Curious about open relationships? Therapist Dr. Nick Helbich weighs in on what makes open relationships work, what makes them fail, and why boundaries always matter.
LGBTQ couples have historically engaged in open relationships at higher rates than their straight counterparts. A 2013 survey found that more than 50 percent of gay men participated in sex outside of their relationship with their partner’s knowledge, compared to 3-6 percent of individuals in heterosexual relationships.
But with a national divorce rate of 50 percent, couples of all sexual orientations are beginning to see the potential benefits of open relationships — not as an escape from long-term commitment, but as a way to strengthen it.
While open relationships have the potential to be harmonious and healthy, they can also result in jealousy and power imbalances. To help navigate these murky waters, we sat down with Dr. Nick Helbich — who goes by Dr. Nick — a New York-based licensed clinical psychotherapist who specializes in working with LGBTQ patients, to discuss both the process of opening a relationship and improving one that’s already open.
Clearing Up Misconceptions
One common misconception about open relationships, Dr. nick notes, are that they only emerge from problems within a monogamous relationship. But that’s simply not the case.
“The best open relationships start from a place of connectedness, a place of trust,” Dr. Helbich says. “To tell your partner honestly that you’re interested in exploring other roles and sexual fantasies that they aren’t into but that you would like to try.”
Open relationships are not a first step toward permanent separation, and they’re not about having a slew of no-strings-attached hookups with zero consequences to one’s partner. Like all relationships, they require trust, communication, and boundaries.
Are Polyamory and Open Relationships the Same Thing?
People often confuse polyamory with open relationships, when in fact there is a clear distinction between the two:
“Open relationships consist of one committed primary couple and multiple secondary partners,” Dr. Helbich notes. “Individuals in polyamorous relationships, on the other hand, maintain multiple emotionally intimate relationships with more than one partner at a single time, and can often also include secondary sexual relationships.”
Primary partners engage in typical relationship behavior: steady communication, seeing each other frequently, verbal expressions of love, while secondary partnerships are typically more sexually-driven. In open marriages, the romantic bond remains exclusive, but the sexual dynamic does not.
Have a Conversation with Yourself
With the potential for jealousy, miscommunication, and emotional attachment outside the primary partnership, how should couples go about maintaining a happy and healthy open relationship?
The secret, Helbich says, comes down to personality. “Some people are more naturally suited for open relationships,” he notes. “In a lot of couples, independent of open relationships, many problems stem from early childhood. You can see how babies react very differently to attachment style: do they cry when their mother leaves? Do they even notice?” These early behaviors, says Helbich, often indicate your attachment style as an adult.
That’s not to say that just because you had a hard time dealing with your mother’s absence as a toddler you’ll be fundamentally ill-suited for open relationships, but looking at how you’ve behaved in co-dependent relationships can help indicate whether an open relationship will work for you.
Negotiate with Honesty and Fairness
It’s also essential, Helbich says, to “negotiate with honesty and fairness.” Be candid with your partner about what works for you and what doesn’t: will you tell each other about external encounters? Are particular sexual activities off-limits outside the relationship? Be honest about what you want, but stay flexible to the preferences of your partner. Transparency is of the utmost importance for open couples — without a foundation of trust, it simply won’t work.
Thinking About Diving In?
Whether an open relationship will work for any given person is dependent on innumerable personality traits. Ask yourself: how do you perceive fidelity, experience affection, relate to your sexual desires? How does your partner answer those questions?
For partners who have agreed to explore the benefits of an open relationship in the context of trust and honesty, it can be transformative.
So ask yourself, in an increasingly fluid world, is an open relationship right for you?