You may be thinking that your marriage has reached a plateau. What was once hot, passionate romance is now maintenance sex a couple of times a month. You still love each other and your family life works fine, but things are not as exciting as they once were. One or both of you are thinking of ways to spice up the marriage. You have read books and blog posts about using sex dates, trying sex toys, you even read Fifty Shades, and nothing seems to be doing it. Now comes the conversation about opening up your marriage. Could an open marriage be the fantasy that could save your marriage and bring it to a new level of passion and aliveness?
Opening the boundaries of your sexual fidelity can be a way to add erotic excitement to a bland or shut down sexual life. Sometimes, however, it is a way to avoid ending an affair or even delay the inevitable end of a marriage. But if you could do it without destroying your relationship, would you try?
What exactly is an open marriage? These days "open" can mean anything you want it to mean. There really is no definition or rule book defining how an open marriage should work. You and your partner can create any kind of open rules that will work for you. Basically, your monogamy agreement defines the rules of your emotional and sexual relationships with each other and other people. It is an explicit agreement that is open, honest and transparent.
Couples come to an open marriage from different directions, and at different developmental stages of their marriages. There are five reasons they might make this kind of open marriage agreement.
An affair with permission. Sometimes a couple will try an open marriage if one spouse has been having an affair and they want to continue that affair, but with permission. An affair with permission is not an open marriage. It is simply a coercive way to convince your partner that you should have what you want and they should go along with it, even if it means they should compromise their values and be uncomfortable doing it. Sometimes this leads to misery and divorce. Sometimes it works out. There are no studies or research on how often this is successful in a marriage. Try it and see and get back to me.
Second Adolescence. Other times an open marriage is a result of what I call "second adolescence." Second adolescence is a time in a marriage where couples find themselves middle aged phase of life where the kids have gotten older, and have moved out (maybe gone to college) and as parents they suddenly find themselves free and ready to party... again.
With all of us living longer and being stronger and healthier than our previous generation, we still look pretty good at middle age (or at least we think we do).
For some couples this means a second surge in the desire to find a sexual outlet or a party life that they may have given up when they were young parents focused on raising children. Some of the partying urges they repressed during their parenting years they can now let loose. Many couples may find themselves during their second adolescence dressing sexier, hanging with their friends more, blasting music, dancing, even going back to recreational drug use. Sex parties and open marriage behaviors lend themselves well to this particular lifestyle, especially within the safety of a primary marriage that stays intact.
While the desire to reinvent one's identity and achieve some separation and individuation is the same as our teenage 'first' adolescence, an open marriage in our 'second' adolescence allows for the sexual freedom that we may have longed for in that earlier teenage time, but back then we didn't have the skills, the partners or the safety to create this excitement - back then we just didn't have the knowledge we do now, or the opportunity, or the confidence.
A sign of maturity. And yet, for other couples, an open marriage is a sign of maturity. Developmentally, some couples find they are smarter, wiser, more secure in their relationships and have moved on from fear and insecurity and are ready for the challenge of a more open style of monogamy. Having learned to communicate, to stay connected and to be 'open' in their dialogues they tend to be quite emotionally intelligent. They know how to talk about their deepest fantasies and longings and have learned how to express a deep empathy for their partner. They are able to grant their spouse's deepest desires without feeling threatened or jealous. The ability to see their partner's happiness as an expansion of their own may for these couples come as a sign of maturity. They might say they are more "grown up" than the rest of us in our "old fashioned, more traditionally monogamous" marriages.
Fear of Aging. As we age, how many of us have said to ourselves "How much longer do I have to live anyway?" An open marriage may, for some couples, be a last ditch attempt to find an enjoyment of sex before they are too old to remember how to do it. (More on Aging in Open Marriages in my next post in this series on The New Monogamy)
Respect. Opening a marriage may be a sign of deep respect for our partner's aging as well. Can we really expect to own our partner's sexuality forever? For some couples there comes a time when they can let go of the notion that they can control what their partner does with their bodies. Some older partners even describe the ability to share joy in their partners' sexuality, even if it is with someone else. If the experience of their partner's passion and fun can benefit them, then why not?
Polyamorists, ("poly" meaning "many" and "amory" meaning "love") are committed to the idea that we can love more than one person at a time and be in the same relationship with more than one partner. They use the word "compersion" to describe the experience of finding joy in their partner's sexual or emotional experience. Finding happiness and sexy energy in someone else's sexuality, even when it is not involving our bodies, may be something that for some couples comes only with age and maturity.
How do you do it? If you want to communicate with your partner about opening your marriage, start with this dialogue: Tell your partner what you want more of.
For instance, Greg and Susan, a couple who came to me for counseling, to open their marriage, talked about what they wanted more of in their relationship. Greg and Susan were both 48 years old and their kids were just entering college. Greg was interested in opening their marriage to include more sexual partners. They both wanted to keep their emotional commitments to one another and were not interested in giving up the connection in their marriage. They wanted emotional monogamy and exclusivity but decided they also wanted to experience more open sexual behaviors. They realized, after many conversations with one another in the counseling sessions that sexual exclusivity did not guarantee happiness. Greg said to Susan,
"One thing I would like more of is to see you delighting in sex. If that means seeing you with other partners, I would like to experience that with you. As long as that doesn't take you out of our marriage, but brings us closer."
I asked Greg to tell Susan more about what he would like to try. "I would like to try inviting another man or a couple into our world, to see if we could have a relationship with them, either together in bed or even to play and test the waters."
I asked him to tell Susan in more detail what he imagined might work for him in the future and what vision he had or what fantasy he had of how that might work for their marriage. Had he thought of the potential problems and the positive possibilities?
"My vision is that we only do this a couple of times on the weekends and we only do it with people we both know and trust. And that we never meet these couples or people outside of the time when we are all together. It would be hard for me if you met them separately from me. I don't want you to have that, I don't think."
I asked Susan how she felt about all of Greg's thoughts and feelings. And I reminded both of them that fantasizing about having an open marriage was different than taking into action. Before they moved into an action plan, they both needed to feel heard and that their agreement would be considered with respect, kindness and integrity.
Susan agreed. "What is important right now, at first, to me, is the discussion about all of the possible options and how we feel about each one."
An open marriage really begins with finding out how each person feels and thinks about the ideas and defining what it means to be in this entirely different type of monogamy. Also, unless you discuss all of the options, your new monogamy agreement may mean something entirely different to you than it means to your partner.
It is important to define it, discuss it and review it. Are you hoping for an open marriage to continue a current affair? Are you looking to make your life one big party now that the kids are out of the house? Are you looking for an emotional connection with another couple? Honesty is and transparency is the best way to create a new type of monogamy agreement between you.
We are all on the verge of a new era of relationships; one that has at it's roots in honesty, transparency and above all, integrity. We are ushering out the days of judgmental, rigid and prudish relationship rules where someone on the outside tells us how to make our marriage work. Anything goes inside of our own marriage, if it makes us happy.
Dr. Tammy Nelson is a licensed Imago Relationship Therapist and the author of The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity