Open Relationships 101: Your Guide to Polyamorous Relationships

What comes to mind when you think of an open relationship? I think of orgies or play parties. But I found that that is only one way to do it. There are several types of open relationships or ways to bring people into your current relationship. As I roamed #NSFW Twitter, I read a term that I wasn’t familiar with: polyamory. My initial thought was great another way for people to identify themselves. As usual, after poking around and doing some digging, I found that there was more to this than just a way to identify yourself. It’s a lifestyle that is slowly becoming more mainstream and widely accepted.

Ethical non-monogamy is on the rise. By ethical, this means it is not considered morally or ethically deviant behavior.  In fact, it may be a way to allow for you and your partner to explore without the risk of cheating on the other partner and then ending the relationship.

According to Leah Huggins, “Well-functioning non-monogamous couples, thruples, etc., have stellar communication skills, great capacities for empathy, strong personal boundaries, and high levels of self-awareness.”

While it can be a way for people to avoid commitment, this type of relationship forces people to learn how to communicate their needs, wants, and desires in a more effective way. It also helps you learn what your boundaries are.

More and more, this type of lifestyle is becoming accepted and recognized. Loads of folks are afraid to be public with their sexuality and kinks because they are worried about judgment.

Ways to Have An Open Relationship

Any sort of open relationship is categorized under consensual non-monogamy.  Consent is key. Not just your consent, but everyone in the relationship. This means that you are in a relationship with at least one person and all parties are ok with there being other people in the relationship. No hiding. No secrets.

Swinging: According to Kinkly.com, swinging is the practice of swapping partners in a sexual context. Typically, this happens with all parties in the same room. One woman shares her experience detailing that her marriage has been better because they have both been able to explore their sexuality. And because of the amount of honesty that is required for consensual non-monogamy, they avoid many of the pitfalls and arguments that happen in monogamous relationships. Lots of times this happens with people that you aren’t in an emotional relationship with. Sex only.

Threesome: A threesome is just adding one more person to the sexual dynamic. This can be a one-time occurrence, or you can make your relationship a triad. There are some pitfalls to consider when trying out a threesome. These range anywhere from jealousy to not living up to expectations. Also, maybe he’s ok with another girl, but not another guy. This article was a fascinating look at the fantasy from a psychological prospective. There is also this article here on sofiagray.com that can help you figure out when and if you and your partner are ready for a threesome.

Full Swap: This involves both people in the relationship swapping out with someone else. You can do this with another couple or at a swinger party. There are to ways to get into a full swap. There is soft swapping (no penetration) and hard swap (penetration is a go). Soft swapping is a great way to test the water to see if this is something that you and your partner would be ok with. If it goes well, then things can continue to progress until you get to a hard swap. The way that you and your partner engage in a swap should be discussed and agreed upon before the swap happens to avoid hurt feelings and disappointment.

Play Parties: This is more for the BDSM scene. There are clubs you can go to or find play groups on site like Fetlife or even Facebook through the BDSM community on there. These groups are private and you must go through an approval process due to the nature of the posts.  People that come to these BDSM parties will brings their own toys. Lots of times these are not much different than a regular party. There will be rooms that have food and mingling, and other rooms have sex furniture. Kinkly.com offers more details here.

Those aren’t all of them, just the ones that typically come to mind when you think about open relationships. Consensual non-monogamy is a very large umbrella that covers more than I can fit into this article.

What Is Polyamory?

Consensual non-monogamy is more prevalent than you may realize. A simple search on google of my town, came up with more ways to meet other people that are into open relationships and play. I was shocked as I live in a very conservative town. And there are some that can have sex with partners and not have any emotions, or maybe they can separate the emotions. Then there are folks like me, where sex is not void of emotion.

Polyamory offers a solution. You can have all the feelings and the sex and keep your primary relationship. However, all parties need to be open in communicating. And communicating clearly. Polyamory is a relationship with multiple mutually consenting sexual partners.

According to Psychology Today, 1 in 20 people is involved in this type of relationship. The article goes on to say that this type of relationship is not limited to heterosexuals, every part of the spectrum gets in on this type of action. The article goes on to say that people in non-monogamous relationships feel more fulfilled in all aspects of life than their monogamous counterparts.

There is a stigma that goes with it; you know, the one that says if you engage in extra-marital/relational sex then you have morality issues. It can cause a problem with some employers if they see it as morally reprehensible. Also, if you have children and there is a separation or divorce, the court can deem you unfit. These are just some reasons why people that swing or are in a poly relationship, keep it a secret.

Polyamory is not a type of sexual orientation, even though some people feel that it as at the core of their being. It is a relationship type. This type of relationship comes with a ton of groundwork that needs to be laid first and then constantly revisited and talked about.

Terms to know:

As you learn more about this lifestyle and begin searching or doing research, there are some words you’ll come across that you’ll need to know what they mean within the context of polyamory. This list came from an article on healthline.com.

  • Primary. The main partner in a polyamorous relationship. Not every polyamorous relationship has one. If you do, your primary might be the person you live with, have kids with, or are married to. This is usually the first relationship on the hierarchy tree.
  • Secondary. A secondary partner has a more casual relationship than the primary. You might be fully committed to your secondary partner, but your lives are less entwined through elements like finances or housing.
  • Triad. A triad — also referred to recently as a “throuple” — is a relationship between three people. It might look like one person dating two different people or all three dating one another.
  • Quad. A quad is a relationship involving four people. A common example is when two polyamorous couples meet and each person begins dating one person from the other couple. This could also begin as a full swap.
  • Full quad. A full quad consists of four people, with each romantically or sexually involved with every other member. This could work if you have a reluctant partner. Everyone is equal and everyone knows everyone.
  • Polycule. A polycule is the whole network of people romantically connected. For example, it might include you and your husband, your husband’s girlfriend, your husband’s girlfriend’s wife, and so on. Think of it as a drawing that shows all of the links.
  • Compersion. Compersion is sometimes called “the opposite of jealousy.” It’s a feeling of joy that a person feels from seeing their partner happy with another person.
  • Metamour. A metamour is your partner’s partner. For example, your wife’s girlfriend, who’s not romantically or sexually involved with you.
  • Paramour. A paramour is an outside member of a marriage. For example, the girlfriend of a husband in a polyamorous marriage.
  • Solo polyamorous. Solo polyamory means you’re not interested in becoming part of a couple or any other relationship that includes entanglements, such as sharing finances, housing, or marriage. For example, you might be the secondary partner to several people, but prefer not to have a primary partner.

How Does It Work?

It can be a hierarchy that all stems from the one main relationship. A polyamorous relationship begins with one primary relationship. The couple then discusses how to proceed with adding a secondary partner to the relationship. Those partners can have additional partners and on and on.

From what I read, there are schedules to adhere to so that time is balanced between all parties. Communication has to change for this type of relationship to exist. You have to open about everything, including medical history because of the number of partners that can be involved.

If you decide to dip your toe into the pool of polyamory, here are three things I found in this article to stick to so that lines don’t get blurred:

  1. Don’t try polyamory, because you’re not willing to over communicate until you learn to communicate effectively. You have to be willing to overcommunicate until you are good at communicating clearly.
  2. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to explain. If you think information X would hurt your partner, why they hell are you doing X to begin with?
  3. Suck it up, buttercup. If you aren’t comfortable with those things, polyamory probably isn’t for you or it may not work for your current situation.

Boundaries and rules are they key to making this work. Correction, sticking to the boundaries and rules are what make this work. Think about when you were a kid. There was that one adult in your life that would give a rule and a consequence, but never follow through when the rule was broken. The only thing that teaches you is that rules didn’t really apply to that person because they weren’t going to stick with the consequence. It’s the same for your relationship. By not sticking to the rules and boundaries, you are showing your relationship and your partner(s) how little respect you have for them and yourself.

Over communicating is a key thing to you need to do. This will help you learn how to explain things better. This doesn’t mean giving up very specific intimate details, privacy is still ok. It’s about not hiding or being secretive.

Setting Rules and Boundaries

What kind of rules and boundaries should you set? You want to think about the things that are important to you. What do you want to try? What’s a no-go? Then have your primary think and answer the same questions.

Here’s a list of things to consider. While this isn’t the end all be all list, it is a great place to start.

  1. Casual vs. Serious: You’ll want to discuss and decide with your primary what sort of relationships with people outside of the primary relationship are ok. After some soul searching and lots of thinking, you’ll need to decide if these are casual hookups (which is more in line with swinging) or if you can become more emotionally vested in the secondary (or more) relationships.
  2. What details are shared? Again, initially you’ll want to over share or share before being asked so that there is full transparency. Clarify exactly what you want to know and how detailed you want the nitty gritty details. Do you really want to know what positions your partner was in with their other partner?
  3. How frequent will meeting others be? Logistics are important. Through some good discussion, you can set the parameters about sleep overs or even if trips with anyone other than the primary is ok. Communicating these needs ahead of time will avoid hurt feelings later.
  4. How much do you share with friends and family? Again, this is a lifestyle that is very much out of the mainstream of what society deems acceptable. Is this something that is kept completely private? How will you address this as it comes up.
  5. PDA’s? This goes back to how much will you share. If you and your primary partner choose to keep things quiet from friends and family, pda’s will give it away if you run in to someone near where you live.
  6. Sharing space? Double date? This goes back to logistics and what you and your partner are comfortable with. Can your partner and their chosen partner have sex in your bed and vice-versa? Is this limited to places outside of your main residence? Again, talking about all of these things will help avoid hurt feelings in the future and can give your relationship longevity.
  7. Sexual boundaries? This is fairly straight forward. What sex acts are you allowed to perform with someone other than your primary partner? Sometimes polyamorous couples will be a couple where one wants to experiment with BDSM play and the other isn’t into that at all. By setting up expectations and boundaries, this may give that partner an outlet to experiment.

You may want to explore writing something up or how to set up the rules. Some agreement examples can be found here.

Talking to your partner about it

If you’re in a traditional monogamous relationship, you may wonder how you even talk to your partner about this thing you want to try.

A word to the wise, look at your own reasons for wanting to try polyamory. Is this a way to try new things while keeping your primary relationship? Are you wanting to spice things up? This won’t fix problems in the primary relationship. Polyamory works when the primary relationship is solid. While it can enhance the relationship by giving each partner space to explore, it can put the nail in the coffin in a relationship that is already headed towards its end.

To broach the subject, regardless of the length of your relationship, you want to frame it in a positive way without being combative or defensive. You want to remain calm and be receptive to your partner and their feelings on the subject.

Here are some do’s:

  1. Examine your feelings about seeing your primary with someone else. Kissing. Holding hands. Having sex. All of these with someone other than you. Gut check yourself to make sure that you are going to be fair and not just about yourself.
  2. Be open minded. If you and your partner have only been in monogamous relationships, this may come as a shock to the system.
  3. Explain how opening up your relationship can benefit the relationship as a whole. Talk about why you think it will make your marriage/partnership better.
  4. Offer resources to your partner so that they can read up and come up with tier own thoughts on the subject.
  5. Be willing to go to meet ups with your partner to help learn more so that you can make an educated and informed decision about entering into poly relationships. At meetups you can meet folks that have been there and done that. Let their experiences help you learn.

You can find some other tips to helping discuss and convince your partner into trying polyamory in this blog post.

They Said Yes, Now What?

There are different ways to find new partners. The one thing that you want avoid is looking for a unicorn, or the perfect partner to add to your primary relationship. Doing this can be toxic because no one will ever fit the mold that you create in your imagination. This is a complicated relationship style that involves real people and real feelings.

Here are some websites/apps that you can use to find a partner:

Fetlife: This one is kind of like Facebook, but for the kink community. There are posts about meet ups, profile sharing, video sharing, etc. You have a profile and you can find like-minded folks.

Tinder: While this may be a site that is geared more towards hookups, never say never. You may find someone that could be a partner.

Okcupid: What I really liked about this app is that you can set your orientation. You can also put the type of relationship you are interested in, including non-monogamous. For the most part, it’s a free app. Each person must have their own account.

Feeld is an app that you can download to your phone and talk with other sexually openminded folks. It is a free app, but if you want all of the features unlocked, you’ll need to pay to become a majestic member.  One review explains their detailed experience with Feeld, and how it helped them feel more comfortable with setting boundaries and sticking to them.

Big Take Aways

I learned a lot of different things while I researched and wrote this article. I’m in a traditional monogamous relationship. What I have learned is that no two relationships are the same. The rules are established by the people in the relationship, not what society expects. My husband and I have had some deep and sometimes difficult discussions while I researched this article.

We talked about what we were comfortable with; what our ideas of what a relationship should look like. It opened both of our eyes about things that we are comfortable with discussing further or tabling indefinitely. While parts of the conversation were difficult, because of feelings, once we started talking about our beliefs and expectations. It was eye opening and I’m grateful for the conversation.

No one can dictate how you structure your relationship or how it has to work. You determine that with your partner. Don’t forget your voice.