Open Marriage: One Couple’s Journey

Open Marriage

When I first started working with couples some twenty years ago, like many new therapists, I was a bit naïve about the complex and diverse relationship issues that would bring couples to my office. Where my experience lagged, my eagerness to learn picked up the slack. I remember one wife in particular, Louise, who contacted me because of her “husband’s jealousy.” Over the phone she informed me that both she and Jerry agreed that their marriage was in serious trouble if the insecurities feeding Jerry’s jealousy could not be resolved.

At our first appointment, I was ready to jump into their relationship world and offer whatever assistance I could. I wondered if Jerry’s jealousy was being fed by some relationship dynamic that needed to be reshaped. (For instance, was Louise being secretive? Was she unresponsive to his emotional needs? Or were Jerry’s insecurities the result of old wounds that accompanied him into their marriage?)

Married for just under twenty years, Jerry and Louise jumped right in and described the positives of their relationship, their many shared interests, mutual respect and kindness, an ability to “play together” while also being able to discuss important issues when they arose. Both seemed to have realistic expectations about marital life, and they described busy lives that included friends, family and meaningful careers. About halfway through our first meeting I pointedly asked, “Things sound pretty good between you, so what seems to be the problem?”

Our Open Marriage Needs Some Fixing…

In a directness I’d come to appreciate, Louise declared, “Jerry doesn’t like my new lover Andrew and, quite frankly, it’s starting to get annoying.”

I must have effectively concealed my shock because she continued without missing a beat:

“I keep reassuring Jerry that my deepening feelings for Andrew aren’t a threat to us in any way and that he needs to get to know Andrew better before making assumptions about him…” At this point Louise turned to Jerry and said, “I think you’ll really like him if you give him a chance.”

At this point my confusion must have been showing, because they both laughed and asked if I was OK. I might have mumbled, “I’m fine,” and then asked for some background information about their relationship arrangement. Louise went on to describe how they made the decision to “open our marriage” and “play with other couples” about five years ago, after Louise’s daughter from a previous marriage went off to college. “Over the years we talked about swinging on different occasions because one of my good friends and her husband are in an open relationship and they really enjoy it. They made great friends in the lifestyle and their experiences seemed to bring them even closer together.”

After several years of swinging, Louise described how their experiences started to change from purely recreational sex with others to having long-term lovers they care deeply about. At this point Louise asked me if I knew anything about polyamory. I did not, and I admitted to my lack of experience in that world. I even wondered aloud if their needs would be better met with a couples therapist experienced with open marriages.

Sadly, Louise and Jerry explained how they had tried numerous couples therapists and felt judged (subtly and not so subtly) by each of them. “One therapist who is well-known in the community basically told us we had ‘serious problems with intimacy’ and that if we didn’t stop this ‘dangerous acting out,’ our marriage would be ruined.” Jerry jumped in laughing at this point and said, “That’s when Louise called him an asshole and we left. So fast-forward to now: someone gave us your number, and we’re hoping that you’ll be open to understanding our choices, choices that were not made lightly… Choices we strongly believe have added something important into our relationship and into our lives.”

It turned out that Louise and Jerry contacted me because of my inexperience, hoping that my newness would transfer into an open and understanding approach of their relationship issues. As long as they were OK with my inexperience in working with couples in open relationships, I was totally on board and ready to learn about the terrain of their lifestyle. We ended up working together for over two years, and Jerry’s jealousy became more manageable as they openly discussed their insecurities and learned to effectively communicate about their evolving needs—needs that would take them from the playground of recreational sex to the world of polyamory. On several occasions, both Louise’s and Jerry’s partners attended our meetings. These sessions were powerful and often led to discussions and clarification about unspoken concerns, as well as lingering fears that needed to be addressed.

It’s been almost two decades since I worked with Jerry and Louise. I periodically receive letters from her (the most recent about a year ago) updating me on their relationship. Their marriage remains strong, though not without its challenges (challenges that are often unrelated to their consensual non-monogamy). Both report a deep emotional connection with one another—an intimacy that seems to expand not only from their deep love for one another but also from the closeness they feel for their long-term partners. They’ve consistently reported that rather than diluting their emotional connection with each other, their connection continues to grow and expand as a result of their loving connections with others.

As Jerry once shared, “My initial fear was that if Louise had feelings for another man it would siphon off something finite within her and ultimately I would lose out. I worried that the love she has for me would somehow shrink. But what we’ve discovered is that our love is expansive, at least for us. The more she gives to me, the more she has for her partner and the more she has for him, the more she has to give me. That may not sound logical, but it’s what our living reality has become.”

Open Relationship: Swinging Versus Polyamory

Over the last twenty years I’ve worked with many couples (straight, gay, lesbian) who are in open relationships: some identify themselves as “swingers” (they have periodic, consensual sex with others). Here the focus is on sexual fulfillment, experimentation and expansion. While it’s common for emotional ties to develop with ongoing lovers, this isn’t necessarily the goal of swinging. Hence the term “recreational sex” is commonly used in the swinging world. As one couple shared, “Some couples play tennis with other couples for fun. We have sex with other couples for fun.”

The goal for many of the couples I’ve worked with who identify themselves as swingers is to remain emotionally monogamous with each other (to only love one another) while exploring and expanding their sexuality with others.

An important conversation for couples to have who are in open marriages/relationships but want to remain emotionally monogamous is the acknowledgment that there is an emotional risk involved, since you cannot always control (despite your best efforts) your feelings for someone, especially someone you’re having sex with. Most of the couples I work with realize this slippery slope and try to establish safeguards to forestall the dangers of falling in love with one of their swinging partners.

These dangers are real and should be seriously considered. I’ve seen this potential fallout turn into a painful reality for numerous couples. Over the years I’ve worked with couples who report a powerful deepening of intimacy because of their swinging experiences; and I’ve worked with couples whose swinging experiences led to debilitating insecurity, jealousy and anger—feelings that contributed to the ending of their marriage or relationship.

For couples identifying themselves as polyamorous or “poly” (meaning “many loves”), the focus is on developing strong, loving bonds with another (or others) beyond their primary relationship. These additional love relationships may involve sex, though there are non-sexual poly relationships as well. Unlike swinging, casual sex with multiple partners is not the defining feature of polyamory. For polyamorous couples like Louise and Jerry, meaningful emotional and sexual intimacy with more than one partner is experienced as totally natural, an extension of their truest, multi-dimensional self.

For these couples, monogamy is an ill-fitting jacket that chafes rather than comforts.

One client discussed polyamory in this way:

“Why is monogamy viewed as superior to a consciously negotiated, non-monogamous relationship? Way too many married couples I know pretend to be exclusively committed, yet the reality is they have a non-monogamous relationship that is being played out through deceit, secrecy and betrayal. They exist in hypocrisy rather than truthfulness. Maybe it’s out of fear that they never allow themselves or their partners the opportunity to honestly discuss alternatives to monogamy… alternatives that might be more in line with what they are truly needing in their relationships.”

As you can see in the above description, polyamory is viewed by some as a fundamental part of the human condition—a way of being in the world. Monogamy is based upon the premise that one person can meet your central emotional, sexual and spiritual needs over a lifetime. Polyamory is based upon the premise that humans have the capacity to simultaneously love more than one person and that with transparency, honesty and open communication, maintaining multiple relationships can be a meaningful and enriching experience. But like any relationship(s), hard work and ongoing attention is essential for a successful outcome.

As a way of introducing the topic of open relationships, in today’s blog post I discussed a couple who has successfully negotiated the challenges of an open marriage. This shouldn’t be viewed as a recommendation that you should be in an open relationship or that opening your marriage will somehow fix any existing relationship problems. In fact, most books on swinging and polyamory warn against transitioning into an open relationship as an attempt to resolve an unhealthy union. Intense insecurities, emotional wounding, anger and jealousy can be triggered even in the strongest of relationships when another individual is introduced into the mix.

In an upcoming blog post, we will explore issues to consider if you and spouse/partner are considering turning a monogamous relationship into a consensual, non-monogamous union.

Stay tuned,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

For those of you who would like to read more about open relationships, check out these swinging and polyamory books on Amazon.

(Featured [top] image by Artur84/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)