7 Reasons Open Relationships Don’t Work

Author Tracy Smith
Updated on May 1, 2024

Open relationships can seem like a great opportunity for people who want to be in a relationship but also want to explore their sexuality with multiple partners. However, as the old saying goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The truth is that open relationships are extremely difficult to navigate and challenging to maintain due to several inherent pitfalls they create.

couple holding hands

Before we discuss why these relationships don’t work, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what an open relationship is. This is a type of romantic relationship in which the participants agree that they can be physically and sexually intimate with other people. Participants can have several sexual partners in addition to their main relationship. The partners in an open relationship may be married or dating.

To some, it may sound ideal, but there are several reasons why these arrangements tend to fail. Below are the reasons why you may want to avoid engaging in an open relationship.

1. Jealousy

You may think that participants in open relationships forego jealousy because they previously agreed that their partner can be intimate with others, but this is simply not the case. Jealousy is a normal human emotion and one that can cause significant strife for a couple. In open relationships, members can easily find themselves sizing up their partner’s additional lovers, making jealousy rear its ugly head where they thought it wouldn’t exist.

2. Self-Esteem

An open relationship can wreak havoc on a person’s confidence and self-esteem. As previously mentioned, open relationships create a platform for comparing yourself to your partner’s other partners. It’s easy to fear that other partners are prettier, smarter, more successful, or better sexually; leading your self-esteem to drop into dangerous and uncharted territories.

3. Power Differential

Open relationships have an inherent inequitable balance of power. Participants may have different numbers of additional partners, or additional sexual encounters with varying levels of significance. Because it is impossible to compare these additional relationships to each other and impossible to compare them with the main relationship, they may bring out anger and resentment from the main partner.

4. Unplanned Circumstances

Despite the best planning, accidents and mistakes in the bedroom can occur, leading to surprise pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases. If one partner is affected by an unplanned circumstance, it automatically affects their partner. In the case of an incurable sexually transmitted disease, many additional partners could be affected. Life changes for everyone.

5. Uncontrolled Emotions

Most couples who enter open relationships believe they will be able to keep their emotions in check. However, emotions are messy, unpredictable, and generally uncontrollable. Partners may develop emotions they were not anticipating. For example, they could start to have romantic feelings for an additional partner. Or what happens if one of their additional partners develops feelings for them? There is no simple way to keep everyone’s emotions steady and in check.

6. Terms of Agreement

Usually, one partner suggests the idea of an open relationship to the other. It’s very rare for both partners to be contemplating this arrangement before one of them brings it up. In most cases, one partner is usually acquiescing to the other, meaning they may be less invested or less excited about the idea of an open relationship. While terms may be agreed upon in theory, in practice, the partners may not fully agree to the same terms.

7. Reduced Honesty

In most open relationships, there is some type of spoken or unspoken agreement for partners to refrain from sharing too many details about their sexual escapades. This air of secrecy or lies of omission can quickly deteriorate honest and open communication between partners in other aspects of their relationship as well. When honesty disappears, trust usually follows right behind it.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, if two partners are exploring an open relationship, it usually means they are not fulfilled by their relationship and are not fully committed to it. While it may seem like a fun idea for couples to seek what they are missing outside of their relationship, it often leads to complicated problems and intense emotions. Those who are fulfilled in their relationships admire, respect, and treasure their partner—or cake—and won’t try to mess it up by eating it too.


Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents.