By Kathy Labriola, Counselor/Nurse


The model of heterosexual, monogamous marriage is sanctioned by society, religion, and the law as the only acceptable type of sexual relationship. As a result, most people have not been exposed to other ways of life. In fact, we are so heavily socialized to believe in the ideals of monogamy and marriage, that many people cannot even imagine any other option. Frequent responses to the idea of open relationships are: "But I've never seen one"; "No one I know has ever tried that"; and "There's no way it could possibly work out". People always ask, "But how does it work? What's it like?" In fact, many successful models do exist. This pamphlet will give you an overview of the three main types of non-monogamous relationships which currently exist and the numerous variations on those models. To begin thinking about new ways of living, it can help to see some examples and to understand the advantages and drawbacks of each model. By examining each model, you may be able to discern whether an open relationship is right for you and, if so, which model may best fit your individual lifestyle. The possibilities are limitless and you can "customize" any of these models to accommodate your needs.


This is by far the most commonly practiced form of open relationship and it is the most similar to monogamous marriage. In this model, the" couple relationship" is considered primary, and any other relationships revolve around the couple. It is most frequently practiced by married people or other couples in long-term relationships. The couple decides that their relationship will have precedence over any outside relationships. The couple lives together and forms the primary family unit, while other relationships receive less time and priority. No outside relationship is allowed to become equal in importance to the primary relationship. The couple makes the rules; secondary lovers have little power over decisions and are not allowed to negotiate for what they want.

There are several distinct variations of this mode, including:

a) Heterosexual couples who are "swingers." They attend sex parties or meet sexual partners through personals ads or through various activities and networks. Some couples only have sex with other couples, others engage in three-way sex by locating another man for the woman or another woman for the man, and only have sexual adventures with their spouse present. Other straight couples allow either spouse to have recreational sex with other partners without the spouse present, but this is strictly sex and no emotional involvement or commitment is allowed.

For example,
Jane and Jim are a straight, married couple. They answer personals ads and have sex only with other couples, together as a foursome.

Rose and Bill live together. Rose goes to sex parties and has anonymous sex with other men. Bill likes to pick up women in bars.

b) Gay male couples who go to the baths, the bars, sex clubs, or adult bookstores for recreational and/or anonymous sex. Many gay couples engage in this activity together, or have only "three-ways", but many couples have an agreement that either partner can go out alone and have sex with other men, but the goal is sex rather than relationships.

For example,
Joe and Jim are a Gay male couple who enjoy going to the baths together and meeting younger guys for three-way sex. Joe also likes to go to the park and have anonymous sex with other men, and occasionally answers personals ads to meet casual sex partners.

c) Couples of any and all sexual orientations who allow each spouse to have outside sexual relationships, either casual or long-term. These outside relationships are still considered secondary , and if any conflict develops, the primary couple relationship will take precedence. Usually the couple lives together, shares finances, spends weekends, holidays, and vacations together. The outside lovers usually do not live with them, spend much less time together, have very little voice in decisions and rule-making, and must arrange scheduling around the demands of the primary relationship. Some couples have rules that each spouse has veto power over any new lovers that his or her spouse may choose. In other words, if a woman is interested in a relationship with a new man, her husband has the power to veto that relationship before it starts, for any reason. Other couples allow each person to sleep with whomever they choose, but make rules about how much time they can spend with their other lovers, whether they can spend the night away from home, whether they can spend any weekend time with them, and other restrictions on these relationships.

For example,
Clare and Tom live together. Clare has a long-term sexual relationship with her neighbor, Melissa, who spends afternoons with Clare while Tom is at work. Tom has a series of short-term relationships with women he meets "on line" through polyamorous chat rooms. However, Tom falls in love with one of his outside lovers, so Clare insists that he break off the relationship because it threatens the primary couple relationship.

Alan and Damon are a Gay couple who live together. Alan has two "fuck-buddies", friends he regularly has sex with. Damon has a long-term boyfriend in L.A. whom he sees for a few days each month when he is there on business.

David and Lucy are a bisexual couple who are married and have two children. David has a long-term male lover whom he sees frequently, but he considers his marriage and children his first priority and devotes more time and commitment to them. Lucy has had several female lovers but each one has left her because she insists that her husband comes first. So currently she has no outside relationship.

Maria and Jorge are both nurses who work opposite shifts in a hospital. They are a married couple, and both are bisexual. Maria has a long-term sexual relationship with Rosa, a doctor on her shift, who comes home with Maria after work for sex and companionship while Jorge is working his shift at the hospital. Jorge has numerous affairs with other male nurses at night, while Maria and Rosa are at work.

Pros and Cons of the Primary/Secondary Model

This model is popular because it is the model most similar to traditional marriage and does not threaten the primacy of the couple. For most married or co-habiting couples, it is not such a stretch to have a few outside relationships as long as they know that the primary commitment is to the marriage. They can still be married, have children, live together, be socially acceptable, and "live a normal life", keeping their outside relationships secret from friends and family. It doesn't require making any radical changes in your lifestyle or your world view. One major benefit for many couples is that they feel secure that they won't be abandoned, because their spouse has agreed that outside relationships will be secondary. This is simpler and easier to organize logistically than other forms of open relationships. If there is any conflict over time, loyalty or commitment, the spouse always gets priority.

However, a major drawback of this model is that outside relationships are not so simple or easy to predict or control. Having a sexual relationship with someone else often leads to becoming emotionally involved and even falling in love, frequently causing a crisis in the primary relationship and even divorce. Initiating a sexual relationship is opening a door to many possibilities, and often secondary relationships grow into something else which does not fit neatly into the confines of this model. Many people who become "secondary" lovers become angry at being subjugated to the couple, and demand equality or end the relationship. For this model to be successful, couples must be very convinced that their relationship is strong enough to weather these ups and downs. Conversely, some couples who start with this model decide eventually to shift to some form of the Multiple Primary Partners model to allow secondary relationships to become equal to the primary couple relationship.<


While there are many variations on this theme, the key factor is that all primary partner models include three or more people in a primary relationship in which all members are equal partners. Instead of a couple having priority and control in the relationship, all relationships are considered primary, or have the potential of becoming primary. Each partner has equal power to negotiate for what they want in the relationship, in terms of time, commitment, living situation, financial arrangements, sex, and other issues.

Some examples of variations on this model:

a) Polyfidelity Model--closed multi-adult families

This is a "group marriage" model, essentially the same as being married--except you're married to more than one person. Usually consisting of three to six adults, all partners live together, share finances, children, and household responsibilities. Depending on the sexual orientation of the members, all adults in the family are sexual partners. For instance, if all members are heterosexual, all the women have sexual relationships with all the men. If the women are bisexual, they may have sexual relationships with the women as well as the men. And so on. However, this is a closed system, and sex is only allowed between family members--no outside sexual relationships are allowed. Some families are open to taking on new partners, but only if all members of the family agree to accept the new person as a partner. The new person then moves into the household and becomes an equal member of the family. The polyfidelity model was made famous during the 1970's and 80's by the Kerista commune in San Francisco, which had several households living this model for many years. Currently, the most common form of this model is a triad of two women and one man, or two men and one woman. However, recently there have been a number of polyfidelitous families formed by two heterosexual couples who become a four-some and live together as a family.

For example,
Jane and Tom and Mary and Bill all live together as a polyfidelitous family, and they have three children. They pool their incomes and make house payments, buy food, and provide for the children collectively, sharing child rearing and household responsibilities. They are heterosexual, so each of the women has sexual relations with both men; Jane falls in love with Joaquin, an outside friend. After much consideration, all partners agree that Joaquin can move into the household and join the family. He becomes an equal partner in the household and has sexual relations with Jane and Mary.

Andre, Rachel and Nathan live together as a family; all three are bisexual. Rachel has sexual relationships with both Andre and Nathan. Andre and Nathan also have a sexual relationship. They have a "sleeping schedule" so that each relationship receives equal time, each spending two nights each week with each partner. They are seeking another bisexual woman to join their family.

Pros and Cons of Polyfidelity

Polyfidelity can be a richly rewarding experience, creating an extended family and intentional community. Pooling resources is economical and ecological, and can reduce the stress of child rearing by spreading the work and the responsibility among several adults rather than just one or two parents. However, polyfidelity requires a very high level of compatibility and affinity between all partners. Everyone must agree on where to live, what to cook for dinner, how clean the house should be, how much money to spend and on what, whether to have children and how to raise them. Most people find it difficult enough to locate one partner they can successfully live with for the "long haul", much less two, three, four or more. And living together as a group decreases privacy and autonomy, often leading to interpersonal conflicts and stress. Living in a group requires excellent interpersonal skills, clear communication, assertiveness, co-operation, and flexibility in order to accommodate everyone's needs. Picking compatible partners and being accommodating are both key to successful polyfidelity.

b) Multiple Primary Partners--Open Model

This model is very different from polyfidelity in that all partners are given much more autonomy and flexibility in developing any relationships they choose and defining those relationships on their own terms. In the Primary/Secondary model the couple is the center of power, and in the polyfidelity model the entire family group is makes decisions together and all must agree. In the Multiple Primary Partners Open Model, the individual is the basic unit of the family and is empowered to make his or her own rules and decisions. Partners may choose to live together , or they may choose to live with one or more partners, or live alone if that better suits their needs. This model is open, in that each partner has the right to choose other lovers at any time without the approval of any other partner. Each relationship evolves independently of partners' other relationships, with rules and level of commitment to be negotiated by each individual. No one can veto a potential partner or "pull rank" and insist on being the number one priority.

Some examples of this model are:
Jennifer and Andrea are a Lesbian couple who live together. Andrea also has another primary partner, Julia, who does not live with them, but receives equal time and priority. Andrea spends one-half of the week with each woman.

Ricardo and Maria are a bisexual married couple; they spend Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights together. Tom also live with them, and has his own bedroom. Ricardo spends a few nights each week with Tom. Maria has two lovers, Erica and Jessica, who she sees frequently.

Rita lives alone and she prefers having her own apartment. She has two committed, long-term relationships, with Bob and Jason, who also live alone. Bob and Jason each come to visit her at her apartment a few nights a week.

Linda has two male spouses, Cliff and Bruce. She co-owns a house with each spouse, and she lives half-time with each one, changing houses each night. Cliff and Bruce are free to pursue relationships with other women if they choose to do so.

Pros and Cons of the Open Model

There is much more fluidity in this approach as relationships are allowed to evolve over time with very few rules to direct or restrict their direction or level of commitment. However, it is also much less predictable and may cause anxiety for people who like more structure and prefer a clear hierarchy.

Because all partners are considered equal, each partner can negotiate for what they want. However, all this "processing" requires time, effort, and excellent communication skills. And some people find the potential for conflicting loyalties to be too threatening. For instance, which partner will spend holidays or vacations with you? Will they both go, will they alternate each year, will you spend part of each holiday or vacation with each one? If one partner is going through a crisis, can they demand more of your time and commitment? If you are experiencing problems in one relationship or feel more drawn toward another partner, what behavior is appropriate? Weighing your own needs and the desires of each partner can be very stressful and confusing. Some people find this model requires too much thinking, problem-solving and "going with the flow", and prefer a more rigid structure such as the primary-secondary model or the polyfidelity model.


While the first two models stress commitment and primary relationships, some people prefer to remain essentially single but participate in more than one relationship. They are not looking for a committed relationship. For them, non-monogamy offers the intimacy, love, and sexual satisfaction of involvement in relationships without the constraints of a primary relationship. This model works best for people who have a serious, all-consuming commitment to something other than relationships; people who are very busy with their work, their art, raising children alone, or political involvements. Usually they prefer relationships with people who, like themselves, want less commitment, or people who already have a primary relationship and are looking for a "secondary" relationship. People involved in this model usually don't make a lot of rules about their relationships, and retain a very high degree of personal freedom and autonomy. They usually live alone and make relationships a relatively low priority in their lives.

Some examples are:
Juan is an artist who needs lots of time alone to paint. He has three lovers--Maria, Janice and Keiko. He sees each of them regularly, usually making a date with each one every one to two weeks. Keiko and Janice are both married and see Juan when their husbands are at work. Maria is working on her Ph.D. dissertation. All three are too busy to seek a primary relationship with Juan.

Jessica is a single mother with three kids and a full time job. She doesn't have time for a primary relationship, and has two long-term but casual sexual relationships with Jacob and Anthony. Jacob is a business executive who travels a lot for his job, so he is only free to see Jessica about once a week. Anthony is married to a nurse, but sees Jessica one evening a week when his wife works till 11:00 PM at the hospital.

Pros and Cons on Non-Primary Model

For this model to be successful, it is crucial to carefully choose partners who will be satisfied with a less committed relationship, and to communicate that clearly to potential partners. This model often works great as long as all parties are too busy or too committed elsewhere to want a primary relationship. However, conflict can arise when circumstances change and one person has more time or develop a desire for a primary relationship. For instance, when Maria finishes her Ph.D., or when Jacob gets a promotion and no longer has to travel for his job, or a married lover gets divorced--they may suddenly demand more time and commitment or even demand a monogamous relationship. Such a change often proves fatal to the existing relationship. However, sometimes people see such a challenge as an opportunity for growth and are able to change their relationship to accommodate everyone's needs.


There are many different types of open relationships. Some models will fit your needs much better than others. To identify your preferred model, ask yourself some tough questions: How much security do you need to feel safe in a relationship? Do you need to feel that you're "Number One", or can you share that priority with other lovers? How much privacy and personal freedom do you need to feel comfortable? Have you been happiest living alone, living with one person, or with a group? What pushes your buttons? How much time and energy do you have to devote to relationships? What are your expectations of love relationships?

For you to be happy in open relationships of any kind, you must first know what you want and which model will be most likely to work for you. Secondly, you must be able to articulately communicate what you want to potential partners in an honest and clear way. And last, but certainly not least, it is crucial to pick partners who want the same type of relationship and are comfortable with your chosen model. Excellent interpersonal and communications skills go a long way towards achieving these goals, along with a willingness to negotiate to satisfy everyone's needs. Following these steps will maximize your chances of developing satisfying and successful open relationships.

Kathy Labriola provides low-fee counseling for individuals, couples, and groups. She has extensive experience assisting people with the challenges of non-traditional relationships, health problems and disabilities, HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation crises, political activism, and class struggle. She also facilitates discussion and support groups on open relationships, health and disabilities, and political activism and burnout. For further information, or to receive free educational pamphlets, call (510)464-4652.

Kathy Labriola
1307 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94702
(510)464-4652 or (510)841-5307