- Jessica Klein
- BBC Worklife
Dedeker Winston has been in non-monogamous relationships for over a decade, but I’ve never seen more interest in open relationships than I do now. This subject is traditionally a big taboo in many places, including the United States, where she lives.
In 2014, when he launched his podcast multiamory, she and her co-producers had to decide whether to use their real names on the show about non-monogamous relationships.
“At that time, there were only one or two other podcasts that really addressed this topic,” says Winston, who is a relationship consultant. “And the people who produced and hosted those podcasts used pseudonyms.”
But things have changed. Around 2016, Winston noticed an “explosion of interest about non-monogamous relationships”. That was about a year after she started working as a consultant specializing in this type of relationship.
“That’s when I noticed the biggest change. Suddenly, a lot of people online were willing to talk about non-monogamous relationships,” she says, “and express an interest in that sort of thing.”
Sarah Levinson, a psychologist specializing in sexuality and relationship dynamics at Creative Relating Psychology Psychotherapy in New York, USA, has also observed an increase in interest in open relationships over the past decade. “It was much more unknown 10 years ago. Now it’s incredibly common,” she says.
These reports and some data demonstrate the growing interest in consensually non-monogamous relationships, including open relationships. Experts say that many social and cultural factors have led to greater adoption of non-traditional relationship styles and that the pandemic may also be influencing this process.
But while interest in open relationships may be on the rise, experts are divided on what their real scope might be — at least, for now.
‘Free passes’ and exchanges
For Levinson, there are many forms of non-monogamous relationships. “It can range from living with multiple partners and sharing expenses to offering ‘free pass’ for an affair once a year when your partner travels, for example, to a professional event in another state.”
Open relationships are a non-monogamous type of relationship, but many people tend to differentiate them from other types, such as polyamory.
Polyamory often means having several serious relationships at the same time. Open relationships, on the other hand, are more often associated with people who have a main partner but may have other, more casual, mainly sexual, relationships with other people.
In other words, open relationships are less focused on emotional connections with people outside of a primary relationship, but more on sexual connections.
For some people, this means going out on casual dates and having no-strings-attached relationships with people other than their main partners. For others, the open relationship just means occasional “free passes” for a one-night stand or a quick sexual outing. And for still others, the deal seems to include more exchanges — like having sex with other couples as a couple, but not dating separately.
Winston also includes among open relationships “prefer not to know” couples, in which both members of a couple allow the other to have sex with other people—but they simply don’t want to discuss these experiences with each other.
Other terms, such as “monogamish”, which was popularized by American sex and relationship columnist Dan Savage several years ago, may have definitions that coincide with some of these three forms of open relationships. Savage discussed his near-monogamous relationship on his podcast — the partners are committed to each other but still have no-strings-attached sex with other people.
People of all types are opening up to open relationships. Levinson says that over the past few years, he has seen “a lot of diversity” among people who are in open relationships in his sessions — both in terms of social class and in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation. But she admits that as a psychologist working in New York (a very progressive city) her sampling is different from what can be found in other more conservative parts of the United States.
Among Winston’s customer base (his podcast listeners and his website visitors), many of the people interested in or participating in open relationships tend to be relatively young, 25 to 45 years old.
And many of them identify as queer, bisexual and/or pansexual. But, in her work, she has served clients who are interested or practicing open relationships with ages ranging from 19 to 70 years old.
“The people who knock on my door cover the entire spectrum,” she says.
Dating app trends help highlight the increased interest in open relationships.
On the one hand, there has been the emergence of platforms specifically focused on non-monogamy, including open relationships, to address the growing curiosity. But even more traditional dating apps like OkCupid have seen a spike in interest in open relationships.
“While the majority of OkCupid participants are looking for monogamous relationships, the number of users looking for non-monogamous relationships has increased by 7% in 2021,” an OkCupid representative told the BBC.
Of more than a million UK OkCupid users who answered the question “Would you consider being in an open relationship?”, 31% answered “yes” in 2022, up from 29% in 2021 and 26% in 2020.
Also data from 2022 from the dating app Hinge showed that one in five Hinge users would “consider” trying an open relationship, while one in 10 has already had this type of relationship.
Hinge’s director of relationship science Logan Ury says it could be an effect of the pandemic, as she believes it “was the perfect opportunity to take a break and think more about what we want.”
Psychologists and other professionals such as Sarah Levinson and Dedeker Winston have also seen an increase. Winston says much of the recent interest she’s seen in open relationships comes from millennialswho are simply “questioning the way they were raised”—in most cases, to believe that long-term monogamous marriage is the goal of intimate relationships.
Levinson believes this may be a consequence of the general tendency towards open-mindedness. “As a society, we are all more open-minded to all sorts of less conventional identities… people are more willing to question social constructions in general.”
And it also opened the door for people to question their own desires. When “you keep choosing monogamy and it’s not working… you start to get curious about [se] there is another way,” explains Levinson.
And for those curious, there are more features than ever before. Winston adds that alongside the “explosion of interest” in open relationships is an “explosion of content creators and people writing about it in the press… on apps, at community gatherings.”
That means information about non-monogamous relationships is widely accessible—not in “dusty old online personal journals in the corners of the internet,” where Winston claims he needed to look for information more than a decade ago.
More fantasy than reality?
Despite more people adopting non-monogamous arrangements and greater visibility on open relationships, the general perception is still negative.
“Polls, including public opinion, indicate that the stance toward consensual non-monogamy is generally mostly negative, although there appears to be a more positive trend in recent years,” said Justin Lehmiller, research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. , in the United States, and host of the podcast Sex and Psychology.
These negative attitudes may not stop people from thinking about having open relationships, but they can stop them from adopting them.
In his research on sexual fantasies, for example, Lehmiller concluded that “most people have fantasized about being non-monogamous in some way, such as participating in partner exchanges, opening up their relationship, or embracing polyamory.” But he adds that “relatively few people are practicing this in real life.”
There is no post-pandemic data on how many people have adopted this type of relationship, but a 2019 Canadian survey put that number at about 4% — and a similar number came up in a 2018 study in the United States.
Sarah Levinson believes that, in part, this stems from an ingrained perception that open relationships are generally considered “unhealthy.”
Among his fellow therapists, Levinson notes that many still consider the “double” or “couple bubble” to be “the only viable way to have a secure connection.” She feels these stances can “segregate people who think this is a viable option for them.”
Religious beliefs can also prevent people from entering into dating and/or sexual relationships with more than one person at a time, as well as cultural norms in certain communities.
Even so, Dedeker Winston notes that people, particularly millennials and Gen Z, continue to shy away from the idea that one partner can meet all of their needs (something that is encouraged by the traditionally monogamous concept of marriage).
It indicates an increase in the number of platonic friends who decide to live and raise children together and a decrease in marriage rates, to indicate a possible future social change in the way people engage in relationships.
“People are opening up more to creating the relationships that make the most sense for their lives,” says Winston.
For similar reasons, Levinson agrees that there will be a continued rise in “creative relationship structures,” but he doesn’t believe they will become a global phenomenon. Many cultures around the world impose difficulties on people who intend to open their relationships and the taboo remains present.
OkCupid’s head of global communications, Michael Kaye, has a different opinion. For him, “the behaviors we see among people who date today have always existed. But people are becoming more open and transparent about their identity.” [e] about what they want in a relationship. I think with each passing year, we’re judging others a little less.”
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