August 20, 2017
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Would You Ever Open Your Marriage? The Psychology of Open Marriages

Marriage and relationships are changing in the 21st century.  Hear from real-life folks who say polyamory works best for them.

Valentine’s Day comes around every February, bringing with it horrible romantic films, stores filled with boxes of candy, and cuddly stuff animals.  The gifts are accompanied by expressions of romance, soul mates, and in many cases, the ultimate goal of a monogamous, committed relationship with your one true love.  But non-monogamous relationship styles are increasingly becoming recognized as a valid choice for some individuals.

This past Valentine’s Day weekend the 6th International Conference on the Future of Monogamy and Nonmonogamy took place in Berkeley, California. The website Openminded.com, a dating site for polyamorous and open relationships founded by Brandon Wade, has over 180,000 members worldwide.  Looks like more folks are open to opening their relationships.

What would you do if your spouse came to you wanting to open up your marriage to another person for emotional and sexual intimacy?  Would you agree?

What is “Open Marriage?”

The term “open marriage” was first used in the 1972 book of the same name by the late George and Nena O’Neill.  Another term used describe open relationships is polyamory, which literally means, “multiple loves.”  There are some key definitions that help differentiate polyamory from other forms of nonmonogamous relationships.

  • Swingers are heterosexual couples who have consensual extramarital (or partnered) sex.  Swingers emphasize sex outside the primary relationship and do not place as much emphasis on emotional intimacy or long-term relationship prospects.
  • Polyamorous relationships may have more than one long-standing sexual and/or emotional relationship. These relationships can last for decades and are often referred to as long-term relationships.
Celebrities in Open Marriages

Open relationships have often been associated with celebrity culture.  Some celebrities known or suspected of having consensual non-monogamous relationships include:

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

  • Rapper Pitbull, who has said, “what counts at the end of the day is everybody being happy.”
  • Comedienne Mo’Nique has never hidden her open marriage from the public.
  • Dolly Parton, who has gone on record stating about her marriage to businessman Carl Dean, “If we do cheat, it’s very good for both of us.”
  • Will Smith and Jada Picket have been very vocal about their arrangement. Jada has shared about her husband, “You can do whatever you want, as long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and be okay.”
  • Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It has been alleged that the recently separated power couple had a relationship that was open without fidelity restrictions.  Jolie has gone on record by saying, “I doubt that fidelity is absolutely essential for a relationship. Neither Brad nor I have ever claimed that living together means to be chained together. We make sure that we never restrict each other.”
Everyday People in Open Marriages

Non-monogamous relationships aren’t only for the rich and famous.  Real people will tell you a polyamorous lifestyle works for them and that trying to fit into a monogamous relationship would result in unhappiness and potential dishonesty.  I reached out to three folks who are in open relationships and identify as polyamorous:

  • Steve* is a 34 year-old Caucasian male and has been married for 14 years.
  • Candi is a 48 year-old Caucasian female who was married for 24 years.  She is divorced but opened her marriage up prior to the divorce and is still with her long-term relationship.
  • Melissa* is a 37 year-old Caucasian female and has been married for 16 years.

* A pseudonym has been provided at their request

Melissa’s Story: A Struggling Marriage That’s Now Thriving

Melissa met her husband at 20 and got married at 21, “so I did not get the opportunity to really learn who I was and what I wanted before I was already in the marriage.”  The turning point in her marriage happened after 9 years.  “We realized that we had some major differences that were causing problems in our marriage. We found polyamory a natural way for us to meet all of our needs and still get to stay together and happy.”

Melissa’s outlook is consistent with what marriage therapist Esther Perel suggests in her writings and TED Talk on marriage and infidelity.  The author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Perel claims “many people practicing non-monogamy see it as a way to preserve their relationship, not implode it.”  She says “the idea of consensual non-monogamy is in service of the longevity of the couple.  They can avoid lying, cheating, and bring the concept of sexual freedom inside the marriage.”

Melissa believes the infidelity that her husband endured in his first marriage made it easier for him to adapt to the idea of opening up their marriage.  “He was cheated on in his first marriage.  He realized that monogamy isn’t going to happen for everyone and it doesn’t have to ruin the relationship.”

Had she known what polyamory was earlier in her life, Melissa admits “I would have claimed it as part of my identity from the beginning.”  Melissa can’t recall whose idea it was but knew it was appealing to both of them.  “We had multiple friends in open marriages. Some were really doing well, others not so much. We had good examples of what to and not to do.”  In the end, Melissa views her open marriage as “a way to meet needs that the other couldn’t or did not want to meet.”

How Common Are Open Marriages?

While it is impossible to know exactly how many U.S. couples are consensually non-monogamous, estimates range from roughly a half-million all the way up to 2.4 million couples.  From the limited data collected, it appears that lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals are slightly more likely than heterosexuals to enter non-monogamous relationships.  Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist who interviewed 40 polyamorous people over the course of several years for her book, The Polyamorists Next Door, says that “” are more likely to be liberal and well educated,” holding more masters and doctoral degrees than the general population.  And in the rare cases that they do practice religion, it’s usually paganism or Unitarian Universalism.

Candi’s Journey: A Struggling Marriage That Opening Up Couldn’t Save

Candi looks backs on her marriage that lasted for 24 years with a degree of resignation and regret.  Married at age 22, she says it lasted “far longer than it should have” and “it should have never started.  My ex-husband is, admittedly, codependent and I am very independent.”

She did not start dating until very late in high school.  “When I was very young I equated sex with self-worth,” she shared.  “I also felt that getting married was the goal so I went through with a wedding that I knew wasn’t right for me, because I didn’t want to fail.”

Candi’s ex broached the topic of alternative relationships, swinging, and orgies with her before they married.  “I declined,” she asserts, “but told him he was free to do so.”  When the subject was once again brought up in 2011, an unexpected thing occurred.  Soon after her husband informed her “he was in love with the woman he was dating and explained the concept of polyamory to me.  It immediately clicked with me.  He wanted me to experience the same happiness he had so he kept after me to begin dating.”

Candi relented and shortly thereafter met a man who was also in a polyamorous marriage.  They began dating.  Candi has only had this one, long-term relationship.  She and her husband divorced in 2013, but she continues to be in a long-term relationship with a man who is happily married.

Social Norms and Stigma

Polyamory exists mainly outside social norms and therefore, most individuals are quite private about their relationships.  The concept of monogamous marriage has been deeply rooted in Western society since the time of the Ancient Greeks.  Monogamy quickly became the norm.  There is, however, evidence that Americans are growing increasingly accepting of open relationships.  Depending on the scenario, up to 16 percent of women and up to 31 percent of men are somewhat open or willing to adding a third person in their relationship or have casual sex with whoever, no questions asked.

The argument for relaxing the cultural tradition of exclusivity has been articulated in schematic form as follows:

  • Sex is intrinsically pleasurable. It can be particularly exciting and intense when the sex partner is new.
  • If you truly love your partner, you should want them to experience such exciting and intense feelings.
  • Conclusion: If you truly love your spouse or partner, you should want your spouse or partner to have sex with other people, if they so desire.
Steve’s Journey: Enhancing an Already Strong Marriage

Unlike Candi and Melissa, the idea of opening up Steve’s marriage wasn’t due to relationship struggles.  “The idea was brought up to me by my wife.” Steve claims, “our marriage was pretty strong and I just didn’t see a reason to open it up.  I was initially very resistant to the idea.”  He and his wife had friends with open marriages that seemed to be trying to pull their relationships back from the brink of failure.  “We didn’t have that problem.”  In fact, for Steve the idea of opening up a marriage that wasn’t struggling was the biggest challenge.  “It was hard for me to get over the idea of my wife having sex with another man, but that feeling itself made me feel even worse because I had always prided myself in being a forward thinker and never thought of my wife as property.”

Steve is not alone on the last point he addressed.  A common outlook amongst folks in polyamorous relationships is connecting monogamy with rigidity, possessiveness, and antiquated values.  It didn’t help Steve that in the beginning his wife was the more excited one about opening up their marriage.  “The situation definitely stirred up some old misogynist feelings in me.”  However, he went into investigative mode to help confront his ambivalence.  He read books about the topic.  Steve also talked at length with friends and strangers who were already in open relationships.  “Eventually I came around to the idea and realized it wouldn’t be the end of the world as long as we could maintain the strength of our marriage.”

Boundaries and Rules

Despite the technical set-up of the non-monogamous relationship, all sub-factions seem to agree that an open marriage can pose a serious threat to the primary relationship if certain rules to protect its long-term viability are not agreed upon and followed.  Rules for admissible behavior varies, but some common rules involve:

  • Advanced notice of engagements
  • What is acceptable and unacceptable locations for sex and overnight stays
  • What is acceptable and unacceptable forms of sexual activity, including anal, oral, or BDSM

Rules become especially important because without sexual or emotional fidelity, open marriages need a different barometer for commitment in the marriage relationship.  In a peculiar way, compliance to the rules can translate into polyamorous fidelity.

When Candi opened up her marriage, she and her now ex-husband had four concrete rules:

  1. No unprotected sex until STD testing was done and all partners agreed to not have unprotected sex with anyone else unless the same testing and commitments were made.
  2. Try to plan dates in advance.
  3. Everyone changes and washes their own sheets.
  4. If you have sex, shower before you come home.

Candi has continued to enforce the same four rules in her long-term relationship.  “My boyfriend told me on our second date that we could make our relationship look like anything we wanted with two restrictions:  We couldn’t get married and we couldn’t have children.  Those are two things I was in complete agreement with!”

Melissa and Steve had more rules when they first opened up their respected relationships.  Melissa added, “after you learn what bothers you or your partner, many of those fall away, and it becomes really natural.”  Steve agreed, stating, “the rules that guide us now are, ‘Be safe, have fun, and if at all possible, let me know if you are going to have sex with someone [other than our long-term relationship].  A lot of our solutions came down to us originally having rules that were unfair or too difficult to follow.”

Polyamorous arrangements tend to be less rule-bound and instead emphasize such relationship themes as trust, open communication, and self-awareness.  The big rule for Melissa is “if things are looking serious we want to meet the person.  Usually this meeting would happen before sex.  No one is allowed to sleep over at the house until everyone has met.”

Misconceptions About Sex

Although the polyamorous lifestyle may not be exclusively about sex, some research indicates that both men and women in polyamorous relationships have higher testosterone levels (which are often tied to libido) than those in monogamous ones.  While variety in sex is a big part of multiple romances, polyamorists proclaim that it’s not the whole story.

Melissa claims, “it is not all about the sex, which is a big difference between polyamory and swingers/many open marriages. We are open for total fulfillment, for well-rounded loving relationships, sex is a big part of that, but not all.”  For Melissa, one of their rules helps curb potential problems in the area of casual sex.  “Many men hear I am in an open marriage and automatically think that means I am open to having sex with anyone. This is far from the case. I am even more selective of my partners than when I was single. Our rule about meeting people helps this situation greatly.  Someone is not going to want to meet your husband if it is for just sex.”

Candi stresses to others “how the two relationships complement each other,” saying, “my ex-husband and I shared a love of science fiction and my boyfriend and I love football!”  Candi compares the role of sex in her relationship to other traditional monogamous relationships.  “Sex is an integral part of any romantic relationship, but it’s not the only point of a successful, long-term relationship.  That’s no different in non-traditional relationships, at least not for me.”

What’s the Argument in Favor of Open Marriages?

Some folks wonder, if sex is not the primary motive for opening up a marriage, then what would be the advantages and positives?

Honesty, Trust, and Communication

The polyamorous community and proponents of the lifestyle believe they are more emotionally honest and communicative than the overall monogamous community.  “They’re talking a lot, they’re negotiating a lot, they’re bringing their feelings to the table a lot,” says Bjarne Holmes, a psychologist at Champlain College.

Steve claims that opening the marriage resulted in he and his wife being “more open about our feelings and [we] communicate more than we did before [opening the marriage].”  Melissa agrees, adding “the level of communication needed to make this work is crazy. You have to know yourself well enough to be able to voice what you need.”  Melissa also claims that she and her husband rarely fight anymore.  “Don’t get me wrong we argue,” she admits, “but we have learned how to do it. We have become more understanding of each other and respectful of each other’s needs. Not having the responsibility of filling each other’s every need has opened space for us to really enjoy each other in the ways that make us happiest.”

A Safer Approach to Sex

Although only 4 to 5 percent of heterosexual couples have agreed to have an open relationship, the data suggests that far more people are engaging in infidelity outside of the marriage.  Research points to more than 20 percent of married men and nearly 15 percent of married women admitting to infidelity, a number that’s risen almost 40 percent for women in the past 20 years.  Other research points to the possibility that 30 to 60 percent of married individuals in the United States will engage in adultery at some point in their marriage.  And unsurprisingly, people who have permission to engage in “extramarital” sex through planned, non-monogamous arrangements are more likely to practice safe sex and undergo regular STD testing than monogamous folks who cheat on their spouses.

Critics of Polyamory

Not everyone agrees with the perspective championed by polyamorists, with some therapists calling the polyamorous model a recipe for hurt, disappointment, jealousy, and breakups.  Clinical psychologist Sue Johnson argued in her book Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships that monogamy is an accepted notion because it works.  Johnson says open relationships are most often expressions of avoidance strategies. “More avoidant folks are very wary of relying on one person and being vulnerable.”  Johnson goes on to state, “I think this lifestyle is very difficult to maintain even just in terms of time and emotional resources. The energy given to other partners is not put into the marriage.”

Jenny Block, author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life In An Open Marriage, disagrees with Dr. Johnson.  Block doesn’t understand why an open relationship would seem more risky than a closed one when 50 percent of marriages already end in divorce. “Relationships are hard no matter what the set-up. Sometimes I think open ones have a better shot because they are (or at least the good ones are) steeped in honesty.”  But aren’t the “good” monogamous relationships also steeped in honesty?  Why would a polyamorous one have a better shot?

Attachment and intimacy are two common variables that come up on both sides of the polyamory debate.  Some compare intimacy with multiple partners to having multiple children and being able to love all of them equally, if not differently.  Others accuse polyamorists of avoidant behaviors and adding more partners rather than addressing what is lacking or limited with their spouse.  Finally, critics chaff at the belief that total fulfillment is the highest goal of any romantic relationship and should not supersede fidelity, monogamy, and commitment.  So who’s right?  Janet W. Hardy, co-author of The Ethical Slut, would point out that being “open” is not necessarily the path of least resistance and that moving away from monogamy takes incredible courage.  That may be the case, but does it resolve the avoidant accusations?

What About the Children?

Another common critique leveled at polyamorists is when children are involved.  W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and the director of the National marriage Project at the University of Virginia shared in an article for the Atlantic that “we know that kids thrive on stable routines with stable caregivers.  When kids are exposed to a revolving carousel of spouses, that experience of instability and transition can be traumatic.”

But Steve and Candi did not see having children as a negative factor.  Steve’s daughter is aware of his parents’ lifestyle and “has no problems with it.”  Candi’s 24 year-old twin sons not only knew about their parents’ polyamorous marriage but met her boyfriend when they were 19 years-old.  Although all of this may seem confusing and potentially harmful to children, studies in Australia and the United States of polyamorous families show that many in these families believe there are emotional and practical benefits to children having “multiple parents and role-models who emphasize open communication.”

Additional Drawbacks

Candi, Steve, and Melissa all agree on additional challenges they face with the polyamorist lifestyle.

Time:

Melissa is first to admit that an open marriage is hard work.  “Scheduling can be really difficult.  Making sure all your partners needs are being met is work.  Balancing time between work, each partner, and your own time can be taxing to say the least.”  Time is Steve’s number one frustration.  “Having more than one relationship is a huge time suck and makes it difficult for me to schedule ‘me time.’”

Emotions (especially Jealousy).

If time was Steve’s number one frustration, “the second frustration would be feelings.”  He reflects, “I cannot control the emotions of my spouse and she is definitely more emotional than I am.”  Both Candi and Melissa agree that jealousy can cause problems and is a thing that has to be dealt with.  And although Melissa is able to recognize the risk, she able to state, “it isn’t as bad as many think.  You realize jealousy is about you and your needs.”  Melissa’s view on jealousy is consistent with the unique way that polyamorists view jealousy.  Rather than blame the partner for their feelings or challenge the behaviors, polyamorists view jealousy as an irrational symptom of their own self-doubt.

Some psychologist would argue that jealousy is actually not as big of a problem for polyamorists. Holmes found that polyamorous people tend to experience less overall jealousy, even in situations that would drive monogamous couples to suspicion and distrust.  Sheff agrees, stating that polyamorists “have lower-than-average jealousy.  People who are very jealous generally don’t do polyamory at all.”

The Role of Therapy

Although some marriage therapists may be skeptical or critical of polyamorous lifestyle, other folks in the mental health field see their role as supporting their clients in self-discovery and being honest and true to themselves and others.  Perhaps surprising to some folks, all three have been to therapy and cite it as a positive influence in their relationship lifestyle.

Candi participated in marriage counseling for roughly two years to address communication issues along with insecurity in the marriage.  “I found the therapy helpful because it helped me start my journey to discovering who I am other than a wife and mother.”

Melissa and Steve both participated in therapy in relation to opening their individual marriages.  Melissa shared, “It was very helpful to have an outsider with some experience help walk us through setting up boundaries and how to talk about negative feelings we had without accusing the other person. I feel like we would have had a much harder transition without that support.”  Steve struggled with reservations about opening his marriage.  “I was incredibly worried about my future.  It [therapy] was helpful if for no other reason than just having an impartial sounding board.”

Marriage Under Threat or Simply Evolving?

“Monogamy is no longer going to define marriage,” predicts couples therapist Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., author of The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity.  She’s seeing more couples experimenting with open relationships and polyamory.

At the end of the day, Candi, Melissa, and Steve all agree that the polyamorous way of life not only has enhanced their lives and relationships, but it has provided greater insight and self-acceptance for themselves.  While her concepts of relationship have changed, Candi would state that the biggest change has been her own personal growth.  “While I no longer equate sex with my self-worth I have become a very independent woman who enjoys sex, being single, and being in a committed relationship.”  Candi proclaims, “I’m still someone who wants very much to be in a relationship, but that relationship does not define me.  Now I know I don’t have to conform to societies expectations to be happy.”

Steve believes not only has his marriage remained strong, but the degree of enhancement and self-awareness that came with opening up his marriage couldn’t have occurred had he and his wife continued exclusively with monogamy.  “I saw that there were many possibilities and that I had the capacity to love more than one person.”

Melissa sees her marriage stronger because of the decision to open up the marriage.  “I feel closer to him and like I know more about him in the past 7 years than the entirety of the first 9 years of our marriage.  My husband, we are entwined financially, emotionally, and spiritually. I plan to wipe his butt when we are old. But that does not mean I do not have more love to give and the ability to share.”

 

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Jonathan Hetterly, LPC

Jonathan Hetterly is a therapist, writer, and pop culture addict. He’s also a contributor to The Shrink Tank podcast. Follow him at @jhetterly and @shrink_tank.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a very in depth look at open marriages. I have personally spoken with people in this type of situation about the concerns related to STDs. I am a sexual health educator. Often times, people worry that they are more likely to catch an STD in an open marriage. The risk is there, but so long as you establish boundaries (as outlined in your excellent article) it is very easy to avoid such a situation. Regular STD testing, protection, etc. etc. Really, this was just a great read.

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