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In a serious relationship, it has been frowned upon for a long time to have more than one sexual partner. But more and more people want to be open, even though it’s not the norm.
Dedeker Winston has had open relationships for more than ten years, but she has never seen so much interest in them.
In many places, like the US, where Winston lives, it is illegal to talk about this subject. So when she started the Multiamory podcast in 2014, she and the other people who helped had to decide if they would use their real names on the show. The dating coach says, “At that time, only one or two podcasts talked about this topic.” “The podcasts were made and hosted by people who used fake names.”
But things have changed. Around 2016, Winston saw an “explosion of interest” in relationships with more than one person. About a year earlier, she started working as a coach for these relationships. But, she says, “That’s when I think I saw the most important change.” “All of a sudden, many people online were willing to talk about not being monogamous and show that they were interested in these kinds of things.”
Sarah Levinson is a New York City therapist at Creative Relating Psychology Psychotherapy. She specializes in sexuality and relationship dynamics and has seen more people interested in open relationships over the past ten years. “Ten years ago, it wasn’t as common as it is now,” she says.
Some of these stories and data show that people are becoming more interested in relationships that aren’t monogamous by choice, like open relationships. Experts say that the pandemic and other social and cultural factors have made people more open to non-traditional ways of being in a relationship. But experts need to find out how common open relationships are, at least for now, even though interest in them is growing.
An open relationship offers “free passes,” and swinging
Levinson says that there are many ways not to be married. “It could be anything from living with multiple partners and splitting bills to giving your partner a free pass to a work conference out of state so they can meet up once a year.”
Non-monogamy includes open relationships, but most people can tell the difference between them and other non-monogamy, like polyamory. Polyamory usually means having more than one close relationship, while open relationships usually involve people having mostly sexual relationships with other people outside their main, two-person relationship. In other words, open relationships focus less on emotional connections with people outside of the main relationship and more on sexual ones.
For some, this means going on casual dates and having relationships with people who aren’t their main partners, like “friends with benefits.” On the other hand, some people see an open relationship as a “pass” to have a one-night stand or a short sexual fling now and then.
For still others, it might be more like “swinging,” where they have sex with other couples as a couple but don’t go on separate dates. Winston also talks about “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationships, in which both people in a couple let the other have sexual relations with other people, but they don’t want to talk about it.
Some of these open-relationship situations can also be described by other words, like “monogamish,” which was made popular by US relationship and sex columnist Dan Savage a few years ago. Savage has talked about his monogamous relationship on his podcast. He and his partner are committed to each other, but they also have casual sex with other men.
Open relationships are between people from all walks of life. Levinson says that in the past few years, she has seen “quite a bit of diversity” in the people who come to her open relationship sessions, from their “economic resources” to their “ethnicity.” (However, as a counselor in New York City, she sees a different sample than someone in a more conservative part of the United States.)
Winston has found that most of her clients, podcast listeners, and website visitors are between the ages of 25 and 45 and are interested in or in open relationships. And many identify as queer, bisexual and/or pansexual. But in her practice, she has helped people as young as 19 and as old as 70 who were interested in or in open relationships. As a result, she says, “People from all walks of life come to my door.”
People are becoming more interested in open relationships, according to trends in dating apps. One reason is that more and more people are interested in non-monogamy and open relationships, which has led to the creation of sites that focus on these topics. But even more, traditional dating apps like OkCupid have become more popular places for open relationships.
“Most OkCupid daters are looking for monogamous relationships,” an OkCupid representative told BBC Worklife, “but the number of people looking for non-monogamous relationships went up by 7% in 2021.” Also, when asked in the app, “Would you consider having an open relationship?” more than a million OkCupid users in the UK said yes in 2022, compared to 29% in 2021 and 26% in 2020.
Also, data from the dating app Hinge for the year 2022 showed that one in five users “would think about” trying an open relationship, and one in ten has already done so. Logan Ury, the director of relationship science at Hinge, says there may be a pandemic effect because she thinks it was “the perfect time to stop and think more about what we want.”
Levinson and Winston, two professionals and counselors, have also seen an increase. Winston says that most of the recent interest in open relationships comes from millennials who are “questioning how they’ve been raised,” which is usually to think that long-term, monogamous marriage is the goal of close relationships.
People who are interested have more tools than ever before. Winston says that with the “explosion of interest” in open relationships, there is also an “explosion of content creators and people writing about it in media, in apps, and at community meetups.” This means that information about non-monogamy is easy to find and doesn’t have to be found in “old, dusty LiveJournals in the corners of the internet,” as Winston says she had to do more than a decade ago.
More stories than facts?
Even though open relationships are getting more attention and more people are choosing them, most people still think they are bad. “Research and public opinion polls show that attitudes toward consensual non-monogamy are mostly negative, but they seem to be getting better,” says Dr. Justin Lehmiller, Kinsey Institute research fellow and host of the Sex and Psychology Podcast.
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Even if these negative attitudes don’t stop people from thinking about open relationships, they can stop them from starting one. Lehmiller’s research on sexual fantasies has shown, for example, that “most people have fantasized about not being monogamous in some way, like by swinging, opening up their relationship, or being polyamorous.”
He also says, “in real life, not many people do it.” Even though we don’t know how many people are in these situations after the pandemic, a Canadian study from 2019 and an American study from 2018 put the number at about 4%.