Are open marriages ever successful?

Open marriages, also known as consensual non-monogamy, are intimate relationships in which both partners agree to allow romantic or sexual relationships with other people. The idea of an open marriage goes against traditional beliefs about monogamous relationships and marriage. However, some couples find that opening their marriage leads to increased satisfaction, stronger communication, and personal growth.

What is an open marriage?

An open marriage is a committed, long-term relationship in which both partners agree to have romantic or sexual relationships outside of the marriage. The key factors that define an open marriage are:

  • Consent – Both spouses willingly agree to open the marriage.
  • Communication – Partners openly discuss desires for non-monogamy and establish ground rules.
  • Honesty – Extramarital relationships are transparent, with full disclosure to the spouse.
  • Commitment – The marriage remains the primary relationship.

There are different ways to structure an open marriage relationship. Some couples have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, where extramarital relationships are kept private. Others are fully transparent and discuss details of their outside relationships. The level of detail shared is up to each couple. The key is that all partners are honest about what they are doing.

What are the ground rules for an open marriage?

For an open marriage to work, spouses must agree on ground rules regarding extramarital relationships. Rules help maintain trust and prevent hurt feelings. Common ground rules include:

  • Safety first – Use protection to prevent STDs.
  • No sleepovers – Overnight dates are not allowed.
  • No mutual friends – Extramarital partners cannot be couples you socialize with.
  • Vetting new partners – Spouses must approve new partners.
  • Share schedules – Inform your spouse of plans with outside partners.
  • Check-ins – Connect emotionally with your spouse after other dates.
  • Suspension option – Either partner can close the marriage at any time.

The exact ground rules depend on each couple’s values and comfort levels. Rules may evolve over time as spouses discover boundaries. Ongoing communication about guidelines is essential.

What are the pros of an open marriage?

When executed with mutual trust and consent, an open marriage offers several potential benefits. Possible advantages include:

  • Sexual variety and excitement – Partners can enjoy intimacy with new people.
  • Personal growth – Extramarital relationships encourage independence and self-discovery.
  • Less pressure on the marriage – Freedom to look elsewhere reduces resentment of unmet needs.
  • Honesty – Openly acknowledging desire for non-monogamy prevents cheating.
  • Strengthened marital bond – Removing taboos allows spouses to connect more deeply.
  • Individual freedom – Partners have autonomy to pursue other intimate connections.

The excitement and learning that comes from new relationships outside the marriage can invigorate couples and bring them closer together. An open marriage offers a framework for honoring both independence and commitment.

What are the cons of an open marriage?

Despite benefits for some couples, open marriages also come with potential disadvantages and risks, such as:

  • Jealousy – Witnessing a spouse’s enjoyment of others can provoke envy.
  • Inequality – One partner may have more extramarital relationships than the other.
  • Lack of trust – Suspicion about fidelity can strain the marriage.
  • Negative emotions – Guilt, loneliness, resentment, and insecurity may arise.
  • Logistical issues – Juggling relationships takes time and commitment.
  • Reduced intimacy and connection – Energy focused outside the marriage may undermine the marital bond.
  • Risk of divorce – Some open marriages end after one spouse develops feelings for another partner.

The complicated emotions and time commitments involved make open marriages vulnerable to unhappiness and instability for some couples. Honest self-examination is necessary to determine if non-monogamy is advisable for both partners.

What are the origins of open marriage?

The concept of open marriage dates back to early utopian communities in the 1800s, such as the Oneida commune, that experimented with group marriage arrangements. However, open marriage did not gain much visibility until the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Books published in the 1970s by George and Nena O’Neill and Robert and Mary CRUISER provided frameworks for consensual non-monogamous marriage that popularized the concept.

During the sexually liberated 1970s, an estimated 50,000-250,000 American couples experimented with open arrangements. This represented a small counter-cultural movement toward rejecting marital monogamy. The majority viewed open marriages as immoral or destined to fail. Open marriages declined in the 1980s during the conservative Reagan era and the AIDS epidemic. However, interest revived in the 1990s as LGBTQ, polyamory, and sex-positivity movements questioned cultural constraints around relationships and sexuality.

What percentage of marriages are open?

There are no precisely accurate statistics on what percentage of marriages are open, since many couples keep their non-traditional arrangements private. Estimates generally range from 1-5% of married couples:

  • A 2020 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that around 1-2% of married people reported being in a consensually non-monogamous marriage.
  • A 2017 study found 4-5% of Americans were engaged in consensual non-monogamy, either as part of a married couple or in an unmarried relationship.
  • Older data from the 1970s estimated open marriages ranging from 50,000 on the low end to 250,000 on the high end, in a era when 34 million couples were married in the U.S.

So while a small percentage of marriages are open, the numbers appear to be growing as relationship models diversify and become less traditional.

What leads couples to open their marriage?

There are a variety of motivations that lead married couples to open up their relationships. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • Sexual incompatibility – Differing sex drives or interests lead partners to look elsewhere for fulfillment.
  • Fallout from infidelity – After an affair, spouses agree to consensual non-monogamy moving forward.
  • Exploring bisexuality – One partner who is bisexual wants to act on same-sex desires.
  • Polyamory – Partners wish to nurture romantic attachments beyond just sexual variety.
  • Curiosity and excitement – Couples want to experience new partners and avoid the routine of monogamy.
  • Empowerment – Challenging marital norms appeals to some spouses.

Open marriage offers an appealing option for couples struggling with conflicting needs or simply seeking adventure. Every couple has their own reasons for opening up.

What are the rules for successful open marriages?

For open marriages to succeed and last, research indicates they should follow these guidelines:

  • Start slowly – Test boundaries before fully opening up the relationship.
  • Maintain transparency – Frequently communicate about extrarelational activities.
  • Negotiate ground rules – Compromise to find agreements that work for both partners.
  • Value your partner – Prioritize your spouse’s well-being and the marriage itself.
  • Practice safe sex – Use protection with outside partners to prevent STDs.
  • Watch for problems – If jealousy or dishonesty emerge, consider closing the marriage temporarily or permanently.

Following these guidelines helps foster the communication, trust, and security needed for open marriages to thrive in the long run.

What are the characteristics of successful open marriages?

Research on satisfied couples indicates that open marriages tend to exhibit certain strengths and practices, such as:

  • High levels of trust – Successful couples have confidence in their partner’s honesty and commitment to the marriage.
  • Effective communication skills – Partners openly discuss feelings, needs, boundaries, etc. to prevent conflict.
  • Emotional intimacy – Spouses maintain a strong connection through affection and quality time together.
  • Flexibility – Couples accommodate each other’s needs and are willing to negotiate rules.
  • Security – Partners feel safe in the relationship and prioritized by their spouse.
  • Equality – Both spouses have equal freedom in pursuing outside relationships.

When these elements are present, open marriages provide rewarding experiences for both partners based on mutual trust, understanding, and respect.

What are the risks and drawbacks of open marriages?

Despite the potential rewards, open marriages do come with substantial emotional risks and practical challenges, such as:

  • Jealousy – Witnessing a partner’s outside relationships often provokes jealousy.
  • Resentment – Imbalances in the number or quality of outside relationships may build resentment.
  • Insecurity – Doubts may arise about a partner’s commitment and attraction.
  • Lack of time – Juggling multiple relationships leaves less time to invest in the marriage.
  • Negative emotions – Shame, guilt, loneliness, and depression can result.
  • Logistical complications – Scheduling, childcare, and housing issues arise with multiple partners.

Coping with these challenges requires bonding, reassurance, communication skills, time management, emotional regulation, and other relationship resources.

Do open marriages have a higher or lower divorce rate?

There is limited research on divorce rates for open versus closed marriages. Some studies indicate:

  • A 2017 study found no difference in divorce rates between monogamous and consensually non-monogamous couples.
  • A 1974 study found a 1.78% divorce rate for open marriages compared to 2.67% for monogamous marriages.

However, other research suggests open marriages may face greater risks:

  • A 2020 study found monogamous couples more satisfied with sacrifice, commitment, attachment, and confidence in their marriages compared to consensually non-monogamous couples.
  • A 2019 study showed monogamous couples scored higher on measures of love, intimacy, trust, passion, commitment, and satisfaction than consensually non-monogamous couples.

Overall, evidence on divorce rates is mixed. More research is needed on outcomes for open marriages.

What are the psychological impacts of open marriages?

For some couples, opening their marriage has positive psychological effects such as:

  • Greater self-esteem from pursuing independent relationships
  • Reduced anxiety due to the comfort of transparency
  • More life satisfaction from fulfilling unmet needs
  • Improved mood from excitement and variety

However, open marriages may also produce negative emotional consequences like:

  • Lowered self-image due to jealousy and comparisons
  • Increased anxiety stemming from fear of loss
  • Greater depression or loneliness as partners connect with new people
  • Anger and resentment resulting from perceived betrayals

A couples’ psychological health before opening the marriage plays a big role. Stable, secure couples tend to fare better emotionally than troubled couples when faced with non-monogamy.

How do open marriages affect children and family life?

Introducing parental extramarital relationships into family life requires careful consideration of children’s well-being. Potential impacts include:

  • Confusion about mom and dad’s relationship
  • Exposure to inappropriate sexual information
  • Feelings of abandonment due to shifting time priorities
  • Resentment toward parents’ outside partners

On the other hand, some children adjust well and simply view additional parental partners as part of an extended family. The effects greatly depend on the maturity and temperament of the child along with the skill of parents in maintaining stability.

What relationship skills make open marriages succeed?

Experts note these effective communication and emotional regulation skills are vital for open marriage success:

  • Listening – Fully attending to a partner’s feelings and perspective without judgment.
  • Empathy – Expressing understanding and validation of a partner’s emotions.
  • Self-soothing – Calming one’s own jealousy and insecurity independently.
  • Conflict resolution – Negotiating rules, needs, boundaries in a compromise-oriented way.
  • Emotional self-awareness – Identifying and articulating feelings clearly.
  • Introspection – Analyzing one’s own motives and biases behind emotions.

Couples who diligently strengthen these skills create an environment of safety and care that helps open marriages thrive.


The limited research available makes it difficult to definitively conclude whether open marriages are generally successful. Some couples manage open arrangements very well and report increased satisfaction, personal growth, honesty, and connection in their marriages. However, other couples struggle with jealousy, insecurity, logistics, and emotional distance that threaten the stability and satisfaction of their marriages.

In general, open marriages built on strong communication skills, high intimacy, mutual trust, flexibility, and emotional self-awareness have the highest odds of success. However, even then, substantial effort is required to overcome the hardships non-monogamy often introduces. Open marriage remains a controversial and stigmatized model that works well for some couples but leads to problems for others. Any married couple considering opening their relationship should carefully weigh the potential risks and rewards first through open and thoughtful dialogue with their partner.

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