How Does An Open Relationship Work? What Consensual Non-Monogamy Can Mean

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated March 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you are curious about what engaging in an open relationship could look like, you are far from alone. Interest in non-monogamy has grown in recent years, with more people reporting being open to exploring the possibility of participating in a nontraditional relationship structure. Suppose you are contemplating opening your relationship or are interested in learning more. In that case, it can be helpful to understand more about what open relationships and non-monogamy may look like and common forms of non-monogamous relationships.

Explore relationship topics with a compassionate professional

Types of consensual non-monogamous relationships

An open relationship is a form of consensual non-monogamy, a phrase used as somewhat of an umbrella term for romantic relationships where both or all participants have agreed not to conform to traditional standards of monogamous relationships, which typically involve two people who have committed to experiencing emotional and physical intimacy only with each other. 

Consensual non-monogamy is not the same as cheating in a relationship or infidelity in a marriage; those situations involve one partner’s non-monogamy without the other partner’s consent (or sometimes even knowledge). Consent is vital to consensual non-monogamous relationships.

The term “open relationship” can have different meanings to different people. Many people interpret an open relationship to mean a relationship between two people who remain emotionally and romantically exclusive with each other and think of themselves as a committed couple but experience sexual intimacy with other people outside the relationship, usually in a more casual setting.

Open relationship terminology 

In addition to open relationships, there are many other forms of consensual non-monogamy. Some terms used to describe typical relationship dynamics that involve multiple partners include the following. 


“Monogamish” is a more recent term popularized by the sex advice columnist Dan Savage. A monogamish relationship is a committed relationship between two people that conforms to many of the expectations of traditional monogamous relationships but allows for some sexual relations outside of the two participants. The partners decide together on the specific parameters of what that looks like.



With swinging, couples remain emotionally committed to each other, but may both have casual sexual experiences with other people. The term often refers to couples who participate in non-monogamous sexual activity together, such as threesomes or group sex.


Polygamy refers to being married to more than one spouse at the same time. Common forms of polygamy include polygyny, in which one husband has multiple wives, and polyandry, in which one wife has multiple husbands. Marriage to more than one person at a time is illegal in the United States.


Polyamorous relationships do not require monogamy in sexual, romantic, or emotional intimacy. People in polyamorous relationships can have relationships with multiple people, and they may have a primary partner that they consider themselves more committed to than other partners, or they may not.


A vee is a polyamorous relationship in which one person, who is often referred to as the “pivot,” is dating two different people, but the two people are not dating each other (a diagram of the three people’s relationships to each other resembles the letter “V,” hence the name).

Throuple or triad  

A throuple or triad is a polyamorous relationship among three people in which all three are emotionally, sexually, and romantically involved with each other.


A quad is a polyamorous relationship among four people in which all four are emotionally, sexually, and romantically involved with each other. A quad can be two couples who consider themselves primary partners or a mix of couples and individuals.

Polyfidelity or polycule 

Polyfidelity refers to a network of polyamorous relationships in which a group of people become emotionally, sexually, or romantically committed to each other and agree not to have romantic or sexual experiences outside of the defined group.

Relationship anarchy

Relationship anarchy is a belief system that rejects all forms of relationship norms. It erases stereotypes about what a relationship “should” look like and believes that what matters in a relationship is what people want from the relationship, as long as all participants are comfortable and consenting. With relationship anarchy, any relationship can evolve into any form.

Considerations for open relationships 

People may engage in open relationships for various reasons and may have different preferences regarding their relationships. While different people may have different experiences, it can be helpful to recognize some of the possible benefits and drawbacks of open relationships to be more informed when considering if this arrangement might work for you.

Potential benefits of open relationships

Below are some of the potential benefits of an open relationship: 

  • Increased sexual satisfaction and novelty in sexual experiences and partners
  • Less pressure to fulfill all of someone else’s sexual and emotional needs
  • The ability to pursue new and varied interests and experiences that one partner might not enjoy or want 
  • A sense of freedom and the opportunity to explore and express different sides of yourself with different people
  • A sense of authenticity if you identify as “polyamorous” 

Potential drawbacks of open relationships

Below are the potential drawbacks of open relationships: 

  • Some or all members of the relationship experiencing feelings of jealousy, nervousness, or insecurity around the relationship
  • A higher risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) 
  • Potential emotional pain and upheaval 
  • The possibility of partners not liking each other 
  • Self-esteem concerns

How to navigate open relationships emotionally

Navigating open relationships can be complicated. If you are hoping to explore what consensual non-monogamy may look like in your life, it can be helpful to start with intentional self-reflection and self-exploration to better understand what you may be hoping to gain out of such a situation and if you think it might work well for you personally. 

If you are currently in a monogamous relationship and you and your partner are considering opening your relationship up to non-monogamous experiences, you may face several complex conversations. Successful open relationships can require ongoing communication, and it may be beneficial to have support from a professional as you try to navigate these dynamics. 

Explore relationship topics with a compassionate professional

Support for relationship concerns

Couples counselors and individual therapists can be helpful resources in determining what you would like your romantic and sexual life to look like moving forward. However, a busy schedule and difficulty finding the calendar space to schedule an in-person therapy appointment, especially if you are trying to find a time that works for you and your partner (or multiple partners), can be challenging. In these instances, accessing online therapy from the comfort of your own home can be a convenient option, as it can remove the need for a commute, and you and your partner can even join the same session from separate locations.

Attending couples therapy online through a platform like BetterHelp for individuals or ReGain for couples may be as effective as attending traditional in-person couples counseling sessions. One study found that after completing an online couples therapy program, couples reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction and improved relationship outcomes. The study found that the results from the online program were comparable to those from the program delivered face-to-face. If you and your partner are thinking about adjusting your relationship arrangement, you may benefit from speaking to an online couples counselor. 


An open relationship is a form of consensual non-monogamy that often involves two people being romantically and emotionally exclusive with each other but being permitted to have other sexual partners. Open relationships can have both benefits and drawbacks, and self-reflection and clear communication can be essential for them to work. Talking to a therapist may help you understand your needs and set clear boundaries in your romantic and sexual relationships, whatever form they may take.
Foster authentic relationships
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started