Open relationships have an air of mystery about them. Pop culture perceives them as swingers – lusty groups of neighbours getting together for key parties in a shag-carpeted den. In reality, many men and women have negotiated open arrangements with their partners, and strict monogamy is just one of many options a careful and open-minded couple can choose from. Here’s a brief glossary of terms that can be useful in defining your own open relationship. Keep in mind that these terms are flexible, so be specific and direct when you’re discussing your preference and needs with partners:
Primary partners refer to the people with whom we live our lives: the people we live with, have sex with, raise children with, share finances with, and so on. They can be spouses or long-term boyfriends and girlfriends. Primary partnerships tend to be long-term and deep commitments that experience similar challenges and rewards as monogamous long-term couples.
Secondary partners has a wide variety of meaning. They can be long-term girlfriends or boyfriends who don’t live in the same house, or folks who meet up for annual weekend flings, or something in between. These partners aren’t usually as deeply involved in each other’s lives, but there are still elements of romance and courtship in these relationships.
Play partners are generally thought of as short- or long-term sexual partners. They might offer something that primary or secondary partners don’t (fetish or kink, for example). These types of relationships could be considered a “booty call”: lots of sex, lots of fun, but deeper attachment or romantic courtship is generally off the table.
Discussing your preferences openly and honestly is the best way to discover which of these partnerships might fit your relationship. Remember – consent, respect, and communication are paramount. Be direct with your feelings, and remember that your partner can’t read your mind. Talk about boundaries and rules – what might not bother one person might be a deal-breaker for their partner, and the only way to figure that out is by negotiating at every step of the way. Folks in open relationships do a lot of talking, so get comfortable sharing your feelings with all your partners.
There are plenty of different ways to structure an open relationship. Here are some of the most common:
Partners in this type of committed relationship have one primary partner, and have given each other permission to have other sexual (but not romantic) partners. These folks often use their play partners to explore kink, or so that couples with unequal sex drives are both sexually satisfied. Still, the focus in this relationship is on the two primary partners.
Swinging is a whole subset of polyamory, one that has its own unique culture and history. As Tristan Taormino, author of Opening Up, puts it, “Swingers usually swing with other swingers at places where swingers swing.” It’s a social life and scene unto itself. These couples are usually emotionally monogamous but sexual non-exclusive, and the focus is mostly on heterosexual couples where women can experiment with and express bisexuality.
Anyone who’s seen an episode of HBO’s three-wife/one-husband drama Big Love is familiar with polygamy, but there’s more to poly love than wearing three wedding bands. Defined as multiple, significant and concurrent relationships, these are the folks who see their husband on Saturday and their girlfriend on Sunday. Some relationships have equal partnerships, but plenty more have a hierarchical model – someone is a primary, the others are secondary. What’s important here is that all participants know about the relationships, and all are actively consenting to include themselves. This isn’t a mistress situation – even if the primary and the secondary aren’t friends, each know the other is out there.
A person with no primary partner who is involved with multiple secondary partners might be described as “dating” or “single and loving it,” but Taormino cautions against this monogamy-centric kind of thinking. A conscious decision to not have a primary partner might happen for a number of reasons – “I don’t want to live with anyone until my kids are out of the house/the divorce is final/ever again” might provoke a nod of recognition – and be a short-term choice or a longer-term ideal.
These relationships usually have a primary-level emotional bond between all participants, even if those relationships aren’t always sexual partnerships. They share life events, such as financial blending, conceiving and raising children, and living together. These groups are usually exclusive unto themselves – these folks don’t have emotional or sexual relationships with folks outside their polyfidelitous group – and sometimes describe themselves with “co-spouse.”
One person is monogamous, the other person is polyamorous. What could be simpler? All kidding aside, this type of relationship only works if the monogamous partner has really embraced the idea of polyamory, and really come to understand it…but it’s just not for them. This common arrangement is an underrepresented idea in the polyamorous and monogamous models, and upends the notion that things have to be “equal” (i.e. “the same”) for both partners. Like all open relationships, it requires love, respect and commitment to the primary partnership for it to work.
Adapted from “Making Your Open Relationship Work,” presented by Tristan Taormino on Saturday April 21 2012. This presentation was part of Good For Her’s 2012 Feminist Porn Awards.
The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton. Greenery Press, 1998
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, by Tristan Taormino. Cleis Press, 2008
Swinging for Beginners: An Introduction to the Lifestyle, by Kaye Bellemeade. New Tradition Press, 2008 (revised)
“Our successful open marriage,” by Sierra Black. Salon.com, January 31, 2012