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Open relationships: do they work? New research reveals the truth

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Hollie Richardson
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Open relationship

Can an open relationship actually work? New research has investigated and given its verdict.

Earlier this month, Stylist investigated polyamorous relationships. The big question was: can you be in love with more than one person at the same time? The idea of open relationships might sit uncomfortably with some people who are firmly monogamous. But a recent US study showed a fifth of its population engages in consensual non-monogamy (CNM) at some point. And ‘thruple’ relationships seem to be have been in the spotlight recently, featuring as a storyline in 2017 films Professor Marston and The Wonder Women to Netflix’s The Politician.

With this in mind, we wondered if the same was true of open relationships? Can you really be in love with someone if you seek sex outside of the relationship? Do open relationships actually work? 

New research has given us its answer, and it makes for an intriguing read. 

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According to a study at the University of Rochester, open relationships do work, but only if there is “solid communication” between all partners involved. 

“We know that communication is helpful to all couples,” says Ronald Rogge, an associate professor of psychology and head of the Rogge Lab.

“However, it is critical for couples in non-monogamous relationships as they navigate the extra challenges of maintaining a non-traditional relationship in a monogamy-dominated culture. Secrecy surrounding sexual activity with others can all too easily become toxic and lead to feelings of neglect, insecurity, rejection, jealousy, and betrayal, even in non-monogamous relationships.”

Open relationships do work, but plenty of communication is needed.
Open relationships do work, but plenty of communication is needed.

The research, published in the Journal of Sex Research, was conducted using couples divided into five distinct classes of relationships: two monogamous groups (representing earlier and later stage monogamous relationships); consensual non-monogamous relationships; partially open relationships and one-sided sexual relationships (in which one partner desires monogamy while the other partner engages in sex outside the existing relationship).

The team discovered that monogamous and consensual non-monogamous groups demonstrated high levels of functioning in their relationships and as individuals, whereas the partially open and one-sided non-monogamous groups showed lower functioning levels.

People in both monogamous groups reported relatively healthy relationships, as well as some of the lowest levels of loneliness and psychological distress. Both monogamous groups and the consensual non-monogamous group reported similarly low levels of loneliness and distress, and similarly high satisfaction levels in regards to need, relationship, and sex.

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Both monogamous groups reported the lowest levels of sexual sensation seeking, indicating fairly restrained and “traditional” attitudes towards casual sex. But people in the non-monogamous relationships reported high levels of sexual sensation seeking, and were more likely to actively look for new sexual partners.

However, the one-sided non-monogamous group had the highest proportion of people significantly dissatisfied with their relationships: 60%, which is nearly three times as high as the monogamous or the consensual non-monogamous group.

This shows that both partners need to be equally comfortable about being in an open relationship and honest about their sexual partners, in order to be happy.

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“Sexual activity with someone else besides the primary partner, without mutual consent, comfort, or communication can easily be understood as a form of betrayal or cheating,” adds one of the study’s researchers,  Forrest Hangen. “And that, understandably, can seriously undermine or jeopardise the relationship.”

Images: Getty

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…

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