Opening Up About Open Marriage: views of non-monogamous relationships are evolving, but does open marriage work?

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New research suggests a significant generational and gender divide in attitudes toward open relationships, with younger individuals and men showing greater openness to non-monogamous arrangements compared to their older and female counterparts.

In a 2021 YouGov poll of more than 23,000 Americans, a quarter of respondents said they’d be interested in an open relationship.

Generally, men were considerably more likely (32%) than women (19%) to say they were interested in non-monogamy. Among married couples, 30% of husbands said yes to an open marriage, but only 21% of wives. Millennials were by far the most likely to be interested in open relationships (41%), followed by GenZ (29%), GenX (23%), and Baby Boomers (only 12%).

Similarly, a 2023 study by the Pew Research Center found that about half (51%) of adults under age 30 think open marriages are acceptable, while fewer than half of respondents 30 to 49 (41%) agreed; only 26% of people age 50 to 64, and 15% of those 65 and older, find open marriage acceptable; in fact, 70% of adults 65 and over called it unacceptable.

Views of open marriage tend to differ along numerous lines: race and ethnicity, age, marital status, sexual orientation, and political affiliation.

Married adults (57%) and previously married adults (61%), including those who were divorced, separated, or widowed, were much more likely than people who never married (35%) or those living with a partner (27%) to say open marriage is unacceptable. People living with a partner (56%) were most likely to consider non-monogamy acceptable.

LGBTQ+ adults were significantly more likely than straight adults to say open marriage is acceptable (75% compared to 29%), even when adjusting for the fact that the LGBTQ population tends to be younger.

Today, some popular dating apps even offer an option to indicate that you’re interested in open or non-monogamous relationships.

On the other hand—while research into the actual success rate of open marriage is relatively scarce—one notable study from 2010 found that it has a 92% failure rate.

So what do proponents of the arrangement like about it, and what do they say are the critical factors in making it work?

Proponents argue that humans—at least some humans—aren’t necessarily made for monogamy. Open relationships can be as healthy as those that follow traditional “rules” of commitment and fidelity.

So, what do we mean when we talk about an open marriage? 

Open marriage is one form of consensual non-monogamy (CNM), also called ethical non-monogamy (ENM). Definitions of open marriage are fluid and largely depend on the agreement made by the spouses at the center of the arrangement. Couples can (and should, experts say) set their own rules.

Susan Wenzel, a Canadian therapist and author of the book A Happy Life in an Open Relationship, who is herself in an open marriage, writes, “An open relationship is an arrangement wherein a couple decides to include experiences with other people, often for sexual pleasure.” She specifies that the partners are not seeking emotional attachment or romantic involvement with outside partners but “[prioritize] their primary relationship.” Wenzel told that an open marriage is simply an open relationship in which the partners have taken “traditional vows.”

Open marriage differs from another form of CNM, polyamory, in that polyamorous couples explore romantic, loving relationships with multiple partners and do not typically focus on just one primary duo.

Proponents of open marriage say it can be very positive and fulfilling. They argue that it removes the pressure of having to have all their needs met by one person, allows them to explore their sexuality more fully, and can even turn up the passion in the marriage as they bring home new experiences. Contrary to what one might expect, they say they feel an increased sense of honesty and trust, including less jealousy, because admitting they need outside experiences prevents “cheating.” It feels good to have nothing to hide. They even say it can deepen intimacy and strengthen the bond in their central relationship.

Experts point to a few key factors in making an open marriage work: 

Communication. From broaching the subject of opening the marriage to laying the ground rules, talking about complex feelings and fears, and deciding what information should and should not be shared, an open flow of communication is vital.

Consent. When both partners agree and consent to an open arrangement, that separates it from cheating.

Clear boundaries. Mutually agreed-upon rules are crucial.

Deep trust. Both partners have to respect the established emotional and sexual boundaries. These include critical considerations such as safe sex, as well as how much time away from another person is acceptable, and how you will stay committed and keep the marriage centered.

It’s also important to know that raising the subject of opening a marriage can be delicate. Approach the conversation with care and the understanding that an open arrangement will not likely fix a relationship already in trouble. Experts say it’s essential to be honest with your partner and yourself about motivation—think carefully about why you want an open marriage.

Ultimately, an open marriage is as unique to each couple as a traditional monogamous marriage. Only you can know whether it is working for you and whether you’re happy, fulfilled, and committed.

If you’ve come to the difficult decision that it’s time to end your marriage, the veteran family lawyers at SFLG will expertly and compassionately help you navigate the unique circumstances of your divorce.

By Debra Schoenberg



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