10 Rules of Open Relationships: Insights from Real Couples

As the dating landscape evolves and people move away from traditional relationship structures, many of us are asking: could an open relationship be for me?

An open relationship is a romantic partnership where both individuals consent to engage in sexual or romantic connections with other people outside of the primary relationship while maintaining honesty and communication with their partner.

open relationship

To explore what it takes to have a healthy open relationship, I spoke to a few people about their experiences.

It became apparent pretty quickly that certain rules are necessary to make an open relationship last – just like in any other type of relationship. The difference is that in an open relationship, the players make their own set of rules!

It doesn’t matter whether you’re already in an open relationship or thinking about it – this advice is for anyone interested in open relationships.

Who Did I Speak To?

James and Nicole are each other’s “primary partners” but they both have dates, sex, and relationships with other people.

Sophia has two main relationships (a so-called “hinge relationship”) with Nick and Damien who don’t date each other but have other relationships of their own.

Chris and Dave are a couple and have sex with other people but don’t date outside of their relationship.

(Please note: All the names I’ve used are aliases.)

Rule #1: Consider What Your Intention and Motivation Is

“Before you open up a relationship, ask yourself: what’s your motivation? Like why do you want to do it?” said James.  

This isn’t only relevant to first-timers – if you are or have been in an open relationship already, you can still benefit from asking the question: am I doing this for my ego or because it’s my romantic preference?

James and Nicole have kept their relationship open from the get-go. James admits that, at first, his ego was driving his desire.

He would spend a lot of time on dating apps, chatting to as many women as possible to see how many were interested – he was seeking validation, he says. He wasn’t comfortable discussing his sexual encounters with Nicole so he would keep his online and in-person activities private.

In essence, he was walking the open relationship path alone, rather than sharing the journey with his partner. Eventually, he realized “If I’m not sharing with Nicole, why are we even together? I might as well be single and have lots of non-committed relationships. We started sharing everything and it’s brought us much closer together.”

Chris thinks it’s important to vividly imagine what it’s going to be like before you go ahead with it, “Really picture your partner having sex with someone else. Imagine them flirting and messaging with others. Think about how that’ll make you feel.”

Nicole added, “When I first got into it, I was mostly thinking about all the fun I was going to be having. I didn’t really consider how it would be to hear about his meetups and interactions. It was a bit weird hearing about it at first, like when he would be upset because someone else rejected him. I was like “Why are you telling ME this?” but it’s normal now and we share our ups and downs with each other.”

Dave said, “Never end up in a situation where one partner has all the fun and the other cries themselves to sleep at night.”

Rule #2: Open and Honest Communication

From the above it’s clear that introspection is an important part of open relationships – why am I doing this and how will I actually feel when it’s happening?

But this type of reflection should also be happening between partners. Open and honest communication was at the top of everyone’s list – even though many felt it was uncomfortable at first.

Every relationship, whether it’s monogamous, platonic, or open, relies on good communication. 

But communication in a monogamous relationship doesn’t involve talking about dating or sleeping with other people and bringing others into the relationship (unless you’re wanting to open things up). So on top of the usual communication about feelings, fears, and dreams, people in open relationships have to navigate a whole other set of dynamics and feelings. 

Open communication means no one is hiding anything from their partner. You talk about preferences, boundaries, and experiences – the “wants and don’t wants” – that wouldn’t normally come up in a monogamous relationship. 

Nicole said, “It’s so important to talk about what makes you happy, what you need – but also what you find uncomfortable and unacceptable. Don’t just go along with whatever your partner wants – you’re in this together and everyone should be comfortable and having a good time.”

“Keep sharing and be open about where you’re at with your emotions and thoughts. Poly relationships go against what many people have been taught and socialized to believe. You go on a journey with your partner and explore whether you like it and how it makes you feel.” Sophia added.

Some people in open relationships do pursue their extra-relational fun individually but even then, there needs to be a level of openness if the primary relationship is to last. 

This is what clinical social worker, Kathy Slaughter think about communication in open relationships

“The definition is in the name it’s consensual which means everyone’s talked about it, everyone’s agreed to it, they know who’s dating who…”

Rule #3: Set Boundaries With Your Partner(s) and For Yourself

Nicole said it can be easy to get carried away with the poly lifestyle. She used the word “polysaturated” to describe the exhaustion you can experience when you take on too many partners, go on too many dates, receive too many messages, and experience a tsunami of conflicting emotions. 

That’s why it’s important to take it slow, she says, “Set boundaries in the relationship but also set boundaries for yourself. If it gets too much, pull back a little bit and reflect on what went wrong and why you’re feeling overwhelmed. Make sure you’re doing things because you want to, not because you feel you have to.”

Kathy Slaughter says “[the open communication makes] it entirely distinct from cheating because there’s no element of betrayal and it’s not monogamous which means there’s no expectation of sexual exclusivity and possibly no expectation of emotional exclusivity either.”

However, cheating, lying, and accidental transgressions can happen in any relationship, including open ones, especially when the boundaries are not clear. 

“Even if they didn’t mean it, it can be very hurtful when you feel a boundary has been crossed so make sure you discuss what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not comfortable with early on. Keep this conversation going throughout the relationship as well because things can come up as you go,” David said.

Rule #4: Never Assume and Be Open to Change

Nicole thinks it’s important to never assume. “Everyone comes from a different microculture and upbringing and what’s normal for one person may not be normal for the other.”

When she started dating Dave, she assumed that “open” referred to sex only and was hurt when she found out Dave was going on actual dates. “That’s why it’s so important to talk things through beforehand, like what are we actually doing here? What are your expectations?”

However, she acknowledged that “sometimes preemptive conversations aren’t possible. Things happen and then you’re faced with it, and you realize that you’re uncomfortable with something you hadn’t considered before.”

Dave agreed and added, “It’s important to be prepared for change. How you feel about certain scenarios can change and so your boundaries and rules should stay open for discussion.

If I was okay about something initially but changed my mind, my partner should be open to discussing that with me so neither one of us feels resentful or hurt. You have to move together and communicate.”

Rule #4: Deal with Insecurity Head-On

Chris spoke of his relationship with insecurity, “When I’m generally feeling low or anxious, I feel much more insecure about my relationship. If I see my partner with someone else, it makes me crazy jealous, and I feel neglected.

That’s not the case when I’m feeling good about myself – when I feel good, I don’t feel insecure at all. So it’s about finding a balance because it shouldn’t just be about me, I don’t want to deprive Dave, but I also think it’s more fun for everyone when we’re both happy.”

Nicole believes it’s important to note that if you’re an insecure person, an open relationship might not be for you. If your relationship is on the rocks, opening things up might tear you apart rather than bring you closer together.

“That’s the beauty of open relationships – they can bring you closer to your partner as you explore the world of relationships together. But if you’re in a bad place, it might be best to keep it simple.”

James added “Jealousy and insecurity are normal in any relationship, but especially in open ones. It’s about how you direct that energy. Don’t let it eat you up because it can lead you down a path of emotional manipulation where one partner blames and guilt-trips the other. It can break trust create shame, and ultimately destroy a relationship. It’s always better to talk openly about it.”

Rule #5: Reject Possession and Embrace Compersion

James doesn’t struggle with insecurity very often, he says, “It’s natural for me to feel happy for my partner rather than jealous. I reject possession – I don’t own anyone. An open relationship is much healthier when you have compersion.”

Compersion refers to being genuinely happy when other people are happy even when you’re not involved. It means you can feel joy and excitement for your partner when they’re going out on a date with someone or having sex with other people.

Nicole said “At first, I never wished James a good time when he went out because I’d sometimes feel anxious and insecure. But now I love it when he goes because I can have a bit of “me time” and I don’t even think about him. I genuinely wish him a good time and hope he has fun.”

Sophie believes that having compersion shows you are truly confident in yourself and know your worth. “I don’t get jealous when Nick and Damien tell me about their other relationships and experiences. I think Nick can be a bit more insecure, in part because it was his first open experience.

Initially, he asked me whether we could be primaries but over time, he’s come to like the set-up we have. I think this whole experience has been really good for his self-confidence.”

Rule #6: Own Your Mistakes

Nicole spoke of the importance of owning your mistakes, “Early on in our relationship, I went to meet a guy called Tobi. I also had a good friend called Tobi, so James assumed I was going to see him. When I got home and told him about my evening, he was surprised and confused. We talked it out, I apologized and owned my mistake, and we were able to move on from that.”

Dave said when he has felt insecure about something Chris has done, “It was helpful when he accepted the feedback I gave him and actually listened to what I was saying. The most important thing is to adjust your behavior because that makes your partner feel heard and respected.”

The bottom line – be conscious of your own defensiveness, acknowledge how your partner feels, and apologize if that’s appropriate.

Rule #7: Tend to Your Primary Relationship

James and Nicole agree that it’s important to stay present in your primary relationship (if you have one).

“You can get lazy with each other, especially if you live together,” Nicole says, “We would go on dates with other people but hadn’t actually been on a date together for months – when we realized that, we knew we had to change something.”

“You have to put in the effort, go on dates, and have fun together – just like in any other relationship. So now we make sure we do things just the two of us as often as possible.”

Chris said that when he goes on dates, Dave will take him there and pick him up and that makes him feel like “We’re in it together. We’re there for each other and not against each other.”

For Sophie, who has two relationships, it’s important to put equal amounts of energy and time into both, “Of course, they have different needs but the main thing is that both of them feel loved and cared for. The same goes for me, I would hate it if I would feel one of them slipping away without knowing why.”

Rule #9: Safe Sex Practices

Everyone I spoke to agreed that using condoms with people other than your primary partner is essential. James said he and Nicole are “fluid bonded” meaning they do not use condoms with each other, but they do with everyone else.

Chris said “You should always discuss that with your partner first anyway. But if there was an accident like the condom broke or something then you definitely have to speak to your partner about it and maybe even get checked.”

Sophia uses condoms with both of her boyfriends because they also sleep with other women, but she adds “Condoms are good but you should also get checked at the sexual health clinic regularly. It’s just safer and more enjoyable that way. Did you know you can get Chlamydia in your throat?”

Rule #10: Consider Seeking Community

Sophia thinks that open relationships aren’t just about sex, “They’re about community and building friendships with like-minded people, having interesting conversations – but of course, romance and sex, too.”

Dave disagreed, “While going to sex parties and meeting people is super fun, I don’t see the people we meet there as friends. Our priority is working on our relationship, not building new ones. For us, friends are off limits – we have to sleep with people outside of our friendship circle”

Final Thoughts

What I learned from these conversations is that open relationships must be based on trust and honesty. You have to check in with your partner as much as you have to check in with yourself. 

The rules are fluid, and they all had their own ideas, needs, wishes, and boundaries. 

But across all these rules, the underlying factor is communication. Without proper communication, the relationship will fall apart – but isn’t that true for all types of relationships?

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Writer

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer and solution-focused hypnotherapist, specializing in CBT and meditation. Using insights from her experience working as an NHS Assistant Clinical Psychologist and Recovery Officer, along with her Master's degree in Psychotherapy, she lends deep empathy and profound understanding to her mental health and relationships writing.