How to negotiate boundaries in an open relationship

“Normal” monogamous relationships are generally easy – Only love your partner, only kiss your partner and definitely only have sex with your partner. In fact only have eyes for your partner and don’t be sexually attracted to anyone else – or at least lie about that part. Okay, maybe that’s not easy in practice, but conceptually it is.

Open relationships are a different ballgame.

When you embark on an open relationship with your partner or partners, you really don’t know the rules. In fact, I’d venture the guess that for 100 randomly chosen open relationships, you’ll have almost 100 fairly unique sets of relationship agreements. If you want your open relationship to be successful, you better get a grasp on your mutual desires, experiments, rules and boundaries.

There will be some open relationship purests that’ll tell you any boundaries on a relationship is bad and that you should be able to do whatever you want. They’ll tell you things like “You can only give yourself boundaries – not other people”.

In my humble opinion, these people are wrong. This is an example of unethical non-monogamy. What we’re preaching here is ethical non-monogamy (ENM), i.e. the practice of mutually consentual non-monogamy in either a classic couple relationship or a more loosely defined poly relationship. The kind of open relationship that is actually sustainable long-term.

Whether you’re a monogamous couple considering opening up your relationship or you’re a new couple where both want to do an open relationship from day 1, these strategies will apply to you. For the sake of brevity, I will be assuming the most common example though, which is a couple going from monogamous to open. But for all intents and purposes, whether you’re one or the other doesn’t change much. You can take the same advice and apply it to your situation.

Desires first – boundaries last

If you’re embarking on an open relationship with your previously monogamous partner, you might be tempted to start off this conversation by saying something like: “I have to be okay with anyone you have sex with” or “Don’t hook up with anyone I know”.

Don’t do this!!

Starting with boundaries is not a good idea. You might get away with it, but more likely you’ll limit each other unnecessarily or create resentment down the line.

Instead always start with your desires, write them down separately and exchange lists.

It’s very important you don’t censor yourself here. Thinking your partner will be upset with something on your list isn’t a good argument for not including it. You’ll only be limiting yourself, fooling your partner and creating a potential resentment for later.

Instead try to give each other freedom to express desires in a non-judgemental space. Make it a point to talk about that in advance and agree to have an open mind and not hold a grudge about any desires the other partner turns out not to be okay with. It’s perfectably normal to not be okay with every single desire. You need to prepare yourselves in advance that some of your partner’s desires will likely stir negative feelings in you. This reaction is also normal, but remember not to resent your partner for those desires. It should always be okay to express desires.

Example – Jeff & Joan opens up their marriage

Let’s do an example. Consider a monogamous couple, Jeff and Joan. Jeff and Joan have been married for 10 years now. They have an adventurous sex life and have read about ethical non-monogamy (ENM). They’ve decided to try to open up their relationship and now have to determine what their relationship agreement will be. For this they’ll have to talk desires, define rules, create experiments and determine boundaries.

Each takes a piece of paper and sit in a quiet corner of the house, not discussing together what to write beforehand. After 30 minutes, Jeff & Joan swaps lists. This is what they wrote.


  • Having a public personal dating account (e.g., Tinder)
  • Going to swinger clubs
  • Having casual friends-with-benefits (FWB) hookups with one or more other females partners
  • Having occasional group sex with Joan and one or more of these extra female partners
  • Being Joan’s nr. 1 priority


  • Having an anonymous personal dating account (e.g., Tinder)
  • Having sex with another girl, as an occasional thing
  • Having long-term sexual relationships with one or more other male partners
  • Eventually having a secondary romantic partner (poly relationship)
  • Exploring BDSM with a secondary partner

Now, as you can see, there is some overlap here. Jeff and Joan now need to go through each in turn and discuss them.

Dating profile

Both want to create a personal dating account, but Jeff wants it to show his real face and name, whereas Joan wants it to be anonymous. This is the first point of discussion, because Jeff’s choice to be public will obviously impact Joan, since people know they’re a couple.

Since Jeff hadn’t really fully considered the implications of going public anyway, he agrees to only create anonymous dating accounts. This is the first agreement in their new open relationship:

Rule 1: Any dating accounts we create must be anonymous

Swinger clubs

Jeff wants to attend swinger clubs. Joan asks if he wants to have her join him. He says yes – if she’s up for that.

Using experimentation and continuous feedback

Joan isn’t sure if she wants to. She doesn’t have the best impression of what a swinger is and fears it will be uncomfortable or too much. This is where controlled experiments come into play.

Joan agrees to do an experiment in which she’ll try to go to a club with Jeff and then evaluate afterwards whether that’s something she’ll want to do again. Thus we have our first experiment:

Experiment 1: Go to a swingers club together

Experiments are really important when opening up. Unless you’re very experienced you really don’t fully know what you are and aren’t into or okay with. You may have an idea, but usually that’s based on very little actual knowledge or experience. So instead of just saying no to your partner’s desires upfront, try instead to see if you can accept a controlled experiment.

As with any other experiment, the outcome is not known in advance and thus participants have to agree to accept the results of that experiment. Even when those results don’t fit the narrative one wants. So if Joan attends one or more events with Jeff and doesn’t like it, Jeff will have to accept that his ‘Going to swinger clubs’ desire needs to be re-evaluated.

An experiment that results in a negative outcome doesn’t necessarily mean that the relevant partner’s desire can’t be met. In some cases, partners can decide to try a new experiment, for example where Jeff could go alone or with one of his other sexual partners. It’s all about continously evaluating what works and what doesn’t work through experimentation and then coming to a consensual agreement.

Of course, there can be scenarios where a desire simply cannot be met. Either the desire is too much for your partner(s) regardless of setup or they want to satisfy your desire themselves, but simply cannot. For example, a timid male partner unconvincingly trying to take on the role as a BDSM-experienced dominant male.

In those cases the unfulfilled partner must decide if this is a dealbreaker or not. For established monogamous couples, dealbreakers are less likely than for more experienced singles looking for open or poly relationships. I would also in general caution against many dealbreakers, as it may be hard to find any meaningful relationship if you’re too demanding up front. Keep in mind, people change. You may not have the same desires a few years from now, your partner(s) may become better at satisfying them or they may have changed their mind about letting you explore those desires with other partners. So in general: Try to limit dealbreakers to things you simply cannot live without. If two years from now you end up regretting having accepted your desire not being met and you’ve seen no change, you can always break up with your partner(s) and look for new ones.

Multiple sex partners

Both Joan and Jeff have desires relating to having multiple sexual partners, albeit with slight variations. Jeff is focused on his friends-with-benefits (FWB) relationships with women being casual, whereas Joan is more focused on having long-term sexual relationships with the same male partners. This difference may be down to individual wording, or it may be due to an actual difference in opinion as to what is being desired. By stating these desires in their own words, they can more easily catch these differences and discuss them. With some luck, they may find out that they mean the same, even though they use different wordings. They may however also find, that their desires differ and now have to determine if both can be met individually or if they should make a compromise.

Let’s assume for this scenario, that Jeff wanted to keep it very casual with many different female partners over time, whereas Joan wanted to have the same male partners over a longer period, sprinkled with a few casual female hookups. Both are fine with this as long as only a few partners are active at any given time.

So they create the following rule:

Rule 2: We can have a few extra sexual partners at the same time, either the same people over a longer period or more casual hookups

Dealing with vague rules and consent

Notice the wording of “a few” rather than a specific number. Generally we would recommend consent is as specific as possible, but in this case both don’t actually know how many are too many – it’s a gut feeling in the moment. They’ll know when they get there. So instead, they could add an extra rule like the following:

Rule 3: We have to keep each other updated on who our active partners are

Now, this is a very classic ethical non-monogamy / open relationship rule, where the partners are only informed about new or changing partners, usually after the fact. This enables them to feel out if it’s becoming too much, but doesn’t provide much other control or direct consent. If Jeff and Joan wanted a more monogam-ish rule with more specific case-by-case consent, an alternative rule 3 could be:

Rule 3 (Alternative): We keep each other updated on, and agree to, any new potential partners

In general, if you’re going from a fully monogamous relationship and you don’t both have prior successful experience with fully open relationships, I would recommend starting with the alternative rule and perhaps working towards some flavor of the first version, when you’re both comfortable doing it like that. There are no right answers here – just what works for you.

Sometimes stating the obvious is better

When discussing multiple sex partners, Jeff might jokingly say something along the lines of “I’m of course also going to check she’s on the pill. Wouldn’t want to get some other woman pregnant”.

Joan may now be thinking – Wait? Is he not planning on using protection himself?

Here’s the thing: For Joan, condoms at all times is a no-brainer. But it might not be for Jeff or for some of their future sexual partners. Instead of just assuming certain rules are obvious, actually discuss them. You don’t have to put all of them in as firm rules if you’re both 100% on the same page. But do make a point of discussing these “obvious truths” with each other. Sometimes, having a firm rule may also make it easier to get sexual partners to comply, as breaking the rule would mean breaking a primary partner’s trust.

In this case, Jeff & Joan might opt to add a fourth rule:

Rule 4: All sexual partners must use condoms for all forms of intercourse (vaginal or anal).

Note that I didn’t add oral protections like condoms for blowjobs or dental dams for licking pussy. You could add those rules if you wanted to. They’re just not an example of “something obvious”, as the vast majority don’t use them and just accept the risk of STDs through oral sex.

Also another slight sidenote here: Be aware, rules like rule 4 may eventually be challenged as unfair, seeing as Joan and Jeff are not using condoms when they are together. This can especially be a challenge in more long term secondary or poly relationships. In those scenarios, condoms with new partners and regular testing may be a better option.

Group sex together

Jeff expressed a desire to have group sex with Joan and one or more of their female sex partners. This is a very common setup, that may also be a precursor to the open relationship itself. It’s seldom the case that a couple go for an open relationship before they’ve tried something like a threesome.

So let’s assume Jeff and Joan are fairly common and that they’ve already had a threesome with a woman before, but not with a man. So Joan is not opposed to this desire, albeit she wants to not limit it to her female sexual partners. She wants to have group sex with Jeff and her male partners as well.

This may not be to Jeff’s liking. Some people will feel that being okay with their partner having sex with others is not the same as being okay with actually seeing it. Jeff might not be particularly fond of some of Joan’s partners or may feel emasculated if her secondary partner is physically superior to him. These concerns may make Jeff hesitant to accept this change.

Now, Joan could rightly assert here that she’s literally in the same boat and is not complaining. She might not have been comfortable having to watch Jeff have sex with his female partners, nor comfortable being compared to them. So she’s being the bigger person here by not being jealous when doing group sex with women and Jeff should be better as well.

Don’t do this!!

Partners are allowed to react differently to the same circumstances. Often times we come with different baggage, different insecurities and different experience. Just because one person is okay with their partner doing something, does not mean that partner has to reciprocate.

In a case like this, where there’s varying experience, I would always suggest an experiment to get both partners up to the same level of experience. So that could be something like this:

Experiment 2: Have a threesome together with one of Joan’s male sexual partners.

Same goes here as for the other experiment. Joan needs to accept the outcome of the experiment. If it turns out Jeff isn’t okay with doing group sex with Joan’s male partners, she needs to then decide if she’s okay with a rule only allowing group sex between them and Jeff’s female partners. Ideally, this decision should in no way be informed by “fairness”, in that they are different people with different feelings – Jeff should not be punished for his feelings.

Dependent on the outcome of the experiment, they may create a rule concerning group sex or they may choose to include one matching Jeff’s desire straight away and then modify it later on after the experiment. Both of these approaches are equally valid.

Multiple romantic partners

Joan has expressed a desire for a secondary romantic partner sometime in the future. Upon reading this, Jeff may feel upset and jealous. He may become angry, but should try to control this feeling if at all possible. Desires should never be belittled or attacked. Instead he should express interest in understanding why Joan has this desire.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Joan’s desire stems from missing that initial spark of romance when interacting with a new romantic partner. Maybe she’s not looking for a “husband #2”, but rather a set of hot romantic summer flings, that will come and go. Jeff remains the primary partner and none of the secondaries are long lasting. This would likely be a significantly easier pill to swallow than a long-term polyamorous relationship, if Jeff has never considered such a thing.

If on the other hand Joan’s desire was a long term polyamorous relationship, Jeff might simply not be open to that at present and can’t consent. He might think he would never be okay with that, but here I’d caution him to avoid speaking in absolutes. He does not know what he’ll be okay with 5 years down the line. He might find his own secondary partner he catches feelings for and be the one to suggest a polyamorous relationship later on, rather than Joan.

So instead of just giving it a blanket ‘No’, they should either park it and re-evaluate in a year, or they should do an experiment. Given the big divide between their desires here, the experiment needs to be fairly benign in scope. An obvious thing to go for could be:

Experiment 3: Watch a polyamory documentary together

This may seem small right now, but it’s these small steps that help bridge gaps in desires without stepping on anyone’s toes. After an experiment like that it’s perfectly valid to create a new and more elaborate experiment, delving deeper into the subject matter. Eventually, Jeff & Joan may get to a place where they feel they can experiment with polyamory for real.

Primary priority

Jeff has expressed a desire to be Joan’s primary priority. Upon further discussion it’s revealed that what he means by this is that Joan prioritize time with him over her other partners. He doesn’t want to be sitting alone at home and hardly ever seeing her.

This is a very common desire in a monogamous couple opening up and realistically most couples will end up creating rules around this, unless they’re very experienced. A common example of such a rule:

Rule 5: We can only have two dates with secondary partners per week

Let’s assume Jeff & Joan created that rule. Now comes the next issue. Both Jeff & Joan are gone from their home two nights a week. What if they aren’t the same nights? That would end up meaning that Jeff & Joan only spend 3 out of 7 nights together per week. To combat this issue they create an extra rule

Rule 6: We must coordinate date nights, so we’re gone on the same nights

Now, realistically, this rule may not always be plausible. It’s highly dependent on the schedules of the people involved. Even if we assume it is though, Jeff & Joan need to consider what happens if one of their dates gets sick or has to cancel – can the other still partner still go? What if they can’t agree on which nights it is in a given week? These considerations don’t have to be hard and fast rules if both parties are fairly alligned. As long as they’re having the discussion beforehand, as this will eliminate a lot of conflict later on when these things eventually do happen.

For some couples, just starting with a single day per week or every other week could also be more than enough. That would make the planning concerns much less complicated.

Exploring BDSM with a secondary partner

Finally, Joan has expressed a desire to explore BDSM with a secondary partner. This is a surprisingly common desire many women have, especially when they desire a very dominant partner that can treat them properly as a submissive or slave. For some women, having their primary romantic partner take on this role simply does not satisfy the kink and is not believable for them. As such, the only way to truly explore BDSM for them is to do it with someone else.

Let’s assume Jeff is aware that he’s no dom and that he has no issue with such an arrangement. So long as he’s not made part of that play in any way, as he does not want to play the part of a submissive to any of Joan’s sexual partners (e.g., through hotwife/cuckold play).

Jeff & Joan could choose to create a rule 7 for this setup, worded something along the lines of the following:

Rule 7: We can have BDSM relationships with others, e.g. master/slave or dom/sub. These power dynamics must however not impact or involve our mutual relationship.

They could also choose to say this was part of Rule 2 and just either add an addendum or verbally agree that this is one of the ways in which Rule 2 could be used. You don’t need to write firm rules if you both fully agree and can remember the boundaries.

Bringing it all together and building a feedback loop

Jeff & Joan now have a set of desires, a set of rules and perhaps some experiments they have to go do together or apart. As a result they now have some understanding of the boundaries in their relationship, including what’s okay and what’s not okay. What they still have to realize though is this:

This is not the complete set of all boundaries in their relationship.

They may have covered most things, but not all.

Some things will be mutually understood, but unsaid. For example: “Don’t have sex with my sister”.

That’s probably one boundary most couples won’t have to discuss and actually write down. It’s not going to be inferred by any rule, but still probably safe to assume as a boundary for most couples.

However, it’s very likely that there will be other situations where both parties think they’re on the same page, but they’re actually not. These may not come up until they occur naturally, when one partner either does something that was over the line or suggests doing it.

For example, let’s say Joan thinks Jeff is okay with her having sex with one of his friends, but Jeff is most certainly not okay with that. Jeff may be lucky that Rule 3 is worded in such a way that Joan tells him about her intentions before she acts. But it’s probably more likely she will at least have made advances before Jeff gets wind of it. In this situation, Jeff’s feelings are hurt and he will feel cheated on to some extent. Joan overstepped a boundary she wasn’t aware of.

If Joan goes all the way and has sex with this friend before Jeff knows about it, he may feel downright betrayed and the act could even threathen their marriage – even though Joan didn’t technically break any of their relationship rules. The boundary was there, it just wasn’t expressed.

This is why “staying faithful” in open relationships is so complicated. It requires a ton of practice and careful continuous discussion to make sure you always have consent for what you’re doing together or apart.

You will fail eventually. You’re unlikely to have a perfect run where none of you ever cross a line.

How good you were at communicating and re-evaluating together will determine how succesful you are when you hit those boundaries or downright run past them.

For most couples, I would always suggest adding a base rule 0, which may help combat some of these issues:

Rule 0: If an experience is allowed by these rules, but explores new territory (e.g., new kinks, partner types, locations, scenarioes etc.) then discuss it together first before acting.

It’s conceivable Joan would have recognized neither of them had ever had sex with each other’s friends before and therefore discussed it first, realizing Jeff’s objection.

At the end of the day though, even with Rule 0 you’re likely to eventually experience hurt feelings or get jealous. This is normal. Use it to grow as a couple. Re-evaluate your desires, your rules and your resulting boundaries. Try out new experiments to help combat negative feelings in a controlled manner. Recognize that your partner is always trying to do what they think is right and that people make mistakes. Making a mistake is not the end of the world unless you decide it is.

In conclusion

The takeaways to remember here

  • Always start with desires and be non-judgemental.
  • When possible, do an experiment instead of saying no.
  • The boundaries you determine are not complete and they are not static.
  • You must continously re-evaluate your desires, your rules and any experiments.
  • You must do this together, both on a scheduled regular basis and after experiences that may have moved you or changed desires/boundaries.
  • You will eventually make mistakes – forgive each other and learn from it.

Do all of this and there’s a decent chance you can make this work in the long run. We’re rooting for you.


Post image courtesy of Nik Shuliahin – thank you.

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