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Research About Open Relationships

This question comes up several times per year as couples approach us for therapy. After receiving this question during our most recent webinar, I thought it would be a good idea to summarize the current research literature on the topic.

The main take away from this article should be:

  • some open relationships work well

  • some monogamous relationships work well

  • open relationships need boundaries that either partner can assert without reprisal

  • open relationships should be seen as a benefit from both partners' points of view

  • open relationships will test your ability to manage conflict productively

Summary of research about gay couples and open relationships:

One of the earliest articles about the topic was by Blumstein and Schwartz in 1983. They said that 65 percent of American gay men and 23 percent of lesbian couples had some form of nonmonogamous relationship, compared to 15–28 percent of heterosexual couples.

In a 2006 study, Adams interviewed gay men in Canada. He found that 26 percent reported being in an exclusive monogamous relationship. Most of those relationships were newer than 3 years. Most of the open relationships differentiated between recreational sex with outside partners, versus intimate emotional lovemaking with a single primary partner. Although there were many rules utilized by couples, common agreements involved achieving a common understanding between the partners prior to engaging in nonmonogamous behavior. Many couples had rules about not having second sexual encounters with the same outside partner, not sleeping overnight at the outside partner’s house, not using the primary couple’s bed, and having outside sex only while visiting other cities.

Modesto, Ramirez, and Brown reported in a 2010 Australian study that 52 percent of their couples reported being in an open relationship. There were no differences in relationship satisfaction between the closed and open groups. Couples with open relationships that had explicit rules were more satisfying than those without explicit rules.

Spears and Lowen conducted a large study in 2010 in California, interviewing both members of the partnership. They also followed these couples over time. Generally, these relationships faired well, with only a few relationships deciding to completely close their relationship after opening to nonmonogamy. They offered advice as to periodic ‘closing’ of the relationship in order to be sensitive to either one of the primary partners when issues arise. Successful couples also worked to create a greater sense of security for the primary partner when issues of jealousy developed, or when the relationship went through difficult times.

Spears and Lowen had another amazing finding in their studies, though. Younger gay men reported being in monogamous relationships (90%), and a whopping 81% of the 325 single gay men recruited to the study via a Grindr ad reported that they were seeking monogamy. This is possibly a huge cultural shift.

At the Gay Couples Institute, we estimate that about 10% of the couples approach us for therapy or coaching regarding some issue involving monogamy. Often the decision to be nonmonogamous was made unilaterally, or is being maintained unilaterally despite objections from one partner. We see many couples who have successful, happy open relationships. These couples have often found an agreed-upon reason to be nonmonogamous, and they champion the decision when asked.

Please contact us if you’d like more information.

- Salvatore Garanzini, MFT

Gay Couples Institute Executive Director


Modesto Ramirez, O. and Brown, J. (2010) Attachment style, rules regarding sex, and couple satisfaction: a study of gay male couples. Australian & New Zealand

Journal of Family Therapy, 31: 202–213.

Spears, B. and Lowen, L. (2010) Beyond Monogamy. Lessons from Long-Term Male Couples in Non-Monogamous Relationships. The Couples Study.

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