While there’s not a ton of data to provide accurate insight into the number of relationships in Australia that are considered open, there’s no denying couples are moving into a more liberal space. More and more, couples are exploring new ways of expression and are adapting to alternative arrangements outside of typical monogamous partnerships.
Open or polyamorous relationships are one such arrangement becoming more prevalent, and not just in younger millennial couples. Last year, SBS Insight spoke to a handful of pairs in their 30s and 40s about how their open arrangements worked for them and even made them a stronger unit.
Polyamory is defined as a non-monogamous relationship with the knowledge and consent of all partners involved.
While more research into open relationships in Australia is needed for us to better understand the number of couples who define themselves this way, a 2014 study appearing in CSIRO Publishing found that 1% of 5,323 respondents were in an ‘open relationship’.
Though that study is not clear on the nature of relationships from those some 5,000 participants, data from Victorian Aids Council indicates open relationships are more common in the LGBTQIA community. Their findings showed 32% of gay men in Melbourne were in polyamorous relationships in 2016.
Overseas, however, there is more research to support the success of open relationships. A 2018 study from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, found that couples in open relationships, who sleep with and date other people, were just as happy as monogamously coupled partners.
“We found people in consensual, non-monogamous relationships experience the same levels of relationship satisfaction, psychological wellbeing and sexual satisfaction as those in monogamous relationships,” said Jessica Wood, a PhD student in applied social psychology and the lead author of the study, in a press release.
The study concluded that between 3 and 7% of people in North America are currently in a consensual, non-monogamous relationship. “It’s more common than most people think,” says Wood.
So, now that you have cold hard facts to back up the potential success of opening your relationship up to others, how do you go about bringing it up with your significant other?
Dan Martin, a Sydney Psychologist and Couples Counsellor with 20 years’ experience, says it’s wise to first understand why you want this change.
“For some people, it is about emotional connection and feeling like they would like to establish more strong connections in their life. On the other hand, there are those who are interested in open relationships from a sexually adventurous perspective, and so these folks may not be interested in having their relationship open emotionally but just physically.”
How to ask your partner for an open relationship
Before heading into the conversation, Martin says you’ll need to understand your motivations inside-out and reflect on why an open relationship is of interest.
“Your partner will have a lot of questions if they haven’t considered this themselves before,” he says.
Next, make sure you plan the conversation for a good time. Don’t open the door to what could be a tricky conversation right before you need to leave for work; allow plenty of time for questions and be clear on what you’re proposing and why.
What to do if the conversation is not well-received
In the best-case scenario, your partner listens to your point of view and responds positively. Maybe they’d even been thinking of an open arrangement themselves and you land completely on the same page.
Of course, it’s possible they reject the idea completely and perhaps take the conversation as a personal attack. So what do you do next?
“What happens now will depend on how committed you are to the relationship,” says Martin. “If you are very committed but your partner isn’t open to the idea, then the conversation may be over.
“If you feel strongly you want this style of relationship, more so than your current relationship with your partner, then you may choose to walk.”
Setting the boundaries for your open relationship
Let’s say that after discussion, you and your partner land on the same page and mutually commit to opening your relationship up to a polyamorous agreement. According to Martin, the next step now is now establishing strong trust and communication.
“The most important factors for open relationships to work is strong communication skills and high levels of trust with each other,” he says, adding: “If either of these areas are the least bit weak, then you should work on that before considering going any further.
“You will also want to explore what makes your relationship special, and establish why your relationship with your partner will be your primary relationship, even if you felt you needed to supplement it or add to it with other people.”
Terms and conditions
Like any agreement, there will be fine print. The key to success in open relationships, though, is knowing your terms and conditions inside-out and agreeing upon them completely before allowing others in.
“You will need to negotiate boundaries that both parties are comfortable with,” says Martin.
Things to consider are:
— Emotional connection or love of others: Is this okay?
— Boyfriends and girlfriends: Does it matter if the other person or persons are known to your partner? (Your partner may wish to meet your boyfriends or girlfriends while others would prefer they never encounter them and they remain anonymous)
— Dates: Will you tell your partner when you have dates arranged and what happens on those dates, or will you adopt a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy?
— Sex: Are there certain requirements i.e. safe sex? Or prohibited acts?
— Location: Are certain places off-limits i.e. your home or shared bed?
Once you’ve set and agreed upon all boundaries, both parties should feel safe enough to commence the open arrangement. And while Martin has seen success with long-term open relationships, he does warn they can be tricky.
“It is possible to have a successful polyamorous relationship, however, I’ve seen many fail and only a small number be able to navigate these waters successfully.”