Is Open Marriage the Modern Couple's Answer to Infidelity?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
When I think about open marriages, I can only conjure a stereotype: deeply unsatisfied adults, most likely going through a mid-life crisis, pathetically searching for hot sex as a solution. You know, key parties, "The Ice Storm." It is difficult for me to think of it as something new or current, or as something my friends would do.
But apparently, I am stuck in the past. Plenty of intelligent, successful, hip people are considering the not-quite-forsaking-all-others option on 'til-death-do-us-part. And by now, most women are familiar with the statistic heard 'round the world, publicized in an article in "The New York Times" in January. At this time in our history, for the first time ever, there are more women living that are single than are married. Women are staying single. Couples are divorcing. Marriage isn't entirely working, at least for a subset of the population. So could non-monogamous coupling be the answer?
To look into that very question, I created a Personals profile on Nerve.com, a site that encourages candid dialog about sex through blogs, feature stories, fiction and photography. I became, for the purposes of this story, a woman looking for fun times with couples (man and woman)--yes, this is a check-box option there--and thus was permitted to peruse through other similar profiles. I found dozens upon dozens of couples, some married, some attached, some who preferred not to say, but most of whom claimed to be healthy, happy, stable and just looking for cool people to hang out with who didn't mind getting naked at the end of the night.
By observation, most Nerve couples seemed to be in their mid-20s to mid-30s and most were Caucasian (profiles that included a photo were available for viewing first). Like any other dating site, people seemed to come from a range of incomes, occupations, and cities across the country, including Oregon, Wisconsin, Texas, Illinois, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts. The couples were open to meeting other couples, and other single women, but few sought to bring a single man into the dating scenario. (I sent emails to six couples explaining that I was looking for input on the topic of this story, but I haven't had any responses.)
Although it is slippery by definition, open marriage is generally considered a committed marital relationship between two people who, under a set of mutually-agreed upon rules, engage in sexual encounters with various partners other than their spouse. According to those who care, it should not be confused with polyamory, a lifestyle that promotes multiple romantic relationships between any combinations of people at the same time. Old or new, middle-aged or Midtown, the questions that hover around the issue of open marriage are, "Can it work?" and "Is it sustainable?"
Traditionalists, which include most of the people I know, don't understand how open marriage can be successful. When I bring up the topic, I repeatedly field the following questions: Why bother getting married? What if you fall in love with another person? How long can it go on before it causes a problem due to jealousy and insecurity? "I just don't get it," says one married friend.
Alex Caroline Robboy, a Philadelphia-based sex and marriage therapist and founder of HowToHaveGoodSex.com, has counseled numerous couples in open marriages, some successful, some not. She says defining a marriage as "open" is really just giving a vocabulary to something that couples are already doing, including marriages in which one partner is having an affair and the other knows, but looks the other way. If you look cross-culturally and over time, says Robboy, most people do not remain faithful to one partner for the duration of their marriages.
So, then, is open marriage the modern couple's answer to infidelity? Is it two people's attempt to reinvest in the idea of commitment, to define it on their own terms and to try to avoid divorce? Could it be viewed as an honest attempt to make marriage work? "I think that's what people tell themselves, but it raises a red flag for me," says Robboy. "It is incredibly common and incredibly destructive for couples to experiment with open marriage in response to problems or boredom in their sex life. This is not the time to experiment with open marriage. To experiment with open marriage, you have to be in an extremely healthy relationship."
The difference between the successful and unsuccessful open marriages, she says, comes down to communication, agreed-upon ground rules, and compatible values regarding sex: "The couple has to come first. Once you stop talking and stop prioritizing your partner's needs, you're in trouble." Robboy believes there are two basic approaches to sexuality: a) Sex as an expression of love, or b) Sex as a fun activity or hobby, like playing basketball on the weekends. She says plenty of people value sex as an enjoyable activity without attaching added meaning to it. But, "if you are in an open marriage and you view sex as an expression of love, you are playing Russian Roulette."
One common thread through the varying types of open marriages appears to be adherence to the principle that the married couple always takes precedence over any person outside the marriage. Ideally, the minute one spouse becomes upset or uncomfortable with a situation, it should end. The same is the case with any sexual experimentation.
In reality, people often break the rules. Mike and Joan Wilson (names changed at their request), owners of a small business in New York, are an example of what can happen when you open the Pandora's box of open marriage. At Mike's suggestion, after nearly ten years of traditional or "closed" marriage, they decided to experiment with an open marriage lifestyle to bring "spice" back into their bedroom. Their foray into sharing sex partners lasted three years before it unraveled and nearly ended their relationship.
Mike and Joan decided on ground rules: They were to always be together and in the same room during an encounter, kissing was not permitted, and condoms were to be used every time, without exception. They were happy with their initial encounters, the first two with another woman, and then one with a couple. However, things came to a halt when the ground rules were violated during a second attempt at swinging. Joan's partner refused to wear protection and, at the risk of being exceedingly graphic, he didn't pull out. The experience ended Joan's interest in further experimentation, but Mike's affairs continued, in secret, swiftly moving him from open marriage into infidelity. Their marriage survived only after an intense period of fighting and unrest, with Mike's promise to give up all extracurricular encounters.
Despite answering my questions separately, without knowing each other's responses, Mike and Joan came to relatively similar conclusions about the risks and consequences of open marriage. When I ask if an open marriage can be successful, Mike says, "Yes, as long as it stays fun and emotions don't come into play with anyone other than your partner ... I don't recommend anything to anyone. Every situation is different. What works for one may be disastrous to another."
"It takes 100 percent trust in your partner to make an open marriage work," says Joan. "There is no room for error in this arena. Once trust is broken, the open marriage is at risk. It truly takes a special relationship with your partner to make it work." When I ask if it is better in theory than in practice, they both say yes. "It's not a perfect world, and therefore it's not a perfect solution," she says. "If you play with fire enough, sometimes you get burned."
So back to that "Ice Storm" key party. When I watch the film, there is one woman I identify with. At the end of the party, when it is her turn to choose her fate, she bravely dips her hand into the bowl, glances at the keys in her fist and says with feigned surprise, "Oh. My husband's keys." He looks at her from across the room. "Choose again!" clamor the remaining key-party couples. But they are already out the door.
Joslyn Matthews is a freelance writer based in Miami, Florida.