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Open Relationships: The Pros and Cons

What older adults should ask themselves and know before having more than one partner

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Illustration: Valero Doval

Does your sex life need spicing up?

When time between the sheets with a partner becomes more tedious than titillating, some people start to blame monogamy.

Monogamy isn’t for everyone. Sometimes that’s clear from the get-go, and sometimes it takes being with a single partner for decades to know that an open relationship — which, by definition, is romantic but sexually nonmonogamous — may be more satisfying in your older years.

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Twenty-five percent of men and women age 40 and older engaged in consensual nonmonogamy or polyamory, and 29 percent report that having sex with more than one person at the same time is their most common sexual fantasy, found AARP’s “Ageless Desire: Relationships and Sex in Middle Age and Beyond” report, published in September 2023.

But most older adults interested in open relationships aren’t looking for one-night stands, says Kathy Labriola, author of Polyamorous Elders: Aging in Open Relationships. Rather, they’re searching for an ongoing, casual, sexual or romantic relationship that allows them to feel comfortable and emotionally safe.

Those relationships aren’t easy to manage, says Labriola, a nurse based in Berkley, California. She says people need to go in understanding it’s not “just all fun and games.”

“A nonmonogamous relationship requires ... your time, your energy, your willingness to be vulnerable and take risks, and your willingness to communicate — a lot — with your partner and any other partner you get involved with.”

If an open relationship is something you’re engaged in already or considering, it’s important to think through and communicate with your partners what you want out of it.

Here are six tips for starting and maintaining a healthy open relationship.

Ask yourself why you want an open relationship

This act of self-reflection is critical, experts say. You need to consider your motivation for wanting an open relationship — and whether you have the capacity to manage the multiple people and emotions and just plain scheduling you’ll be dealing with, Labriola says.

“The biggest problem I see is that people sort of stumble into these situations not really knowing what it is they’re looking for, or what they hope to gain from it, or what they hope to experience,” she says.

Communicate with your partner clearly and gracefully

Be clear about your expectations from the get-go, but do so with sensitivity — whether you are looking for a new partner or looking to shift from monogamy to an open relationship with a current partner, says Los Angeles-based Tristan Taormino, author of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.

One way to “get into the pool through the shallow end” is by mentioning you read an article about it online, she says.

You can also ask open-ended questions, says Robert McGarey, founder and executive director of the Human Potential Center in Austin, Texas, and author of Polyamory Communication Survival Kit: The Essential Tools for Building and Enhancing Relationships.

Some examples: How do you feel when you think of that? What would make you upset about the prospect of trying an open relationship?

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Both partners, he says, should practice self-awareness and active listening — hear and then respond in an attempt to understand — and bring a win-win attitude to the conversation.

McGarey proposes summarizing with, “Let’s work together as a team to craft a relationship structure that really, really works for us.... [Let’s] get creative to see what’s possible.”

As with all relationships, once in an open one, honesty and steady communication remain necessary to avoid discomfort and pitfalls.

In a previous relationship, for instance, Jennifer Devine, a certified sexuality educator through Planned Parenthood, loved hearing every detail of the dates her then-boyfriend went on but found he didn’t feel the same when it came to her doing the sharing.

“It’s just getting clear about what helps the person feel secure,” she says.

Good communication also is necessary for the more practical side of things, including age-related sex challenges, side effects of medications that affect sexual desire, and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

Start off slowly – maybe with swinging

There’s an important question to consider, says sociologist Elisabeth Sheff, 54, an expert on polyamory: “It’s easy to imagine yourself having sexual variety. How are you going to feel about your partner being with someone else?”

Sheff, who lives in Springfield, Virginia, has noticed a pattern in which men push women for consensual nonmonogamy only to find out their once-reluctant partner enjoys the new arrangement more than they do. She sees this mostly with more emotionally intimate forms of nonmonogamy.​

That’s why swinging — the practice of engaging in group sex or swapping sexual partners within a group — may be a good way to dip your toe into nonmonogamy waters, Sheff says.

Swinging is low pressure, Sheff says. People often share only their first names and not much else. And they don’t usually interact with each other following the event. ​

In addition, swinging is a low investment of time, even if it can be costly to gain access to clubs. Admittance can be “easily $100 per couple for an evening and $500 for a single man if they let him in at all; maybe $20 for a single woman or she might even be free to enter,” says Sheff, adding that conventions, cruises and “hotel takeovers” are more.

That said, “If you get there and the vibe is off,” Sheff says, “you don’t have to take off your clothes, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You can just split.”

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Focus on equity, not equality 

A lot of people focus on making sure everything is equal in relationships, but successful open relationships tend to focus more on equity, says Devine, who is based in San Francisco.

She explains it this way: Say there are 10 pancakes that need to be eaten at breakfast. One partner prefers eating two pancakes and the other partner prefers eating eight pancakes. To be equal, each would need to eat five pancakes — and neither would be happy. But to be equitable, the person who wants two gets two, and the person who wants eight gets eight.

“It’s about what each person needs and wants,” Devine says. “There are pressures to monogamy. In a one-on-one relationship, to have one person be all the things — the lover, the financial person, the support person, the family person, the intellectually stimulating person, the person who loves the same sports as you — is a lot to put on someone.... [An open relationship] allows people to really flourish in the areas where they have commonality.”

Be prepared to deal with jealousy

According to Taormino, jealousy often is about an unmet need. If your partner goes away for the weekend with another companion, you may be wondering why the two of you haven’t taken a trip together in a while.

“Jealousy brings up our deepest insecurities and fears,” she says. “We begin to compare ourselves to others, We begin to think we're not good enough. These are really core issues.”

One exercise Labriola uses from a book she wrote — The Jealousy Workbook: Exercises and Insights for Managing Open Relationships — is to create a pie chart reflecting ratios for any fear, anger and sadness being felt, before answering questions such as “Are these emotions based in reality?” and “Is it some betrayal from the past?” Labriola also wrote.

Bottom line: Think about love as always expanding, not limiting

Monogamy sets us up to think that if you love your partner, you can’t love someone else, Taormino says.

“But don’t approach nonmonogamy thinking, This is going to take away something from my life,” she says. “It should actually create closeness for everyone.”

Instead of coming from a place of scarcity, approach the idea of open relationships from a place of abundance, Taormino suggests.

“There is a certain freedom that comes with aging,” she says. “You’ve had all these life experiences and you have all this knowledge, and also you’re still willing to grow and change. Nothing is ever ‘too late.’ And you may actually, throughout your life so far, have found that monogamy doesn’t work for you.”

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