An NYU Professor Explains What It Means To Be In An Open Relationship

Dr. Zhana Vrangalova helps us make sense of the brave new landscape of open relationships.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 28, 2022

It is easy to assume that open relationships don't concern you, especially if you're in a monogamous relationship or identify as a monogamist. But sex reseacher and NYU professor Zhana Vrangalova argues there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Research by Vrangalova, conducted in collaboration with Ashley Madison, an online dating company, reveals that nearly half of Americans are unsatisfied with the sexual aspects of their primary relationships. In fact, the report uncovered a number of findings that staunch monogamists might find concerning, such as:

  • More than half of people in committed relationships in America are uncomfortable sharing their sexual fantasies with their partners
  • Two-thirds of Americans report fantasizing about having sex with other people. These fantasies include BDSM, non-monogamy, and multi-partner sex.
  • A third of partnered Americans say that their ideal type of relationship is some sort of openness if they could be assured it wouldn't harm their primary relationship.

These results make it clear that non-monogamy is not a fringe desire and that non-monogamists aren't sexual outliers. But is the desire to be sexually active outside of your primary relationship amoral? A better question, according to Vrangalova, is why these desires feel so natural.

A dilemma of primal urges

We can find the roots of monogamy in our innate desire for long-term security and the evolutionary urge to have children. Fulfilling this need ensures, at least in principle, life-long trust and stability.

Vrangalova explains that while the need for security and companionship is present in every human being, there is another desire in all of us that can be at loggerheads with it. This is the desire for novelty, exploration, and experience-seeking. According to her, non-monogamy is a manifestation of this desire.

"There are evolutionary arguments to be made for both needs," says Vrangalova. "Long-term relationships fill the need of security, trust, and stability, which is the most important basic need. However, that need is separate from experience-seeking. The reality is that humans have both of these needs."

Our culture, Vrangalova warns, is currently too intolerant of what she calls 'negotiated non-monogamy' – which, for some couples, is a way to satisfy both needs.

"To start, we need to change the default assumption that we're going to fall in love and never have outside sexual desires again," says Vrangalova.

What we get wrong about 'open' relationships

Vranglova points out that non-monogamy is usually seen as a loophole for infidelity or promiscuity in our society. However, non-monogamy is far more complex and meaningful than that for most people who practice it.

Here are two myths about non-monogamy that circulate in our society:

  • People who 'open up' their relationships have fallen out of love but do not want to dissolve their bond completely. This type of thought process is binary in nature – i.e., if two people love each other, they will be monogamous and introducing non-monogamy signals the death of their relationship. However, many people who practice non-monogamy are still in healthy relationships with their primary partner.
  • A non-monogamous arrangement is essentially a free-for-all. Non-monogamy is based on principles of clear communication and boundaries. Both partners draw their individual lines as well as general rules for their relationship. This can include whether they want to listen to each other's non-monogamous encounters or not.

Even after knowing this, trying out non-monogamy can be a challenge for people in committed relationships. Vrangalova believes that if one is truly interested in testing out non-monogamy in their relationship, taking baby steps is the way to go.

How you can flirt with non-monogamy

Vrangalova has worked with many couples to help them 'open up' their relationship without damaging it or overwhelming themselves through her online course. Here are three pieces of advice she gives for couples who want to dabble in non-monogamy:

  • Talk about your sexual fantasies. The starting point for any couple should be to have an open and honest conversation about the things they desire sexually. Shame and secrets can chip away at the strongest of bonds. Introducing non-monogamy in some form or fashion can ensure that partners do not end up resenting each other.
  • Go slow with non-monogamy. There are degrees of openness in any open relationship. In fact, you do not have to invite a 'third' into your relationship to enjoy non-monogamy, suggests Vrangalova. "You can invite what I like to call the 'shadow of the third' into your relationship through shared fantasies, conversations, shared porn consumption, going to 'play parties' but maybe just watching, and trying out apps that specialize in non-monogamous connections."
  • Put effort into your sex life. We need to invest energy into our sexual satisfaction. The risk of infidelity increases with time in any relationship. Having more conversations about sexual fantasies can help. "It's easier to maintain sexual desire than bring it back from the dead," says Vranglova.

"We are entering a time of greater honesty," Vranglova concludes. "It's just a matter of time before the facade of monogamy falls. But don't think of it as the end of long-term relationships."