per cent of divorcees polled said they were so wracked with doubt that they felt physically sick in the run up to their wedding.
A risk worth taking?
So, if you’re tempted with an open relationship there are some key points to remember. Make sure you and your partner actually mean the same thing. If you don’t get this right from the outset, the various misunderstandings and accusations of not wanting to ‘commit’ are potentially boundless. Secondly, if you’ve agreed some basic guidelines with a partner, don’t assume they’ll last forever. Like most things to do with sex and relationships, regular checking in to see how the other is doing is so important. It’s one thing to think and talk about open relationships and quite another to embark on one, so keeping communication open will let you both know where you stand and address any problems as they arise, rather that storing everything up.
Finally, don’t be afraid to admit it if what you thought you wanted hasn’t actually proved as exciting or involving as you’d hoped, but be prepared for the fall out. Reclaiming an exclusive one to oneness with your partner may take a lot of work. Of course, you may also find that although the arrangement didn’t work for you, your partner, perhaps to their surprise, now thinks it’s the only way to be. Ultimately, you might think this is a risk worth taking - only you and your partner can decide that.
Ammanda Major is a Relate Sex Therapist and senior consultant on Sex Therapy. She has a regular agony aunt column on the Relate website ‘Ask Ammanda’, which deals with common relationship and sexual problemsReuse content