science of us

How to Ask Your Partner for an Open Relationship

Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

So you’ve decided you want an open relationship. Great! What a big decision. A sincere kudos to you for being able to identify a thing that would make you happy. That’s hard to do sometimes.

But now comes the even harder part: figuring out how to tell your partner about this want of yours — and, more importantly, how to broach the subject in a way that doesn’t cause irreparable damage between the two of you. It’s daunting, but it’s not impossible. Here’s how to approach a very tricky conversation in a way that minimizes hurt feelings, makes your intentions clear, and allows both of you to feel heard.

Do some soul-searching.

The first step doesn’t actually involve your partner at all: Before you even begin to think about how to bring this up, think about why you want to bring it up. And more specifically, think about whether you’re reaching for an open relationship as a Band-Aid fix for something else. “The first thing I always tell an individual I’m working with is, you want to make sure you’re not trying to solve any problems in the relationship, with this as the solution,” says Shannon Chavez, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. “Sometimes I see that there can be underlying factors, like resentment, and this can be an avoidance of really dealing with those issues.” Opening up the relationship as a means of escaping the problems the two of you have, as you can probably guess, will only create new ones.

Once you’ve established that that isn’t what’s going on here, consider what you hope to get out of opening things up. “Is is about unmet needs? Is is about exploring your sexual identity?” Chavez says. Maybe you want to try something new that your partner doesn’t, sexually or otherwise. Maybe you’re starting to feel like monogamy just isn’t a fit for you. Whatever the reason, be ready to clearly articulate it before you sit down with your significant other.

Have a conversation about what commitment means to you.

There are certain things you can and should do when choosing when to bring this up — make sure you’re alone, that you’re both relatively un-stressed, and that have plenty of time to talk things out before anyone has to be somewhere — but no amount of situational maneuvering is going to completely erase the fact that this will likely be uncomfortable. At a certain point, you have to just bite the bullet and dive in.

And the best way to do that, explains Christian Jordal, a clinical assistant professor of couples and family therapy at Drexel University, is to present your desire for an open relationship as something that doesn’t conflict with your commitment to the relationship you currently have (and make it clear that you’re not retroactively trying to absolve any instance of cheating).

“You have to be direct, but you also have to be reassuring,” he says. “One of the things I always recommend clients do is reiterate, ‘I have not acted upon this, it’s just something I’m thinking about and I’m wondering if we can talk about it.’ And I have clients talk about commitment — how is it that they feel they’re committed to their partner?” Maybe, to you, there are other, more important ways to demonstrate your devotion than fidelity. Explain, as clearly as you can, what those other ways are.

Think about the details.

Proposing an open relationship is kind of meaningless if you can’t specify what that entails. Are certain sexual activities okay, while others are off the table? Can you take someone else on a date? Can you take them home? What’s the protocol for STD testing? How many times a week can you go out with someone else?

Relationship therapist and clinical sexologist Laurel Steinberg recommends using this as a guiding principle when considering what parameters to set:“Everything has to be supportive of the primary relationship, not destructive,” she says. “[Express] the idea that our primary relationship is our first baby and always has to be taken care of,” and that each person in the relationship has the power to veto anything — or anyone — that makes them feel uncomfortable, unwanted, or unsafe.  

Respect their answer.

If your partner’s into the idea right off the bat — congrats! Now both of you go off and do your thing. If not, though, this can go one of two ways: Either it’s a firm no, in which case, well, it’s a firm no, and it’s up to you to decide whether staying in a monogamous relationship is the best decision. (It’s worth noting here, as Jordal emphasized, that figuring out what’s right for you is very different from threatening to leave your partner if they don’t acquiesce: “You can’t approach it as an ultimatum.”)

Or maybe it’s a maybe, and this is the first part of an ongoing conversation about how the two of you should proceed. Talk to each other, openly and honestly, about what you’re feeling, what you want, and what you need, and buckle up for things to get difficult. “What’s been really successful for couples I’ve seen is being able to know that it’s not a seamless process,” Chavez says. “There’s going to be bumps in the road, and there’s going to be emotions that come up that you can’t predict.”

One way to make things a little easier, she adds, is to have these discussions with the help of a couple’s therapist: “Having a third-party there to help organize that conversation, it creates space for both people to share their perspectives and to see whether or not it’s the right decision,” she says — not just for you or for your partner, but for the relationship.

“It’s a very important thing to acknowledge that the relationship is a unit outside of each individual’s needs,” she says, “so it’s really important to look at it from that perspective, what’s best for the relationship, as well as giving space to look at what’s best for each individual.”

With or without professional help, the key is to keep having those conversations until you can reach some kind of resolution. Maybe you and your partner will end up riding off into the open sunset together with a bunch of other people, or maybe you’ll decide that you can be happy keeping things to just the two of you. Maybe you’ll discover you’re fundamentally incompatible. However things shake out, the important thing is that you’ve made space for the two of you to tackle the question as a team: “It’s just like any decision that’s going to be made in a relationship,” Chavez says. “It requires coming to an agreement.”

How to Ask Your Partner for an Open Relationship