Six Steps to Designing Your Open Relationship — Curious Fox (2023)

I’m bored. I feel trapped. Restless. Lonely. Sexually frustrated.

These are some of the feelings commonly reported by those in long-term relationships. They are also the fears that stop people from getting into one.

Many of us want to be in long-term relationships, but we also have concerns about their viability. Can being with one person for the rest of our lives actually fulfill all of our needs? The problem is that we have only been given a “one-size-fits-all” model for how romantic relationships can look. As Esther Perel says in her book “Mating in Captivity,” adult intimacy has become overburdened with expectations. We expect our partner to be our lover, best friend, confidant, activity partner, co-parent and more. It’s no wonder we feel weary and skeptical about relationships.

When two people decide to get married, a great deal of planning and attention gets paid to every detail of the wedding day. From the invitation to the flowers, the color scheme to the band. People think through, choose, and consciously design every aspect of how they want their day to go. But the same cannot be said for the relationship itself.

The traditional monogamous relationship structure clearly doesn’t work for everyone, as evidenced by the high rates of cheating and the fact that approximately half of marriages end in divorce. It is time we embraced the truth that love and intimacy are not one size fits all.

Whether you decide to have sexual or emotional fidelity or choose to be in an open relationship, it is time to challenge the traditional relationship construct that has been handed to us, and instead consciously co-design a relationship that aligns with our evolving needs, values, and desires.

Think of it as the difference between buying a pre-built house with your partner or designing and building a house together. Neither is better than the other. The question is, what best fits your needs. Perhaps the house at the end of the cul de sac is the perfect fit for your family. Or maybe brownstone near the park would be ideal if you can renovate the kitchen. Or maybe you want to design a home from scratch and build on an empty plot of land. However you decide to approach your relationship design, the key is to do so consciously, collaboratively and rooted in your own needs, values, and desires.

This process works for both individuals and couples. For a single person, contemplating your ideal relationship allows you to look for a partner with awareness and clarity, as well as an existing couple who can use the process to examine and redefine how their relationships work.

Consider this to be your invitation to view your relationships as a creative process, rooted in what you and your partner need to thrive. This approach takes traditional monogamous marriage off the pedestal and places monogamy as a choice rather than a given. This perspective sees a relationship design as adaptable, allowing flexibility for changing needs and desires over time.

Designing Your Ideal Relationship

“Sounds great, but how do I actually design my ideal relationship?”

Here are six steps:

  1. Know Thyself

  2. Know the Options

  3. Create/Choose Your Structure

  4. Communicate

  5. Experiment

  6. Refine

Know Thyself

Take some time to reflect on who you are and what you want. What are your core values? Your primary love language? What is your Erotic Blueprint™? What is your attachment style? What are your most frequently used defense mechanisms and communication styles?

Then, think about why you want to be in a relationship (or another relationship). Companionship? Emotional intimacy? Sex? Sharing resources (money, chores, etc.)?

From there, let’s consider some important decisions into which many people unconsciously default. For one, some people want “escalator relationships,” beginning with dating, then moving in together, eventually getting engaged and married and finally having children together. However, not all relationships have to follow this progression. Does this appeal to you? If not, what does growth look like for you? Which milestones are important to you? What is your definition of short or long-term relationship success?

It’s also important to think about what constitutes cheating for you. What are your personal boundaries for what actions are precluded? For some, the line may be pornography, masturbation, flirting, touching, kissing, or genital intercourse. For some, cheating may also be a matter of emotional intimacy.

Lastly, how do you want to spend your time? Do you prefer to spend all of your time with your partner(s)? Do you thrive when you have time to yourself? How would you like to divide your time between partners? Understanding how much time, energy, and attention you have available for yourself and others can help you clarify and communicate your needs and understand the needs of those who you are in a relationship with.

Know the Options

Relationship options are only limited by your imagination and willingness.

Do you want to have a polyamorous relationship where you and your partner have other loving, committed relationships?

Do you want to be in a triad who cohabit but do not date anyone outside of your unit?

Do you want to be a couple that is mostly monogamous with the exception that one partner is allowed to have sex outside the relationship but only if discussed beforehand?

Do you want to be in a monogamous relationship in which you decide not to have children?

Do you want to be a monogamous partnership with two kids and a dog?

These are just a few examples of possible relationship designs. But what are the broad categories that exist? Let’s look at some common relationship structures:

Monogamy — when both parties agree to be sexually and romantically exclusive with each other. While it is often the default, we advocate that if it is chosen, it be done so thoughtfully and intentionally. This structure may appeal to individuals who subscribe to the idea that exclusivity creates more stability in relationships. Also, it may appeal to those who are prone to jealousy or don’t feel a need for additional physical or emotional intimacy.

Non-Monogamy — a relationship structure in which the partners agree to be sexually and/or emotionally non-exclusive. Therefore, consensual, or ethical, non-monogamy is not cheating because the partners involved are in agreement about having partners outside of the relationship. This structure requires self-awareness, willingness to engage in ninja-level communication, and emotional self-regulation.

Monogamish — a term coined by sex columnist Dan Savage in 2011 to describe a relationship structure that is mostly monogamous. Such relationships have an agreement that allows for some sexual contact outside the primary relationship.

Open Relationships — a structure that can be used to describe any relationship in which sexual interaction with someone other than a primary partner is agreed upon. One common example is swinging, which is an activity that typically involves emotionally monogamous couples switching partners for sex in a recreational or social setting. Swinging, however, typically does not entail emotional intimacy or romance outside of sexual encounters. On the other end of the spectrum, relationship anarchy is a less prevalent relationship style in which there are no labels or defined structures, and participants do not rank or assign special value to sexual relationships.

Polyamory — meaning multiple loves, a relationship structure in which individuals openly engage in more than one romantic relationship simultaneously. These relationships can exist in many configurations. Many people utilize a framework in which they have a primary partner and secondary partners, whereas others prefer a non-hierarchical system for relating to different partners. They are many reasons individuals choose to practice polyamory, such as differing sex drives or desire for different kinds of intimacy.

Polygamy — NOT the same as polyamory. Polygamy is a marriage consisting of more than two people. Though polygamy is one of the most recognized terms within non-monogamy, it is specific to marriage and is less relevant when discussing intentional relationship design.

When considering what relationship structure is right for you, some important factors to consider are: How much time do you want to spend together? Do you want to live together? If so, do you want to share a bedroom or have separate bedrooms? Do you want to share finances? Do you want to have children?

Create/ Choose your Structure

You are now ready to make a preliminary decision about what type of relationship structure appeals to you.

Sit with the options and determine what aligns with your needs, values, and desires. Determine what feels like a good fit and where you would like to speak with your partner about designing something unique.


Ultimately, honest and clear communication is necessary for any successful relationship. Once you know where you stand, you can communicate these preferences to your existing or future partners. In each relationship, you have the opportunity to design it together by sharing and collaborating to create a mutually satisfying arrangement.

It is worth noting that a relationship’s design is not representative of the feelings and love between the parties. Relationship design is a process that requires each person to recognize and communicate their personal needs. For example, an individual’s need for alone time is completely independent of their feelings for their partners. Ideally, partners can understand this and make an effort not to take such needs personally. Partners should support and create space for their partners to figure out and express their needs and work together to see that all partner’s needs are getting met.

Experiment and Refine

It’s important to allow for and expect a lot of trial and error as you make adjustments to your relationship design. Miscommunications will occur. Feelings will get hurt. Unanticipated challenges will arise. For example, scheduling is one of many challenges people in non-monogamous relationships face. As you spend time with a partner, you can fine-tune your preferences for yourself as well as in the relationship design with that person.

Whatever it looks like, by knowing yourself, communicating with each partner, and allowing space for refining as you go, you are taking a major step towards creating your ideal life — intentional, conscious partnerships.

Still have questions? Visit our website, come to one of our events, check out the podcast, or find community on Facebook and Patreon. You do not need to figure this out on your own; stay find and connect a curious community of friends.

To hear more curious and courageous stories, subscribe to Curious Fox for free. Each week you will find more stories and lessons, as well as ways that you can explore your curiosity.

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Author: Saturnina Altenwerth DVM

Last Updated: 02/03/2023

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