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A beginner’s guide to open relationships

Admittedly, open relationships, also known as ethical or consensual non-monogamy, are not for everyone. But for a growing minority of UK couples they offer an unconventional relationship solution, and for some even an alternative to divorce or separation.

We expect a lot from long-term relationships and marriage. And while we enter into these agreements knowingly, some believe the expectation that one partner will meet all our needs is flawed.

Open relationships offer another option.

What is ethical non-monogamy?

Ethical non-monogamy is an open relationship approach where partners have equal rights to engage in multiple romantic or sexual relationships with the full knowledge and consent of all involved.

Unlike monogamy, where exclusivity is an important and expected principle, an open relationship allows for more than one romantic, intimate, and/or sexual relationship with an emphasis on open communication, consent, and mutual trust.

Open relationships include various structures, such as consensual casual dating, polyamory, relationship anarchists, and more.

The essential factor is that all participants understand and agree to the relationship’s boundaries and dynamics.

Monogamous relationships

Remaining ‘faithful’ in marriage and long-term relationships is a deeply ingrained societal standard. Monogamy is a tacit agreement that a partner can meet all our needs:

  • Emotional support: Providing love, companionship, and understanding.
  • Intimacy: Satisfying desire and maintaining a healthy sex life.
  • Responsibilities: Household chores, cooking, and managing finances.
  • Parenting: Co-raising children and making joint decisions about their upbringing.
  • Shared lifestyle: Supporting with goals and decisions.

However, some people feel that expecting one person to fulfil all these roles is unrealistic. The pressure to be everything to one another can lead to overwhelm, dissatisfaction, and even resentment.

Typically, in unhappy monogamous relationships there are two options; stay together and try to make things work, or separate.

Instead, ethical non-monogamy or an open marriage, enables couples to continue their relationship while also bringing additional partners into their lives.

Whilst they’re not rooted in the sole aim of avoiding adultery, open relationships acknowledge the desire for additional partners, a common reason for marital infidelity.

Why do some choose ethical non-monogamy?

The reasons for choosing this lifestyle differ from person to person but common reasons include:

  • Open relationships allow individuals to explore their sexual preferences and desires outside of their primary partnership,
  • Some individuals find they can love more than one person simultaneously.
  • Polyamory can provide a variety of emotional and physical experiences, fulfilling different needs through multiple partners.

Types of ethical non-monogamy

There are various forms of open relationships, each with its own set of boundaries and expectations.

Open relationships: In an open relationship, a couple maintains a primary partnership but allows each other to have sexual relationships with other people. This arrangement requires clear communication and agreement on boundaries.

Monogamish: This term describes a relationship that is mostly monogamous but permits occasional sexual experiences with others. The specifics are defined by the couple involved.

Swinging: Swinging involves couples temporarily swapping partners. The rules are set by participating couples.

Polyamory: Polyamory involves having multiple romantic relationships simultaneously, with the consent and knowledge of everyone involved. These relationships can vary in structure, from a single person having multiple partners to a group of people all being romantically involved with each other.

Nonconformative relationships: People who reject traditional relationship hierarchies and norms, instead creating unique relationship agreements based on the needs and desires of those involved.

Polygamy: Polygamy involves one person having multiple spouses. While practiced in some cultures and religions, polygamy is not legal in the UK.

The legalities of open relationships

Polyamorous relationships are not legally recognised in the UK. As a result, secondary partners in open relationships do not have the same legal rights as married couples, irrespective of how long they have been together or whether they have children.

For those in established non-monogamous relationships who are not married, creating a written agreement that outlines your arrangement and what your shared responsibilities are, such as children, housing and finances, can provide some legal protection should your relationship end.

Get in touch

If you are facing challenges within our relationship, or navigating complex relationship dynamics, understanding your rights and seeking support can help you consider all your legal options.

Related links

A beginner’s guide to trial separation

“My partner’s a good person but I’m not happy”

Micro Cheating and Emotional Cheating: Is all cheating equal?

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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