Whether you’re just starting to get serious or have been together for years, broaching the subject of starting an open relationship is totally uncharted water. Even if you’ve tried the whole open thing before, each relationship—and the ground rules that keep things from turning into a jealous mess—is different.
That doesn’t mean open relationships don’t work—or even that they can’t be as rock-solid as monogamous ones. But experts say strong open relationships do tend to have one thing in common: a mutually agreed upon set of ground rules.
“This is about being self-protective and protective of your partner,” says Matt Lundquist, a licensed clinical social worker and relationship therapist in New York. Part of the reason for setting some rules is just practical—like using protection to reduce your risk of getting, or sharing, an STI. “There are also rules that are intended to provide emotional safety for all parties involved,” Lundquist says. Most of these—though not all—are designed to prevent the fallout from jealousy.
The main thing to discuss is pretty straightforward, says Rachel Sussman, a licensed clinical social worker and relationship therapist in New York. “The most important thing is to ask each person is what an open relationship means to them,” she says.
Because, while generally “open implies that one has a sort of ethical ‘permission’ to seek or stumble upon a new partner,” explains Lundquist, there’s some wiggle room in the exact definition of an open relationship—10 couples would probably give you 10 different answers on how they define the arrangement.
While these will inevitably change as you try out the whole open relationship thing and see how it affects your partner and your relationship, it does help to establish some ground rules up front.
1. Set sex boundaries.
One of the first rules you should agree on as a couple is what types of sex are okay to have with other people (if sex is okay at all) and what you consider to be out of bounds, Lundquist says.
Don’t shy away from getting specific here: Is penetrative sex okay? Oral? Kissing? Are you allowed to explore things like BDSM that you don’t do with your partner? “In the heat of the moment, things come up,” says Lundquist. “It’s better to talk these things through in advance rather than risking a partner’s surprise hurt or disappointment after the fact.”
Your sex rules should also include safe-sex practices. Again, be specific, Lundquist advises. Will you use a condom for any penetrative sex? Do you expect your partner to use a dental dam for any oral sex? Will you both want each other’s hookups to have been screened for STI’s? Will you regularly get screened? “Everyone needs to feel safe sexually,” Lundquist says. “Better to talk through what your partner needs to feel really safe.”
2. Set emotional boundaries.
It’s also important to define what social and emotional behaviors are okay. For example, maybe you’re totally cool with your partner having random Tinder hookups but you’re not comfortable with them going on dates or seeing other partners in a social context.
Navigating the emotional guidelines can be even trickier than the physical ones. “Even though people say they don’t think they’ll get jealous, they often do,” Sussman says. Two key questions to discuss with your partner are: Can you have sex without developing feelings for someone? And if you do, how will you and your partner address that situation?
3. Establish who it’s cool to hook up with.
Open relationships don’t (usually) mean “open to anyone.” And, according to Lundquist, “this is an area where open couples can get into trouble.” Before you enter into an open relationship, it’s important to agree on who is fair game to get intimate with.
“There are certain people one might feel more or less jealous or threatened by,” Lundquist explains. For example, you might agree that you’re only cool with having sex with strangers—no chance of awkwardly running into them at the office holiday party. On the flipside, some open couples prefer to choose outside partners from people they already know and trust. “Some people even agree to only date partners of one or another gender outside the relationship,” Lundquist says.
Another rule to consider adding to this discussion is the relationship status of your outside partners. “Agreeing to only have sexual relationships with someone who either doesn’t have a partner or whose partner is cool with it, for example, is an important thing to discuss,” Lundquist says.
4. Figure out how much time you’ll spend with other partners.
Once you’ve established boundaries, experts recommend taking the time to dig into the nitty gritty—like how much time you’ll each spend on your open-relationship activities.
One key thing to agree on is whether you’ll each be actively or passively exploring other relationships. In other words, will you be dusting off your Bumble profile and eating into your date-night schedule with your current partner to see other people, or will you take advantage of your open relationship status only when someone happens to fall in your path.
Whichever you agree upon, you should also set some rules around how much time you’re allowed to spend with other partners. “When you meet new people and are having sex with someone new, it can feel a little obsessive,” Sussman says. “Explore with your partner how you will keep that in check.”
For example, decide how much time each week you’re allowed to spend with other partners and what the protocol is if you want to skip movie night with your S.O. to go on a date.
5. Decide how you’ll talk about your relationships with each other and others.
One of the hardest rules to figure out, according to the experts, is how open to be with each other about your open relationship. “Some couples I work with have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” Sussman says.
There are two main points to discuss here: Will you tell each other about outside hookups at all? And if so, how much detail will you share? There’s likely going to be some element of trial and error here, Sussman says. You might find that hearing that your partner was just with someone else makes you angry—or you might find that hearing the dirty details turns you on.
6. Discuss how often you’ll have a check-in.
For many open relationships, “you just have to play around with it all and see what comes up for you,” Sussman says. While guidelines are super important, they also need to leave enough space for one or both partners’ feelings to change. Sussman recommends setting up regular check-ins about how the open relationship is going. “Whatever rules we set for ourselves, may not apply a few years down the road,” she says.
The one golden rule you should follow above all others? Like all issues that come up in your relationship, be honest. If one of your open relationship rules is no longer working, revisit it to make some edits.
After figuring out how to discuss your open relationship with each other, you should agree on how to talk about it with others, if at all. “There can be embarrassment or a sense that certain people will judge or not understand,” Lundquist says. “Like anything private in a relationship, it’s best to check with your partner first so you’re not revealing something that’s private to both of you out of turn.”