Dr. Rob, you’ve bashed monogamy in the past and my wife and I completely agree with you. We’ve only been married for two years but we’ve decided that we’d like to try an open marriage. The problem is that we don’t know what, if any, rules there are to live by with a lifestyle like that. Any thoughts?
Wait, back up a bit. I never bashed monogamy. I’m not some family-hating Antichrist. I only said it was a man-made concept, not a natural one, and therefore was a contributing factor in the dissolution of some marriages. That wasn’t intended to be a rallying cry for open marriages, far from it. It was just a statement of how things are. Don’t even think of using that post as the basis for your carnal decisions because I have enough people yelling at me due to bad advice.
If we are defining an open marriage as one that allows for the individuals to have sex with other people, then make no mistake: this is an extremely difficult phenomenon through which to navigate and it is intended only for specific individuals. The very act of having intercourse with other people can run counter to the concept of intimacy and can inherently damage the marriage, which is inherently built on exclusivity. If sex is one of the most vulnerable experiences one can have, the idea of sharing that type of moment with others can emotionally destroy many people.
If you read the piece I wrote about pornography, you know the woman in the vignette I presented had a more liberal take on sexuality. She was someone who viewed sex as simply fun and not much more than that. While she loved her husband, she didn’t really view sex with him as a symbol of love or a forum to deeply connect with him. She did that in other ways (e.g., conversation, shared activities, a mutual value system). She was essentially having casual sex with just one person. Now feel free to view that as pathological if you so choose, but the reality was that she was a reasonably happy person without a lot of sexual hang-ups. She is someone who could probably pull off the open marriage and not be troubled by it. The husband was essentially the complete opposite, and even the idea of her watching others have sex led to feelings of doubt and insecurity within the marriage. Again, call it unhealthy if you like, but if an open marriage were foisted upon him, he might literally need to be on suicide watch.
When individuals or couples talk to me about an open marriage, they usually point to highly specific ground rules that are part of the relationship. These are designed to provide assurances to each partner and a foundation for the rest of the partnership. Each couple has different arrangements, but the theme I noticed in some involved a distinct separation from sex and other aspects of romance. In other words, most couples who maintained open relationships trusted their partner not to engage in any other aspect of intimacy – holding hands, deep conversation, sometimes even kissing – with the other person. In fact, some couples went so far as to showing pictures or even meeting the third party before any sex occurred so that the spouse could, as one person put it, “get a read on her to make sure she wasn’t a threat to the rest of my relationship. In short, it seems as though sex with others for these individuals was completely divorced from any sort of courtship, romance or intimacy. For the open marriage, sex was sex and nothing more. They wouldn’t allow it to be.
Since marriage work isn’t my particular area of expertise, here is a quote (under the condition of anonymity for no real reason whatsoever other than sheer paranoia) from a shrink who does a lot of couples therapy:
“First and foremost, couples should decide WHY they want to have an open relationship, not unlike thinking about having children. It’s not enough to simply say, ‘having sex with multiple partners is natural.’ That mind set will take you nowhere quickly. There needs to be a mutual understanding that the goal is to enhance each person’s sex life, ideally both in and out of the marriage. Some couples use the open marriage as a way to simply avoid intimacy with each other (e.g., ‘if I throw myself into the practice of having multiple partners, I’ll never have to deal with the problems at home’), and this usually leads to an unsatisfactory relationship. The goal is to have a deep connection with each other and to not lose that when having sex with someone else.
If a couple decides that monogamy is not for them, but other aspects of marriage are, then one can’t be meticulous enough when it comes to the ground rules for an open relationship. That line between faithfulness and betrayal is so thin in these types of relationships. Whether it’s the number of times a person can have sex with a specific person, what days of the week, body type, or even specific sexual positions that are allowed, any couple that is considering this is better off becoming completely OCD and creating a 200-page manual rather than figuring it out as they go along. Improvisation is a recipe for disaster.”
The fact is that only a small percentage of people can benefit from this type of arrangement. Just like other animals, humans are possessive and territorial by nature, and the vast majority of couples see sexuality as far too intimate and private to make it something to be shared outside of the duo. You couldn’t pay me enough to be in meaningful relationship with this twist. My jealousy would simply run amok. Spousal betrayal is one of the more difficult events for a person to overcome so it takes a unique individual to not only have it be not troublesome, but to actually invite this course of action. * So anyone considering this needs to proceed with extreme caution, because once you’ve taken such a critical step, it’s indelibly pasted into each other’s minds. In other words, once you’ve crossed that line, you can’t truly go back
* Granted, if you indeed agree to an open relationship the act in and of itself isn’t a betrayal, but the reality is that you won’t know how you feel about it until it actually happens. You may not be able to accuse your spouse of cheating in this scenario, but that doesn’t mean it won’t FEEL that way. Emotions and reality don’t always align the way we would like.
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