For most of us, our ideal relationship probably doesn’t include a hundred, or even thousand, miles between us and our loved one but sometimes you just can’t avoid it. Maybe you fell in love with your holiday romance or one of you needed to move for work, education, or family reasons.
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No matter why your relationship is long-distance, there will be at least some challenges and you’ll need to be creative about how you overcome them.
One of the most common problems in a long-distance relationship is the lack of sex and physical intimacy. If one or both of you have a high need for this kind of touch, being without it can feel incredibly lonely and isolating.
One way to deal with the loneliness of a long-distance relationship can be to try out an open relationship. But can a long-distance open relationship work, and what do you need to do to reduce the risks?
Being in an open or polyamorous relationship can help to alleviate some of the difficulties of a long-distance relationship, but it’s not an easy fix. Having an open relationship typically requires better communication and relationship skills than being monogamous1.
Having said that, it can be a fantastic type of relationship if you’re the kind of person who can handle the challenges.
Let’s have a look at some of those challenges, and the benefits you can hope for if you're successful.
So, the most obvious benefit of being in an open relationship is that you are able to get your sexual needs met, and so can your partner. This means that you’re not left feeling alone and unattractive until you see each other again.
Regular sex can be important for your mental and physical health2. If you’ve agreed on a set of rules for how you can have your sexual needs met in a way that is acceptable to your partner, it might make you less likely to cheat.
Having said that, if one of you was considering cheating if you didn’t move to an open relationship, that might be a sign that the relationship isn’t actually strong enough to survive the added pressure of additional people being involved.
When people first think about opening up their relationship, one of their biggest concerns is usually along the lines of “but what if he/she likes someone else better than me?” That is a very real worry. When they’re being intimate with other people, they might find someone who is a better fit for them than you are.
On the other hand, we don’t stay with our partner simply because we don’t have any other alternatives. We’re perfectly capable of being faithful to someone we love without having to be locked up in a convent away from all other men.
Being faithful isn’t about a lack of opportunity. We stay with someone because we love them and we want to be with them, not because they’re the only man within a three-mile radius.
If your long-distance open relationship ends because one of you “finds someone better,” there was probably an underlying fault in the relationship. That might not make you feel better in the short term, but it is a sign that you’re probably better off without them.
All relationships are based on trust, but that trust is even more important when you’re in an open, long-distance relationship. You can’t keep an eye on your partner and you’re not going to be able to control where they go or what they do.
That means it’s all about trust.
When you decide to open up your relationship, you’re sending your partner a really clear message. “I trust you.” You’re showing that you don’t need to place restrictions on who they can see because you trust that they’ll always come back to you afterward. And they’re sending you the same message.
Showing each other that degree of trust, and having that trust repaid, can be a strong foundation for a successful, long-term relationship once you’re living closer to each other again.
There is no getting away from the fact that almost everyone in an open relationship, whether it’s long-distance or not, is going to have to deal with at least some jealousy. Feeling jealous is a perfectly natural emotion and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way or talking to your partner about it3.
Being in an open relationship doesn’t mean that you’ll never feel jealous, just as being in a healthy relationship doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes get mad at him for leaving the toilet seat up or forgetting to take the dog out for a walk.
If you’re a naturally jealous person, opening up your relationship might not be a good idea. There’s no need to put yourself in a situation where you feel even more insecure or vulnerable.
Honest communication is an essential part of any successful relationship, but in an open relationship, this is turned up to the max. You have to deal with more different people and lots of competing needs and desires.
Being in a long-distance, open relationship is possibly the fastest way to become a skilled negotiator, facilitator, communication guru, social worker, and advocate all rolled into one.
One thing people rarely consider before opening up their relationship, especially if it’s long-distance, is how to explain things to their friends and family. This can sometimes open up a minefield.
You might not need to explain that you’re in an open relationship, especially if your agreement is “sex only” rather than having regular dates with other people. You might be surprised, however, by how often it seems to come out anyway.
Often, someone sees one of you on an online dating site or ‘catches’ you out with someone who isn’t your acknowledged partner. They then feel awful trying to work out how to tell you that (they think) your partner is cheating on you.
Ok, this one might feel like a bit of a stretch, but bear with me. One of the amazing benefits of an open or polyamorous relationship can be the chance to meet really great new people. Specifically, the people your partner is seeing as well as you.
This can take some mental gymnastics, and it might not work if you’re naturally quite a jealous person, but your partner’s other love interests could be your new BFFs.
Your partner probably has certain qualities he’s looking for in someone he wants to spend time with or date. He probably wants some shared interests, maybe similar values or a shared sense of humor. You already know that you have those qualities, but so does she.
If you feel comfortable enough, your partner’s lust interest can be a good friend to you as well. It’s like finding a new friend without having to go to the effort of meeting new people.
To be brutally honest here, the chances are that women are likely to be able to take advantage of an open relationship more often than men are. Women on dating apps often receive an avalanche of attention, compared to a trickle for men4.
Some partners will find it frustrating and hurtful to realize that they’re not getting as many opportunities to date outside of their relationship as their significant other. Often, this can lead to as much jealousy as the dating itself.
The first thing we need to say about the rules for having an open, long-distance relationship is there are no set rules. When you enter an open relationship, you’re moving outside of the ‘normal’ relationship pattern, which means you get to make your own rules.
The only rules that you need to stick to are the ones that matter to you and your partner. If something doesn’t matter to you, you don’t need to have a rule about it. If it does matter to you, it’s essential that you talk about it and decide what does and doesn’t work for you as a couple.
Having said that, here are some of the rules you might want to discuss and consider.
You will need to decide between you what limits you’re putting on any encounters outside of your relationship.
A really common question that you’ll probably need to decide between you is whether you are going to restrict yourselves to “just physical” relationships with others or whether it’s ok to have feelings for the other person as well.
This can be a difficult question to balance. For some people, having sex with another person doesn’t threaten their sense of security in the relationship but having feelings for them definitely does. That makes a lot of sense. Having feelings for the other person reduces the gap between your relationship and theirs.
On the other side of the equation, lots of people don’t really become excited about someone sexually if they don’t also know and like them as a person. One-night stands aren’t going to fulfill their sexual needs, but friends with benefits or multiple relationships might.
There’s no easy answer to this. It’s often a much harder conversation to resolve than your initial “could we try opening up our relationship” talk (which we’ll get into shortly).
Being in a long-distance relationship usually means that you don’t need to think quite so much about safe sex. After all, living thousands of miles apart can mean it’s a moot point most of the time. If you’re considering an open relationship, however, questions about safe sex become really important.
You will each have a level of risk that you think is ok and a level of risk that feels too much. It’s important that you find a level that you both accept.
You might also want to consider whether you want future sexual partners to get tested before becoming intimate with them. If so, check that this is going to work with your agreement on whether you’re planning one-night stands, friends with benefits, or any other level of social and emotional connection.
One topic that it’s usually worth talking about is how much you want to know about your partner’s other dates and how much they want to know about yours. For some people, hearing about their partner’s exploits can be a positive experience. It can be fun to see your partner being happy about their adventures.
For others, hearing about the fun time their significant other is having without them can feel too much like having their nose rubbed in it, especially if they’re not seeing anyone else at the moment.
Agree on how much you want to know and also when you want to know it. For example, you might want to know that your partner has had sex with someone else but you don’t need them to tell you in advance.
Another important decision you and your partner will need to consider is whether you’re happier having repeated dates with the same person, restricting yourselves to just one or two hookups with a single person, or whether you really don’t mind either way.
This is linked to the question of whether it’s ok to have an emotional connection with the person you’re sleeping with, but it’s ok to have slightly different answers. For example, you might want to keep it purely sexual, but you’re fine with them meeting the same lover repeatedly as long as they don’t develop feelings.
We’ve already said that you may need to decide how much you’ll tell each other about your dates, but there is another question to consider. Do you need the third party to know about you and, if so, how much?
Some people want their partner to only hook up with people who are in full possession of all of the facts. They want the other person to know their name, how long they’ve been together, and anything else that feels relevant. This might be because they don’t want the other person to feel misled or as a way to demonstrate that they are the primary relationship.
For others, they’d rather the other person knew as little about them as possible. They might be ok with the other person being told that your partner is in a relationship, but feel like the third party knowing their name or seeing their picture is a breach of their privacy.
It’s also important to consider the feelings of the partner having the date. Are they comfortable sleeping with someone who doesn’t know their partner’s name?
This one definitely falls under the category of “be prepared” but it’s often really helpful to talk through how you’ll handle it if one of you has a bad date. At very minor levels, you might enjoy sharing horror stories of dates gone wrong, just as you do with your girlfriends. But your partner might not feel comfortable about that. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
More seriously, it’s important to talk about what you might do in a situation where a date goes badly wrong. Long-distance relationships are especially difficult when one of you is going through a difficult time because it’s hard to be there for each other. That gets exponentially worse in cases of stalking, harassment, or assault.
Talk through what measures you can both take to keep yourselves safe and make sure that they’re actually effective. It might be nice to text your partner to say you’ve got home safe, but what can he do to help if he doesn’t hear from you? Have a plan, even if you hope you’ll never have to use it.
I know I said that your choice of rules is completely up to you, but this might be the exception. One rule I think all couples who are considering opening up their relationship should discuss is how and when they will check in with each other about how their open relationship is working and how they will decide to close it back up again if necessary.
Opening up your long-distance relationship is taking a risk. You know that it might not work or that one of you might feel more uncomfortable than you expected. Make sure you have regular dates in the diary to discuss how things are going, what’s working well, and anything you might like to change about the rules you’ve agreed to.
Remember, you created the rules between you and you can change them anytime you like if they’re not working for you. You just need to talk about it openly and honestly.
Being physically together reassures your partner that you haven’t just seen someone you fancy and are asking for permission to make a move right now.
If your partner feels under pressure or as if this is an ultimatum, it’s really hard for them to be completely honest about their feelings.
It’s easy to interpret your long-distance partner asking to open up your relationship as the first step towards them breaking up with you. They might assume that you’re just trying to soften the blow.
Make sure you reassure them that you still love them as much as you always did.
As I’ve tried to demonstrate, there is no single set of rules that represent the “right” way to have an open relationship. If you want your partner to be really on board with an open relationship, they need to feel that they’ve been an equal partner in deciding how it’s going to work and what is and isn’t ok.
If this is the first time you’ve brought up the idea of having an open relationship, your partner might be a little bit shocked and unsure about how they feel. They might feel as though they have to give you an answer straight away, without having the time to get their head (and heart) around it.
Take the pressure away and show that you really want them to be happy with the decision by suggesting that you talk about it a bit now and then talk again before you come to a final decision together. That gives them a little bit of extra breathing room and can lead to better decisions5.
It’s really hard to get statistics on how likely a long-distance relationship is to “succeed” because there are so many variables. In good news, about 2.9% of American marriages are long-distance. Long-distance relationships are very successful in the short term but tend to struggle in the very long term6.
Studies into the success of open relationships are mixed. Some suggest that they have a 92% failure rate7. 92% sounds high, but 60% of all relationships break up within the first year. By year 3, ‘normal’ relationships have an 88% failure rate8.
Open relationships, polyamorous relationships and ethical nonmonogamy are all perfectly healthy relationships to be in if they are a good match for your personality and needs. Some people will thrive in an open relationship and others will feel insecure and unhappy. It needs to be your choice.
People want open relationships for a variety of reasons. Some have sexual needs or desires that aren’t being filled within a monogamous relationship. Others want to have multiple, serious partners or they dislike feeling as though someone else is making decisions about who they can or can’t sleep with.
Being in a long-distance, open relationship isn’t for everyone, but it can work. It takes courage, honesty and great communication skills, but you can create a ruleset that balances your needs for sexual freedom with your emotional connection to your partner.
How do you feel about long-distance open relationships? Do you think you could be happy with this kind of arrangement? Let me know in the comments. And do forward this article to anyone you think could benefit from the advice. It’s a great way to start a conversation with your partner about whether to open up your relationship.