With clear boundaries breaking from monogamy can work - but be prepared for the potential fallout, says Relate counsellor Ammanda Major

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.

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 problems