Open relationships are romantic relationships in which the people involved agree to allow some sexual and/or emotional and romantic interactions with more than one partner. Open relationships can include polyamory, swinging and a myriad of other individualized relationship agreements.
More and more, these types of relationships are featured in news stories in Canada, and it seems they may be becoming more common. However, until now the only reliable data have come from the United States. In U.S. studies, anywhere from two per cent to four per cent of adults report being in an open relationship
The study I conducted with Trevor Hart (department of psychology, Ryerson University) and Malcolm Fairbrother (department of sociology, Umeå University) is the first to provide a reliable report on how common open relationships are outside of the U.S. We found that 2.4 per cent of all Canadians, and four per cent of those who are romantically attached, report being in an open relationship.
Twenty per cent of participants reported prior engagement in an open relationship and 12 per cent reported open as their ideal relationship type.
Participants were almost three times more likely to say that their ideal relationship type is an open one, than to report being in one.
How men and women differ
Men were no more likely than women to say they are currently in an open relationship. However, significantly more men (25 per cent) said that they had been in an open relationship at some point in their life, compared with women (15 per cent).
And, whereas 18 per cent of men listed open as their ideal relationship type, only six per cent of women did.
This is a significant difference, and if true, could result in a real source of conflict in heterosexual couples.
What we don’t know, and this deserves to be explored in future research, is whether men and women hold the same preferences across sexual orientations. We were unable to ask participants about their sexual orientation, so we don’t know if gay, bisexual and heterosexual men are all equally likely to want to be in an open relationship. The same holds true for lesbians, bisexual and heterosexual women.
20- to 40-year-olds prefer it open
Individuals in open relationships were younger than those in other types of relationships.
Participants who reported that open is their ideal relationship type were also younger than those who did not endorse open as their ideal relationship type.
Twenty- to 40-year-olds were most likely to be in an open relationship and to report open as their ideal type of romantic relationship.
When it comes to relationship satisfaction, participants in open relationships are no more or less satisfied than those in monogamous relationships. They both reported being “somewhat” to “very” satisfied.
What was maybe most interesting is that having a match between one’s actual relationship type and one’s preferred relationship type was associated with the highest levels of satisfaction — for both open and monogamous relationships.
We hope that future studies will tell us how common open relationships are in other countries as well as among gay and bisexual men and women.
One of the questions people often ask about open relationships is: “Can they last?” There is some evidence that the length of open relationships with primary partners may in fact be greater than that of monogamous relationships.
More research into the length and health of open relationships could go a long way to reducing the stigma that often surrounds these kinds of relationships.
The findings also have clinical implications for mental health providers. Given that a significant minority of the sample preferred open relationships, it may be useful for clinicians to consider and investigate ways to make it easier for couples to talk about their relationship preferences in therapy.