In the pilot of the FX comedy Married, wife Lina suggests to her husband, Russ, that he have an affair, not because she’s looking explore polyamory per se, but because she, as the mother of three kids, is too tired to deal with his sexual overtures. His attempt to sleep with another woman goes disastrously awry (his buying her a puppy is the least of his mistakes). And, as it turns out, Lina didn’t really mean it: She becomes jealous when she catches wind of his potential extramarital hookup.
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A similar situation happens early on in the new memoir Wide Open: My Adventures in Polyamory, Open Marriage, and Loving on My Own Terms by Gracie X. When X and her husband Hank first got together, they settled on this agreement: “If one of us became attracted to another person, we would allow ourselves one sexual encounter. But after that we were to shut it down and bring our focus back to the relationship.” As it turns out, once wasn’t enough for her. She wanted more than just a quick roll in the hay; instead, she longed for a romantic and sexual connection with someone. The book recounts the story of how, after going back to an unsatisfying (for her) monogamous relationship, they successfully began an open marriage that allowed her to get her needs met—but not without tackling some of the deep-seated issues around their differing libidos.
I wanted to find out what makes open marriages work, especially since we live in a society that is highly skeptical of the prospect. For example, when Margaret Cho and her husband, Al Ridenour, announced they were divorcing, gossip sites asked whether their open marriage was to blame, even though she’s spoken highly of the practice, calling it “more respectful to my nature.” We assume the non-monogamy is to blame when the marriage doesn’t endure because the openness goes against the deeply ingrained linking of marriage and monogamy in the public imagination. Yes, sometimes open marriages end—but many not only survive, but thrive. In fact, those in open marriages often credit polyamory with strengthening the marriage and making each of them better spouses.
Open marriages come in different forms
The first thing to know about open marriages is that there’s no single way of conducting them. Some couples have rules; some don’t. Some couples have a live-and-let-live attitude, of the “as long as I don’t find out, it’s okay” variety, while others, like erotica author Malin James, want their primary partners to meet their other lovers, and vice versa. James even had her girlfriend as one of her bridesmaids when she married her husband. There’s a whole lot of variety and options when figuring out the type of open relationship that might work for you.
Some may not even call theirs an “open marriage,” per se, but still practice selective non-monogamy, as did actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who addressed the nature of her arrangement with husband, Will Smith, in a Facebook post, stating, “Will and I BOTH can do WHATEVER we want, because we TRUST each other to do so. This does NOT mean we have an open relationship … this means we have a GROWN one.”
Rather than both partners being gung-ho about polyamory from the start, one partner’s interest in opening up their relationship may sparks the initial inquiry into it. This happened for my friend Lola, who’s been married for eight years, and with her husband for 13. Prior to meeting her husband when she was 20, she enjoyed having more than one partner, and said, “I fully intended to just live my life loving multiple people and hoping they’d be okay with that.” But falling head over heels made her question that intention. “I figured all of my indecisiveness was because I was waiting for the perfect person.”
When she was about to get engaged, she reconnected with her first love, and realized she still had feelings for him. They began an affair. She brought up the idea of polyamory to her now-husband of polyamory, but “he didn’t understand that me being in love with someone else didn’t mean I loved him less. He couldn’t wrap his head around it.” She agreed to set aside the idea, yet it stayed with her. Two years into their marriage, she began exploring her inclination toward submission and BDSM online, with his reluctant blessing. He still wasn’t fully on board, but knew this was important to her. Lola calls this transition period a rough one, admitting, “There were times when he was spiteful and mean and there were times when I hid things because I didn’t want to deal with him, but we got through all of it mostly intact.”
Eventually, when another couple was interested in a foursome with them, he agreed to it, and this was his moment of recognition that polyamory could work for them. For a time, they would only have sex with other people together. Now, he is involved in a long-term relationship with a married woman who has two kids—Lola considers them their “poly family.” Lola dates, but isn’t looking for anything serious.
Which is to say, through trial and error, they’ve found a way to make polyamory work for them. “In the beginning, when my husband would go away for the weekend with his girlfriend I would go from being super supportive to super jealous,” Lola explained. “I realized that I was upset because we weren’t spending quality time with each other before he’d go away. Once I realized what was really going on, I was able to ask for what I needed.” Now they do their best to carve out time alone before either spends time with outside partners.
For Kiki A., who runs a Fetlife group on practicing polyamory in Southern Florida, being in an open relationship was non-negotiable—but her now-wife had never been in an open relationship when they’d met. They had some growing pains, and even broke up because of it. “For a while, any time I wanted to hook up with or date someone, we ‘took a break.’ It got exhausting and painful.”
As they continued discussing the issue, Kiki said she made it very clear about why it was important to her. “This is not about sex, attention, or to sabotage what I have. It is about a connection with another party who fully understands the situation and is also interested in exploring some level of intimate involvement. I believe that everyone has crushes, attractions, feelings for others. I love being able to act on these without [it being a] threat to the marriage.” Eventually, her wife agreed to explore it, although Kiki is generally the one to date outside the relationship.
They’ve since settled on guidelines for how much information is too much information. If she begins having sex with someone new, she’s expected to share this with her wife. But once they’ve established that she’s seeing someone new, she doesn’t have to share the details. In fact, sometimes she’s wanted to share more than her wife wanted to know, though they’ve settled on a happy medium. If Kiki sees another woman outside the relationship, the three of them periodically have “poly check-ins” where they can each discuss any issues they’re having in person.
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Skye, a writer in her fifties, began her 20-year marriage monogamous. But eight years into her marriage, her husband told Skye that he was interested in exploring his bisexuality, and they decided to open their relationship. He’d stopped seeing other people once they started dating, but she wasn’t surprised or threatened when he brought it up. Skye believes this is because, at the time, he was interested exclusively in seeing men at the time (he’s since gone on to date other women), so Skye was less threatened by the prospect than she would have been if he’d wanted to see another woman, because "clearly, in my case, I could not be a man." But he has suffered more pangs of jealousy over the years than she has, she explained. “In the long run, as long as I’m being treated well by my partners, he’s okay,” she said. “I make it a habit to tell him that no one else could ever be what he is to me.”
At first, he was the only one exercising his right to date outside the marriage. For Skye, this change alone made her marriage better because, “Once he found a boyfriend, I could tell he was much happier and more complete. Having him happier made me happier.” It also gave her the freedom to start exploring BDSM with other partners, something he wasn’t interested in. Now, she calls their version of open-marriage “relationship-oriented,” meaning they talk to each other about their other partners, check in about timing and scheduling of outside dates, and voice their concerns when something is amiss. “I feel that the biggest benefit to having a relationship that allows for others is that you never have to worry about being everything for someone,” said Skye. “We get to love each other and be with each other, and we get to love other people who are special and important to us in other ways.”
James and her husband started off their 12-year relationship with it being open, a way of life they’re both inclined toward, but said there have been a few times, such as after the birth of their daughter, they’ve closed it temporarily (they opened it back up when their daughter turned 2). Their only rule is to be transparent and honest with each other, no matter what, something she believes is vital to making an open marriage work. Her advice to others is to be honest “even if you think it might hurt them. The distance it causes will hurt much more.”
That’s not to say that they never experience moments of disconnect or that everything is always rosy. She sees her overseas boyfriend once or twice a year, and is usually gone for about a week at a time. Those periods can be “especially hard for him as I’m off having a wonderful time and he’s being a single dad for the week. It’s like a concentrated form of the occasional sadness I feel when he’s at a cocktail party on a Friday night and I’m in bed with the baby monitor.”
Despite the occasional bout of jealousy, it’s still worth it for both of them. “Because we’re non-monogamous, neither my husband nor I feel pressured to fill each other’s every need. That lack of pressure has given our relationship lots of room to grow over the years. We’ve both been in love with two people at the same time, and it’s never been because we’ve been unhappy in our relationship.”
How to start the conversation
So if you’re curious about or just entering into an open marriage, how can you do your best to make sure it lasts? According to Inara de Luna, a relationship coach who has been in open relationships for over 20 years, “It’s important for both partners to go through an assessment process to see if this relationship style might be a good fit for them. Ideally, this process should take place before there is a new erotic/romantic outside interest in a particular person. Once another human being is involved, then objectivity flies out the window and the urgency to consent becomes a pressure of its own.”
It’s crucial that you ask the right questions. According to de Luna, they include: “What are their motivations for opening their relationship? What do they expect out of such a relationship style? And what are their needs, limits, boundaries, and triggers?”
You can’t assume your partner will automatically jump for joy when you tell them you are thinking about seeing someone else; they will have to make their own decision based on their values and needs. Amy Jo Goddard, a sexual-empowerment expert and author of Woman on Fire: 9 Elements to Wake Up Your Erotic Energy, Personal Power and Sexual Intelligence, stresses that it’s vital to be absolutely honest in the beginning, even if it’s scary. “It’s hard for people but it really is important not to minimize what you really want or try to fit what you want into your partner’s paradigm or what you think they will go for. I’ve watched a lot of couples crash and burn because the person who wanted more of an open relationship was tip-toeing around the issue and not really asking for what they most desire. They assume that they won’t get it or they fear the reaction of their lover. If you are a mismatch, it’s better to know now so you can release one another and find someone who really is a fit for you.”
You also don’t want to frame the discussion to focus on what’s lacking in your current relationship, but on what you hope to gain for both of you in the long run. “Sometimes the desire for an open relationship is about a desire to express one’s sexuality in a bigger way,” said Goddard. “It can feel like the unsavory choice of the relationship or your own sexuality. What would a win-win that means you get both look like? Get clear about that vision first, and then express it with honesty, respect and care. Approach it from an ‘us’ place where you are co-creating the relationship.”
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Skye’s suggestion? “Think seriously about your own levels of tolerance for things like jealousy, flexibility, sharing. If you know you have low tolerance for these things, don’t agree to opening a relationship.”
Once you do venture outside the marriage, you want to make sure you balance your time and emotional energy so your spouse doesn’t feel neglected. “Regardless of how many other partners you and your spouse have, it’s important to nourish and protect your marriage. It really is your foundation. It’s easy to lose sight of that, especially in the first lusty flush of a new relationship, but try to stay grounded in that primary relationship,” said James.
Check out some of the extensive resources at polyamory sites like Opening Up, Loving More and More Than Two to find books, organizations, message boards, counselors and more who are experienced in polyamory.
Are open marriages good for marriage?
Opening up your marriage isn’t going to automatically solve interpersonal issues between spouses, but it can be a way to safely explore attractions to others and aspects of your sexuality, learn about yourself and deepen your communication with your spouse by discussing fantasies and options you might not otherwise.
The women I spoke with told me they felt they are better wives not despite their polyamorous relationships, but because of them. According to James, “I feel totally secure in my marriage, whereas if we were boxed into a monogamous situation, we would both be chafing, regardless of how much we love each other. That could easily lead to quiet resentments and other small dissatisfactions that would, over time, drive a wedge between us.”
For Lola, it’s helped clarify that being polyamorous isn’t optional for her, as it was when she first started exploring the idea. She is fully committed to her open marriage, but said she will always be open, “no matter who I am with. If down the line he decides this isn’t for him I will let him go, because we both deserve to be completely happy and live the kind of life we want for ourselves.”