“What’s your take on open marriage?” a female friend, who has known me for as long as I have been wearing sequins, recently asked me via text. It took me by surprise because she is intimately familiar with the inner-workings of my definitively closed marriage. My husband and I have our stuff—the ways in which we’re willing or eager, or curious to bend—as all couples do. But opening our relationship has been such a mutual non-starter that I am fairly certain when he sees this article, he’ll ask why I bothered writing it. I would probably wonder the same.
“Why?” I asked my friend. She’s single, but dating, not seriously, but dating, and she had run into a mutual acquaintance of ours that day at a supermarket. They got to talking and he asked her out, which was jarring because the way we know him is through his wife. He could tell she was confused, self-conscious that she may have gestured or spoken in a way that suggested a misunderstood opening to initiate an extramarital exchange. He told her, without prompting: “Don’t worry! We’re in an open relationship.”
She laughed nervously, made a throwaway comment that she could not remember, and walked away, presumably to text me. The following message, also from her, spilled like word vomit: “Am I close-minded? A relic of a bygone era? How could she let him cheat? Is it ridiculous for me to think that there’s no way their marriage can last? Can you genuinely be happy when those gates are open? I don’t want to be judgmental, but I can’t help judge.”
I told her she’s not a relic of a bygone era. Her parents, who informed a lot of the policies she has adopted and absorbed as innately part of her constitution might be, but she’s from here. I told her she knows it’s not cheating if the relationship is open, that it’s not ridiculous to assume their relationship won’t last because we—both of us—have only been exposed to an “It never ends well” mentality on the topic of an open relationship. But what the hell is “ending well,” anyway? I know plenty of happy endings that are only happy because of divorce.
I told her it would be close-minded for two thinking individuals (she and me) to presume effectively anything about the motivation behind an open marriage, or behind the motivation of the motivation.
But this doesn’t mean I would choose to participate in an open relationship myself; I practically shudder every time an employee of mine takes a private phone call because I fear they’re being poached. Call it jealousy, call it paranoia—whatever. Electively putting myself in a position to both wonder what the hell my husband is getting from someone else that I can’t give him and further what I can get from elsewhere loosens the notch on the belt of matrimony in a way that makes me wonder how we could continue to see additive value in each other as opposed to sniffing out the lack we feel respectively. Marriage is hard; collective growth is an idyllic concept, but it’s also fake. He grows, I grow—sometimes simultaneously, sometimes with a lag—then we adjust to find our spoon-fit again. That adjustment period is awkward and at times and it can feel like we live on different planets. I don’t know that in the heat of this misunderstanding, stepping away to pursue understanding from another intimacy partner could help solve the larger experience (I specifically do not say “issue”) of “changing together.”
But look, I also get that to be in a relationship that permits polyamory is to change your mindset. It is to expect, to a degree, abundant thinking from yourself and your partner. There is likely even an argument to be made that the foundation of a successful open marriage is even more solid than that of a closed one—that you could give yourself so intimately to someone who is not your husband or wife but still feel most connected to them is significant. Enviable! Maybe I don’t trust myself enough to maintain that kind of knowing. Maybe, because I got married so young and bypassed dating app and hook up and even casual sex culture, I can’t see something that you might see. So, tell me, because more than anything, I am eager to talk about it. Do you, would you, have you ever participated in an open relationship?
Photo by (c)Warner Brothers via Everett Collection.