How can you open your relationship in a healthy way?

Science and Health

We all grew up and were educated in a way that sanctifies the monogamous relationship in movies, books and poetry, so many people feel like they’ve really failed in view of the complex reality of a relationship and managing difficult periods.

Some couples know that there may be more than one way to live a married life. Although monogamy works for many, some people aren’t comfortable with it and prefer one or another model that will allow more degrees of freedom.

Engaging in an open relationship is a topic that recently has been discussed often in mental health clinics; it seems to be a growing trend. It’s having relationships outside of marriage (a-monogamy), openly between the spouses in most but not all cases. 

There are many models for open relationships: It’s permissible to do everything but not to share with the partner, each party can have relationships outside the home when they decide together what’s allowed, exchange of couples (swingers), the introduction of a third party, polyamory (multiple people), having sex outside of a monogamous relationship with the consent of only one party, etc.

Couples therapy that helps with open relationships

Couples come to therapy at different stages of processing and dealing with the issue: Couples who are in the stage of desire and deliberation, those who already have an open relationship and wish to cope better or who face a relationship crisis as a result, and couples who want to return to monogamous relationships based on exclusivity.

Illustrative image of polyamory. (credit: PEXELS)

There are many reasons for the desire of couples to have an open relationship like a fundamental lack in a relationship, such as a lack of sexuality, intimacy and close friendship. These are usually couples who maintain functional relationships around raising children and personal, professional and economic development. 

This is an attempt to save the relationship with the hand of diversity and refreshment, and ideological motives – those who feel that they don’t have the right to veto any action of the spouse and vice versa with the belief that neither spouse has the right to tell the other with whom to spend time, with whom to meet or what is or isn’t allowed to be done.

In this article, I will expand on a common situation in my clinic, in which the desire and choice for open relationships is a consequence of marital difficulties and a reflection of their complexity. 

A couple requested couples therapy as they were deciding whether or not to have an open relationship. They explained that over the years, and especially after their first son was born, an emotional distance and a gap in passion arose between them. 

He really likes touch and sexuality and she comes from a home where there was an emotional disconnect between the parents, and it was rare that she saw them holding hands, much less kissing.

The partner described a desire for more freedom, independence and to feel more alive and not tied down, and this is also part of his difficulty in creating commitment within the relationship. This problem was manifested, for example, in the refusal to respond to various requests of the partner such as a joint bank account, and the purchase of their own house. 

We have seen that the difficulty of commitment created internal conflicts for him that on the one hand he behaves as a family man with all that entails, yet he dreams of a life of freedom and feels restrained and frustrated by this.

The partner expressed a different position, which is based on a desire for marital dialogue, to connect more, to build marital and family foundations before turning outside in some way, feeling that opening the relationship confuses her. 

She thought that maybe it would interest her but that they aren’t getting there from the right place, and that right now she feels that she’s moving away and closing herself off when he expresses himself that way.

Regarding the nature of the relationship, he expressed a desire for a relationship based on transparency and honesty rather than exclusivity and fidelity. Yet she feels that he doesn’t understand her and that he’s led by his own needs and desires and doesn’t see what their family needs. 

In light of the hardship and frustration she’s overwhelmed with, she wonders if opening the relationship is really a good solution.

The great number of couples in therapy illustrates the subtle complexity of the structure of the couple, of the dynamics and the continuous emotional impact on each other. Opening up the relationship may be refreshing, rejuvenating and even positive for some couples, but in other cases it may undermine and crack the foundations of the structure. 

To do this, a couple needs to understand what the marital difficulties are, what they’re dealing with, an understanding of what open relationships are and what the impact on the relationship will be.

Can being non-monogamous produce a more fruitful and enabling relationship?

An open relationship has many effects on the relationship. For example, an open relationship doesn’t constitute a ground for irresponsibility or a relationship without commitment, but rather the opposite is true. 

Many times these relationships require partners to be considerate, to show empathy and mental maturity. Establish a marital safety net together with effective communication and agreements that will prevent drifting to places they weren’t interested in.

In her book Mating in Captivity (2006), Esther Perel explains that many people enter into a monogamous relationship with the expectation that all their needs will be met: a sense of security and managing the household, and other needs such as finding meaning, belonging and self-expression. 

She claims that many couples don’t succeed in this, and couples who do succeed create a more fruitful, positive relationship. Perel claims that one must understand the deep fundamental gap between a person’s need for security, stability and exclusivity in a relationship and his inner desire for freedom.

The conversation in couples therapy about opening up the relationship requires therapists to study the subject and behave in ways that benefit people who have chosen non-monogamous relationships. 

One of the guiding principles is the importance of therapeutic conduct without criticism and judgment, and support for the couple’s choice in whatever direction they want while establishing an understanding of their path and the needs that underlie the choices they make.

Couples therapy promotes a dialogue of marital agreements in which communication channels are as open and honest as possible and there’s a feeling on both sides that no one is sacrificing themselves, meaning that they can state their security and protection needs and yet also state their desire for different degrees of freedom.

In conclusion, the topic of the non-monogamous relationship brings us together with the existential truth and the basic foundations of every relationship. This encounter may be shocking and even painful, but also life-giving and a turning point for the couple.  

From understanding the complexity of the process, it’s important to find a therapist that can accept couples with various lifestyles and help, not judge them during the therapeutic process.

Itamar Pascal is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist.