How to define the rules of an open relationship

Set some ground rules about sex, what you can talk about, and what you want your families to know (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)

Open relationships are all about freedom – but that doesn’t mean you don’t also have to set some ground rules.

Entering into an open relationship, or opening up an existing relationship, is not a decision that should be made lightly. It takes some serious consideration, and part of that should probably include establishing some ground rules.

This isn’t about stifling anyone’s freedom, or closing off possibilities, but instead it’s about maintaining trust and respect with your partner as you both explore the option of entering into physical and emotional interactions with other people.

‘Going into an open relationship and a sudden change in relationship dynamic can lead to discrepancies when rules and boundaries haven’t been made clear,’ Ness Cooper, a clinical sexologist who works as a sex and relationship coach, tells

‘It can be easy to overstep without realising, which in turn can jeopardise the safety of the relationship.’

Jealousy, insecurity and a feeling of lack of control can all rear their ugly heads when you step away from monogamy and try something different. But it doesn’t have to be difficult, toxic or doomed to fail.

Ness says that, as with so many things in relationships, good communication is key.

‘Setting time aside to have a conversation around setting relationships ground rules is important,’ says Ness. ‘Avoiding discussions like these after conflicts is key, as when in a heightened emotional state it can become easy to set unrealistic or unfair rules and boundaries.’

Ness says it’s also crucially important to remember to check-in with each other regularly, because even open relationship dynamics can change based on your experiences.

‘Sometimes, certain rules will need altering to make sure you both continue to feel safe within your primary relationship,’ says Ness.

‘Discuss not just the emotional concerns that open relationships can have, but also the physical.’

Why are rules and boundaries important in an open relationship?

While complete freedom may be appealing, without any kind of principles to guide you, it could descend into chaos quite quickly.

Ness agrees that rules are important because they give you the structure to explore things safely.

‘As soon as safety leaves a relationship dynamic it can be very difficult to grow further within that relationship due to the possibility of negative emotions arising and conflicts,’ she says.

‘Rules can help navigate emotions such as jealously and envy in a healthy way.

‘Jealously and envy can happen even when rules have been set within an open relationship, and it’s how couples navigate these in a healthy way that makes a big difference to their relationship.’

What ground rules should you set?

Every couple will have their own way of approaching this, and their own limits and boundaries about what is and isn’t acceptable in their relationship.

So, you need to find what works for you. But don’t be afraid to get into the details.

‘Rules around the type of sex you can and cannot have with people outside of your main relationship can be very important, and how you both can stay safe when it comes to using barriers and contraception,’ says Ness.

‘Physical safety of meeting-up with others is important too and you may decide that you shouldn’t meet up with others in certain locations to avoid conflicts from peers.’

Fine dining restaurant, a couple of young adults having romantic dinner, anniversary celebration, first date or saint valentines day‘Rules around the type of sex you can and cannot have with people outside of your main relationship can be very important’ (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)

Ness also suggests looking on open relationship dating apps to see what other couples have put as basic ground rules on their profiles.

‘Talk about these with your partner and whether or not they fit with your relationships goals, wants, and needs,’ says Ness.

‘Listen to your partner and how they interpret and express rules. This is important as it can be easy to see how you interpret rules, rather than listen to your partner’s interpretations.

‘We all have different outlooks on rules and boundaries. Listening to your partners interpretations will not only help you understand how to follow rules and boundaries you both make; it will also show that you are present within your main relationship and there for each other.’

Additionally, Ness says you should think about creating rules around what you’re both allowed to talk about.

‘Some open relationships don’t want to hear the details of dates that happen with others, and other open relationships will want to talk about everything,’ Ness says. ‘It can vary greatly, and learning what both you and your partner are comfortable with discussing is important.

‘Rules on how to deal with what you share with peers and family members are important too. Everyone has different relationships with their friends and family and some may want to keep their open relationship status private.’

What if you have different ideas about what the rules should be?

It’s completely normal to have different understandings of rules and boundaries, as a result, Ness says discussion about these differences is very important for couples.

‘The end result of setting rules isn’t always about having the same understanding of them completely, it’s more about maintaining and sharing the end goal and beliefs that the rules are supporting,’ Ness explains.

‘If your relationship’s internal goals and beliefs are extremely mismatched, then it could be a sign that you both want completely different styles of open relationship dynamics, which can lead to conflict.’

So, working out how you both can bring your end goals into alignment when it comes to opening up a relationship can really help – this may involve a lot of talking it out.

‘Discussing and sharing why some differences may be there, can help you both get to know each other on a deeper level and will help you form any compromises needed when setting rules for an open relationship,’ says Ness.

‘If you’re unable to accept your partner’s perspective on open relationships then no amount of rules will help to change that.

‘If you still want to workout how to add an open relationship into your relationship dynamic then seeking advice from a sex and relationship coach or therapist can help.’

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How to make sure those rules are followed by both parties

Ness says it’s important to have an understanding that in an open relationship, following rules to the letter in every situation may not be possible. So you have to have a degree of flexibility and understanding.

‘Understand that rules, whilst important, can be influenced greatly by situations at the time,’ she says. ‘Not only have you both agreed on set rules, there will be other people entering into the relationship (even if that’s in a casual manner), who will have their own understanding of your rules and may interpret them differently.

‘Individuals who enter your relationship too will also bring their own rules and expectations.’

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