Open relationships are like unicorns: romanticized, rare and, in real life, dangerous if not approached with caution. Thanks to the fuzzily defined rules of dating on a college campus, many students often grapple with some degree of openness in their sexual and romantic relationships – a quick survey of Northwestern’s Yik Yak reveals it’s littered with variations on, “So are we dating, or what?”
But few declare that they’re in an officially open relationship. That might be because, as sexy as partner-approved sleeping around sounds, actually navigating non-monogamy is hard work.
“It can seem to be this new, hip thing that the youngsters are doing,” explained Jazz*, a senior who’s been involved in an open relationship for over two years. “There isn’t this awareness of, ‘Okay, how is this actually gonna work as a relationship model? How is that actually going to work in terms of communication?’”
Jazz and her girlfriend, Kay*, agreed to be non-monogamous before they started dating in their sophomore year. Despite wanting to commit to Jazz, Kay said she enjoyed exploring college’s buffet of casual hookups too much to settle down into monogamy. For her, sex and romance are unrelated.
“I can do both of those things and see a very distinct separation between them,” she said, adding that casual sex can actually help ease tensions in the romantic relationship. “If your partner doesn’t want to do something or doesn’t have the body part or like whatever, you can just find someone else instead of being really unhappy or pressuring your partner into doing something they don’t want to do. There’s other people in the world.”
“It’s just a way of taking the pressure off of one person being the be-all, end-all of all of your emotional and sexual needs,” Jazz said.
But figuring out who those other people are, and what you’re allowed to do with them, is crucial for navigating an open relationship. In monogamous relationships, there’s a floor of assumptions is what is and isn’t allowed. In an open or polyamorous relationship, that floor has to be constantly rebuilt, brick by brick.
Even clarifying what an open relationship is can be tricky. There are no reliable statistics available on how many Americans consider themselves non-monogamous, while the differences between terms like “open relationship” and “polyamory,” as well as whether or not non-monogamous lifestyles should be classified as “orientations” or “identities,” remain up for debate. However, polyamory by its very definition implies that these partnerships are more than just sexual – they’re meaningfully romantic. While someone involved in a polyamorous relationship may have multiple and equal partners, participants in an open relationship like Kay and Jazz’s often only involve two main partners with sexual encounters on the side.
“Honestly, I originally had such an inflated ego and thought, ‘This is gonna be the easiest thing I’ve ever done,’” Jazz said of having an open relationship. “And then like realized, a month and a half into it, I have very real jealous struggles. I was like, ‘Oh, God, what’s happening,’ and was almost consumed by it .... We ended up having to have a lot of very serious conversations about what we meant by ‘open,’ and we set up some rules.”
Since they live together, they can’t hook up with someone else in their shared bed or with each other’s friends. If one of them wants to sleep with someone else more than once, they have to talk about it. And even if they just have a one-night stand, they have to tell each other everything.
“Don’t bring them up while we’re having sex,” Jazz said. “Probably not in the literal middle of it.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Kay laughed. “I only did it once.”
For students interested in trying out open or polyamorous relationships, Jazz and Kay advise continuous communication – not just with your partners, but also with yourself.
“If there’s a ton of jealousy going on, there’s an issue that might not just be jealousy. Most of the time, if jealousy has come into Jazz and my relationship, it’s more been driven by other things, like insecurity,” Kay explained. So they work together, “figuring out where it’s coming from and dealing with that.”
“Why am I feeling like this? What are the rules that we’ve set in place? Why have we picked those ones? What else have I learned about myself?” Jazz said. “You really do have to be that level of vulnerable.”
*Last names withheld due to privacy concerns.