Can an Open Marriage ever work?

articles open marriage relationships Nov 16, 2020

Can an Open Marriage Ever Work?

 Here is an article that I wrote for Red Magazine

What is an Open Marriage?

An Open Marriage is one in which each spouse is free to seek out other sexual partners on their own. The other spouse often has some say over the conditions of the extramarital liaison.

Alternative forms of extra marital sex are:

  • Secret Affairs, in which one partner has secret sexual liaisons with another partner and the other is unaware
  • Tolerated Affairs, where one is having sex outside of the marriage. The other may be aware of what is ging on but does not need to, or want to, discuss this with their partner. In some countries, such as France, these sorts of affairs are more common.
  • Paid for sex, with a sex worker. This is normally done secretively.
  • Swinging, in which two or more couples swap partners on occasion, sometimes in their own homes and sometimes at swingers’ club
  • Polyamory where each spouse in the primary relationship also has long-term sexual and emotional relationships with more than one partner, all of whom know each other and are generally on amicable terms.
  • There are also Emotional Affairs where there is the closeness and emotional intimacy of a romantic relationship without the sex

What is the Evidence?

There has been some research, but often with small sample sizes and questionable validity. Much of the research has only been with couples who have crossed the boundary and are in Consensual Non Monogamy (CNM) relationships (i.e Open, Swinging or Polyamory). Here are some key numbers:

  • It is said that less than 1% of couples are in open marriages
  • 20% of couples have experimented with consensual non monogamy
  • Open Marriage has a 92% failure rate
  • 80% of people in open marriages experience jealousy of the other

What are the benefits? 

Opening up a marriage can be thrilling and liberating. It is a way of getting the sex life out of a rut and into something different and exciting.

If the sexual needs of the partners have diverged and one wants more sex or a wider range of sex then it may help the one with greater needs.  What then happens to the one with lesser needs; will they be drinking tea and chatting to their open partner when the other two are swinging from the chandeliers?

If one of the partners becomes physically or mentally incapable, for example, of performing penetrative sex then they may consent to their able partner having sex with another person to ensure their needs are met. 

What are the problems?

The dream of being able to have sex with another person and keep hold of the advantages of another steady relationship or marriage may seem to offer the best of both worlds.

The reality is that the dream often turns into dissonance and inequality. One spouse is likely to end up feeling that the other is getting better sex or a better partner.  Even if this is not the case it will be the perception.

It is also very difficult to create a boundary between the sexual act and the emotional intimacy that is normally involved.   Again, there will be the perception that things are being shared that are private and this can cause resentment and for the spouses to drift apart. 

The couples are likely to face criticism from friends and families. In many countries including the UK and USA, society does not understand and frowns on open marriages. In countries such as France, they seem more accepted.

If the desire for an open marriage is coming from a place of dissatisfaction with the sex and intimacy in the marriage, then an open marriage is avoiding dealing with the underlying issue and is only dealing with the symptoms.  If sex was once good and it is still important to both then the couple will be better served by addressing that first.

It will also allow the partners to have an easy escape from their primary relationship and allow it to become more transactional and diminish in importance. 

Are they sustainable?

Keeping a marriage on track, after the first falling in love is hard work, with time, life changes, children and other events.  Keeping an open marriage working, with four or more people rather than 2, is exponentially more complex.

They may start off well, with a significant improvement in sexual satisfaction. Once the novelty has worn off, they are likely to run into the same problems as monogamous relationships where the sexual drive and satisfaction are likely to reduce.  The new ‘open’ partner may also move from being fresh and different to ‘same old.’

For them to work, over a longer period, there needs to be:

  • complete openness and each partner being prepared to work and ensure the right balance is maintained
  • or there to be a firmly maintained Chinese wall between the open relationships
  • an investment of time, energy and emotion to keeping the primary relationship thriving.

This would require exceptional individuals!

The Next Steps? 

If you are considering an open marriage, firstly ask yourself and your partner the following questions:

  • Rate your current relationship out of 10 on the key elements of Communication, Connection, Commitment, Fun, Growth and Trust
  • Talk through your sexual desires and how well those are currently being fulfilled in terms of quantity, quality and style
  • Are those differences bridgeable by your partner?
  • If not, why not?
  • Are you looking for a short-term kick start to your sex life or a long-term open relationship?
  • Are you both able to cope with the added complexity?
  • How will you deal with any future differences and disputes?
  • What will happen if one of you wants to call a halt?
  • Are you both fully aligned and there is no coercion?
  • How will you find the new partners?
  • How will you protect what is good in your current relationship?


Neil Wilkie is a Relationship Expert, Psychotherapist, author of Reset  and creator of the Relationship Paradigm