Is the Term ‘Open Relationship’ Synonymous With Sex Outside the Relationship?

No, it’s not. And here’s why ‘open’ = way healthier and happier.

image by James Lee from

Plant a flower in a pot and its growth is limited to the size of said pot. In fact, there are times when the container may even stunt the growth of the bloom. But, plant it in a field and something different happens. Open to sunlight, breeze, air, and with significant space to expand, the plant or flower can flourish to the extent of its personal capacity for growth.

Open relationship means an honest and expansive relationship between two people, based on equal freedom and the genuine identities of both partners. It entails a verbal, intellectual, and emotional commitment to the right of each person to grow as an individual within the connection they share.

An open relationship is a non-manipulative one. Neither is the point of it, total validation for the other. Too many of us rely on our relationship as our means of feeling worthy, loved, and validated. And without it, we feel a sense of lacking, a hole in our lives, a sort of meaninglessness. This will lead to ill choice in relationships, as well as likely unhealthy relationships in the making.

An open relationship is a relationship between peers, in which there is no need for dominance or submission, for commandeered restrictions or stifling possessiveness. The woman is not the caretaker. The man is not the dictator or leader. And because the relationship is based on authentic mutual liking and trust, each one has enough spiritual space (mental and emotional freedom) to become an individual.

Being individuals means that both people are free to develop and expand fully into the outside world. Each one has the opportunity for growth and new experiences outside the relationship.

Through their growth as separate persons and their supportive love for one another, this actually vitalizes and increases their couple-power. The union grows stronger and richer through a new dynamic. Because each one is growing through freedom toward selfhood, adding new experiences from the outside, and at the same time, receiving learning, wisdom, and ultimately benefits through their mate’s outside experiences too. This, culminating in an upward spiral.

In a closed (traditional, usual) relationship, the idea is to become fused as a single entity. “The couple.” Separate space between the two people, beyond their being forced to go to work for the day, is not encouraged, and maybe not even allowed. There might be rare outings with “the Boys” or “the Girls.” That’s about it though. Anything beyond a shred of time spent on something outside of the relationship, and for one individual on their own is seen as a threat or as “taking away from the relationship.”

Open relationships, in contrast, encourage growth for both parties. Therefore, their union thrives on change and new experiences. With change, new constellations of behavior, novel ways of relating, new knowledge of the self, and an increased dynamism of interaction between the two become possible and tend to occur. Even falling in love with each other can become a reoccurring event, many times over. As each becomes more attractive to the other by means of their individual growth and their developing knowledge of one another, the union becomes stronger, constantly revitalized, and is ever-expanding.

Closed relationships are conceived of as a trap. Our cultural attitude, thoughts, remarks, and metaphors for and within marriage reflect this. “They got hitched,” “the old ball and chain,” “she’d better check with her husband first,” and “he’s whipped.”

Open relationships are based on an openness to one’s self, to the world, and to one’s partner. Open relationships are expanded monogamy. Retaining the fulfilling and rewarding aspect of an in-depth, intimate relationship with another person, while eliminating the restrictions we have been led to believe are an integral part of monogamy.

Typical of closed relationships include:

-Possession or ownership of one’s partner. Belonging to someone.

-Denial of the self, such as sacrificing one’s own self and individual identity.

-Maintenance of the couple unit-such as, you must always appear as a couple, they are your perpetual plus one, etc.

-Rigid role behavior like tasks, attitudes, and behavior separated according to outdated concepts of “female” and “male.”

-Absolute fidelity (physical and even emotionally binding, through societal expectation and demand rather than choice, with zero flexibility otherwise).

-Total exclusivity (enforced togetherness to preserve the union).

There is nothing wrong with usual relational acts, like spending more time with your in-laws than you would prefer, always being the one to do the dishes, usually spending time together with mutual friends, or asking your partner if they think your outfit is good.

The issue and what makes them harmful is when we do them as part of a preset pattern because this is “just what you do” in a relationship. This is what’s expected. Because, we have been led to believe, this is how “good partners” behave. This is “just what couples do.”

Those thought patterns are what make certain relational behaviors a problem and are what mold it into a closed relationship, which is ultimately (over time) going to be stifling and growth stunting.

In a closed relationship, possessiveness forces both partners to forgo experiences that could enlarge and enrich their world.

James must give up his friendship with Kyle, because his wife cannot stand Kyle.

Lilly clings to Randy’s side at parties instead of seeking out new people who might be of interest to her and pushing her comfort zone by talking with others.

Jessica isn’t allowed to be friends with Luke, because her longtime love, Cameron, is jealous and insecure about it.

Jared cannot go away for a week on the solo adventure he’s been dying to do, because Carol is worried about him and will miss him too much- she doesn’t want to be alone for that long. It’s taking away from their relationship somehow.

If Brian goes to visit his parents, he always wants Jenny to come too, because that’s what a girlfriend should do, and because if she doesn't come, his parents will wonder why she isn’t there.

Mandy never goes out to meet her girlfriends anymore, because she doesn’t want to leave Chris and their toddler for the afternoon. She feels guilty and worried about going out for a bit, so she just doesn’t do these things anymore. Plus, she misses them when she’s gone, so she would rather just stay.

Maggie makes dinner every night, even though she’s sick of it because those are the expectations she and Michael came to went they first started dating.

Stagnation and diminishment of the self are inevitable in these scenarios. But if each of us were truly free to follow our own instincts, then the growth that each person experiences in the course of doing what is right for them can be channeled back into the relationship.

Both people must be free to follow the potentials of their own personal development, and outside of the relationship. Whether this involves friendships, career choices, intellectual interests, personal passions and projects, or other modes of self-fulfillment.

A more open relationship, then, looks something like this:

Living for now and with realistic expectations. Couples would find it easier to relate in the present and to live a more dynamic, open life is their relationship were not filled with expectations (which are essentially promises for security).

Couples often depend on marriage and longterm relationships to give them a purpose and meaning in life, to give them love and affection, to give them social acceptance, status, and a happy family. Actually, though, these are all things that people must create for themselves within the relationship. The relationship alone provides none of this. You must make it.

Unrealistic expectations include: that the relationship will last forever, that it means total commitment, that your mate belongs to you, that your mate should rather be with you than with anyone else at all times, that fidelity is a true measure of the love you have for one another, and that any change is disruptive and means loss of love. To name a few, though there are more.

Privacy for each person. Privacy does not necessarily involve going off entirely by oneself (though it can mean this). And privacy should not be confused with outright avoidance, as these are different. A couple’s ability to be together in the same room and yet alone actually indicates fundamental respect for one another. In such a situation, togetherness takes on new meaning. The person, though, who is freely granted his or her times of privacy by their mate does not feel the need to escape.

Open and honest communication. This can be verbal and nonverbal. It also includes sensuality as communication. Sex is a form of communication. Learning to decode your partner’s body language and becoming a sensuous, sensitive partner able to express your feelings will help immensely in creating a fulfilling, open relationship.

Flexibility in roles. Men are becoming cooking and baking aficionados. They wash dishes, push vacuum cleaners, and diaper the baby. Men even knit now! Women, meanwhile, are heading off to work, making home repairs, and study karate. Single and divorced women are asking men out on dates. Gender roles are becoming fluid and flexible.

Rigid role stereotypes in our society (the male is aggressive and dominant, and the female as passive and submissive) actually inhibit men and women from expressing the full range of sexual and sexual pleasure that is natural to human beings.

To ascribe mutually exclusive characteristics and occupations to males and females is to split men and women from one another and push them into opposing camps. For you cannot get to know someone you cannot understand. Thus, we must share these supposedly male and female qualities instead of diving them.

Open companionship. Throughout life, from infancy to adolescence and into young adulthood, we are taught to reach out to others in order to learn, to grow, to enrich and vary our existence. We are open to the world and the people around us.

Suddenly, with committed love and marriage, all that comes to an end. The restrictive nature of marriage and supposed commitment (the way we have conceived of it) requires the two people in the relationship to turn off the outside world, to a significant degree, and to turn only to one another. They must restrict contact with others, not only those of the opposite sex but with friends of the same sex of whom their mate does not approve.

All of us have profound needs for a wider range of interpersonal relationships and for a greater variety of companionship than the closed marriage and closed relationships we tend to take as relational given, permit.

Marriage, by combining the resources of two individuals, ought to increase our opportunities for discovering the pleasurable companionship of new people, but in fact, it does the opposite. The closed relationship demands that all friends and outside connections must be acceptable to all parties. And friends of the opposite sex? Forget about it. That is unless they have a partner of their own, and then you can be a happy foursome of friends. Safer that way, or so we think. Because in reality, all of life is a risk. And that includes every relationship, whether open or closed.

In setting up a possessive boundary line on your mate’s behavior, the closed relationship creates conditions necessary for jealousy. If I own you and you are “mine,” I am bound to get jealous of your separate interests and any attention you give to others or that others give to you.

Consider the old cliche about greener grass. The crucial part is the fence. Of course, the grass is going to look greener on the other side to the one who is fenced in. When the fences are removed, however, one discovers that the grass on the other side is no more vividly green after all, but merely different.

Open relationships create a kind of bond that makes other grass actually seem less green by comparison. The risk of failure in relationships that are closed is far greater, with its forced exclusivity and possessiveness, which denies individuality and growth than in the open relationship with its trust toward all other types of connection (which may or may not be sexual. Sex need not be a part of it, contrary to the popular misconception of the term “open”).

Open companionship does not offer nearly as much risk or threat as one thinks, if the proper openness has been first established between the relational partners themselves. When the primary relationship is open, it has a strength to which outside companionship become additive rather than competitive. So the meaning and intensity of the primary relationship is so strong that outside attachments can never catch up.

Thus, we do limit ourselves, in closed relationships, not only to a single person who must supply all our emotional and other needs but to a person who, as time goes by, becomes more limited themselves by these very restrictions.

There becomes a new excitement to living within open relationships, because there are no limits on one’s self, on the capacity to be oneself, and in how they relate to others. Your spontaneity is always there and it can bubble out.

Although life is too short, it can be ever so wide. The exclusivity clause of a closed relationship, the need to maintain the couple-front, makes life not only short but also narrow. That sad narrowness that limits the lives of so many couples is simply not necessary.

Equality. Closed relationships make constant demands on partners to give things up. Compromises and bargains abound. Frequently though, we bargain our way into boredom and stagnation.

People who must give up 50 percent of themselves in relationships can never achieve full equality. But those who are a full person to begin with, who retain 100 percent of their personhood and their identity, have the security within themselves to grant one another openly those freedoms that they would have to bargain for as half persons in a closed relationship.

In open relationships, each gives the other the opportunity, the freedom, to pursue those pleasures he or she wishes to, and the time they do spend together is fruitful and happiness spent in catching up on one another’s individual activities.

Respect for identity. Through the forced, expected togetherness of closed relationships, we fuse our identities to the point of mutual anonymity. You succeed in making nobody of one another.

Having identity is becoming your own individual and being able to express it. It means that you know yourself. You are able to fit together into an integrated whole, into a good self-image that is rooted in reality, all the different images of yourself you have accrued throughout the years. All while there is room for future images.

Having identity means knowing who you are and liking who you are. You are able to be an authentic person in your disclosures to others. You have integrity. You believe in yourself and are responsible for your actions. You have your opinion and you let others have theirs. You are confident in your abilities and you respect those of others. You are able to make choices for yourself and to function as a separate individual is a demonstration of your autonomy.

Trust. Thought patterns like, “cheating wouldn’t happen if there weren't something wrong with our relationship,” “flirting is offensive and rude,” “I should satisfy my partner and that should be enough for them,” “when they go off and do their own thing, I feel lonely and as though they aren’t there for me,” these are all examples of status trust, as well as unrealistic and insecure thinking.

These are trusts based on fiction rather than truth, and there is no room within them for compassionate acceptance of human nature.

When there are unrealistic demands, there is no room for growth. Within marriage vows, people make promises that only angels couple keep. They expect each other not only to keep their explicit, pie-in-the-sky promises but to live up to all the implicit clauses of the closed marriage contract. Such couples impose rigid, absolute standards of idealized behavior on one another, and when someone inevitably fails to live up to it, they think the trust has been violated.

With open trust though, partners are honest about the reality of human life. They are realistic about change and are courageous and truthful in meeting a challenge or crisis together.

The open couple knows that neither is perfect and that change often involves taking one step backward to take more steps forward.

The nature of trust in open relationships means that partners can be alone together or alone apart, go out together or apart, have friends that are mutual or individual. They can respect one another's differences and yet, become closer for having done so. They can share their problems and their temporary dependencies because they have given one another the mutual knowledge of their inner selves necessary to come to one another support in time of need.

Sharing the knowledge of your immediate desires and needs with your mate, living for now and not for yesterday or tomorrow, living not the life that somebody else has laid out for you in terms of role expectations, and living instead for your own self through shared communication and growth with your mate’s self. Trust, then, is freedom.

Open relationships result in far more emotional and intellectual richness, life satisfaction, personal growth, and joy for each party involved in the relationship. It’s time to challenge our age-old, illogical, fear-based conception of what it means to be in a romantic relationship, and turn towards more open, healthier, courageous, and flexible thinking.

(Source for this piece: Open Marriage: A New Lifestyle For Couples by Nena O’Neill and George O’Neill. I highly recommend it. This is a superb, thought-provoking read).

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author.

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