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Three Steps to Opening Your Marriage: A New Permissive Monogamy

It's a delicate balance; finding a marriage that works and exciting, adventurous sex. But how does one cross the line and venture into the stormy seas of an "open marriage" without losing the safety of a monogamous partnership? Is sex with someone other than your spouse really worth the risk? And how do you even bring up the topic?
02/08/2016 05:11pm ET | Updated February 8, 2017
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Can we really have it all? A committed partner or spouse and sex partners on the side?

It's a delicate balance; finding a marriage that works and exciting, adventurous sex. But how does one cross the line and venture into the stormy seas of an "open marriage" without losing the safety of a monogamous partnership? Is sex with someone other than your spouse really worth the risk? And how do you even bring up the topic?

Monogamy is a much bandied about word these days. In reality, it is simply a legal term. It means being married to only one person, versus polygamy, which means being married to more than one person. The implicit monogamy assumption within a marriage, however, is that we will only have sex with our spouse.

Yet many of us have a hard time making that monogamy agreement work. Rates of infidelity vary, but researchers say that anywhere from 20% to 65% of men and women will cheat at some point in their marriage.

Today, couples are finding new ways to deal with the struggle of staying monogamous and desiring sex outside of their marriage that don't involve lying or hiding their behaviors.

In their book, Designer Relationships, co-authors, Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson, ask, regardless if monogamy works as a concept, "Does monogamy work for you?"

Couples today of all ages are asking how they can make monogamy work for them. However, regardless of whether or not monogamy is optimal, it is a cultural ideal. But we are seeing a new wave of sexual openness in marriages. Couples today are negotiating their marriages by maintaining their monogamy -- their legal partnership -- while at the same time including outside sexual partners in their marriage -- to broaden their the boundaries of emotional and sexual fidelity.

Claire and Brian live in the suburbs of New York. Brian commutes every day into the city. He comes home every night in time to have dinner with his wife and put his young children to bed. He loves his wife. They have good sex, usually at least once during the week if they aren't too tired.

The problem is, as they explain to me in my office, they are "bored." "The sex is good, but not great." They are in what I call the "sweat pants" stage of their sex life. They have great maintenance sex, but they don't do much that is adventurous or exciting; they are too tired and they don't put much energy into their erotic life. A conversation opens slowly about what it would be like to explore a more open marriage.

For many couples, the conversation about how to open the marriage begins when one or both partners is seeking more excitement, or more intensity in the erotic relationship. Both Brian and Claire are sharing honestly and openly in the counseling session what they have been afraid to admit out loud to each other, that they would like to explore having a more permissive type of monogamy. One where they are still married, and still committed to each other, and where they remain primary partners.

They want to explore sex with their partners, but they want to experience these erotic times together, not separately. They are wondering,

"Will this kill our marriage? Will this be good for us? Where do we find other people who will want the same things we want? How do we talk about the rules between us? What is safe for our marriage?"

They arent sure where to go to find answers to these questions and haven't been comfortable opening up to one another about their concerns or their desires.

In our sessions, we start to talk about the history of their marriage, their children and how they communicate as a couple.Then I review with them the three steps to opening a marriage. If they are really ready to explore an open marriage, these are the steps to take, and we go over them, one by one.

Step one: Before either of you commits to pursuing an open marriage, talk about what your definition is of open. Is an open marriage just an excuse to have an affair? Do you already have someone that you are interested in and you want to pursue the relationship, but you want permission from your partner?

If that's the case, then you need to slow down the open relationship conversation and start talking about the affair that is either about to happen or is already going on. An open relationship isn't about integrating a third party who is going to interfere with your marriage or your monogamy. An open marriage is something that you both agree will enhance your relationship, not hurt your intimate connection.

Step Two: What is your vision of what your open marriage will look like in a year? This is an important conversation for several reasons, it will help you get clear about where this open relationship idea might be going.

You might think, "Oh, we will be done with this little experiment in a year. I just want to try it, I think I can get it out of my system after a month or two, or after we have sex once or twice with other people." But your partner may think, "I am hoping we will have outside partners that may be living with us and sharing our lives within a year." When you share these two very different visions, you will soon realize that you have a problem. You will need to look more carefully at your ideas of an open relationship.

Is having an open relationship about finding casual sex and a little swinging on the weekends, or is it more about finding love and a polyamorous relationship where you can expland your emotional connection and integrate other partners as long term relationships into your lives?

Step Three: Go over the rules. Be clear about what your boundaries are regarding sex, including what you define as safe touch, kissing, whether you agree to intercourse, if it is ok to be in the same room, or if you want to watch your partner be sexual or not, if you need to approve of each other's outside partners, if there will be contact outside of the date nights, etc.

(There are lists of questions to ask one another when you are having this conversation that you can find in my book, The New Monogamy, if you are looking for extended topics to give you ways to negotiate an open marriage. )

After several sessions, and going over these three seteps, Brian and Claire met a couple, Sherry and Anna. Sherry and Annna also had young children, and they spent a lot of time at each of their children's sporting events.

After spending several weeks together socializing at the events, they realized they all enjoyed each other's company. The women, Sherry and Anna, approached Claire and Brian and asked if they would be interested in having sex as a foursome. After an open conversation, all four decided to try it.

Sherry had been bi-sexual before marrying Anna, and wanted to explore sex with Brian, as long as it did not compromise her primary connection with Anna. Brian wanted to have sex with other women, but had no interest in it if it threatened his marriage with Claire, so sex with Anna and Sherry seemed to be safe.

When he talked privately and at length with Claire about it, she agreed that she was not threatened by a sexual foursome with the two women, and in fact, she really liked the idea. She wanted to experience sex with a woman, something she had been fantasizing about since college. Sherry was attracted to Claire, and happy to help her fill that fantasy. The arrangement seemed to work for all four of them. They agreed that as long as the conversation remained open and the sex was fun, they would try it.

Since then, the weekends have turned into very thrilling erotic adventures between the four of them. Some of the rules that the group have agreed to have included,

"No contact between any of us unless it is to make plans for the weekend, and Anna and Brian are the contact people. If at any point one of the foursome doesn't feel interested or turned on, then we can cancel. It is preferred that no one leave while the others are having sex, so there are no misunderstandings the next day."

Claire says in our counseling session, "I feel so alive -- more alive than I have in years. We really like each other. We talk, we hang out. We are just high on each other; we dance; we all take our clothes off together. It is a beautiful thing!"

Brian agreed.

"I was nervous at first. Claire really had to make this happen. I wasn't going to do a thing 'til she said she was into it. I didn't know if this meant I was cheating on her or what. I wasn't sure if I was okay about seeing her with another woman. It really doesn't take away from Claire and I, it only adds to our relationship. When we have sex now, te two of us, I feel so grateful, so appreciative, so alive, so, I don't know, so married! Its very cool."

I asked Claire how the communication was going and how the three steps have helped when discussing the "play" for the weekends.

Claire said:

"Well, yes, we talk more now than ever. It started with us just having sex in the same room, me and Brian, in front of Sherry and Anna. And they were just sort of making out and watching us. I went a little crazy... it was exciting having someone watching us and then we, all four of us, just sort of talked about it afterward. The next time we all were together, with our own spouse, in the same room. From there, it just kept morphing into more and more interactive stuff. It is totally fun. I didn't know how I was going to like it, but right now, it is great."

Brian agreed. "I feel like for Claire and I it has increased our desire for each other, we are good with it. I feel monogamous, but with permission to expand our monogamy, like a new kind of monogamy. It is exciting and fun."

I asked them if they identify as polyamorous. They had no idea what polyamory was. I explained that polyamory meant "many loves" and was a relationship that could include many partners, and not just for sex, but for with emotions, feelings. They both said they did not like the word, nor would they describe themselves as swingers.

"We aren't even that open," Brian said. "We are just sort of weekend warriors."

In a way, these suburban weekend warriors are a contemporary breed of new monogamists. During the week, they keep their personal lives to themselves. They don't share with work colleagues or even close friends about their sex lives look like on the weekends.

I describe couples like Claire and Brian as practicing a new type of "suburban monogamy. " I define "suburban monogamy" as couples who define their marriage as monogamous, but practice open sexual behaviors.

On the surface, these couples appear socially and sexually conservative, and practice a culturally standard sexual life and marriage practice, with no apparent deviation from traditionally monogamous behaviors. Yet, on weekends, they have sex with other couples. They define the limits of these experiences with each other, in a way that works for them.

Built in to this agreement is fluidity and variety, with an adherence to the legally binding contract of marriage to one person as well as an implicit agreement to the promise to honor one another. This is a new type of integrity, one that honors one another's needs and desires.

These new suburban monogamists try to integrate both explicit and implicit monogamy, eliminating the gap that so often exists between the two in a more traditional view of monogamy. The trick is to establish and continually revisit the conversation so that no one gets hurt in the play space.

Michaels and Johnson say that this would be an illustration of a new frontier, a different type of relationship. They believe, that this "is the very nature of the contemporary relationship itself -- specifically, the "monogamy mandate" is being challenged... By thinking outside the monogamous, non-monogamous box, we free ourselves to create partnerships based on our own circumstances, sexualities, understandings and agreements."

Michaels and Johnson really capture this idea of the new permissive monogamy happening in our suburbs. They say, "When we courageously choose the way of loving that's right for us, rather than defaulting to society's expectations, we're happier, healthier, and equipped to create intimacy with the partner or partners who enrich our lives, challenge us, and help us grow. "