I’ll be the first to admit that at one point I actually convinced myself that an open marriage, where you get a hall pass to bang other people once in a while, might be the best way to protect a long-term relationship from boredom and eventual demise.
Don't get me wrong, I believe a marriage is an accomplishment like riding a bike. And once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can’t go back. You can’t unlearn the evolution of closeness, connection, being known, seen and felt. It’s profound and awesome and it's what makes pushing through the tough times all the more rewarding. But it also translates to never again feeling the jittery, passionate electricity of “newness.” An open marriage would seem to be the answer, right? You get the depth, connection and longevity of a mature marriage and the frivolous, electric rush of being with someone for the first time. Whenever you want it. If all parties involved are on the same page and have the emotional stamina to take on whatever complications may arise, then maybe this arrangement is the secret to long-term intimacy and partnership. The soul (and body) is satiated on all, um, levels.
I recently went out for dinner with a couple that subscribes to this “arrangement.” My feelings about it were purely theoretical. I had never put them into practice. I was all talk. But these people were walking the walk and I was fascinated. This was my opportunity to report back to my friends, family, spouse and you with empiric pro and con evidence!
Turns out paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Has this couple succumbed to bouts of enormous jealousies, insecurities and mistrusts about what the other partner is emotionally up to with their special friends? Yes. Trust is the foundation of a healthy marriage. If the sexual trust issue is removed by sharing an open agenda about sharing your body, the only thing that’s left to lose trust about is emotional connection. What feels like more of a violation than that? And then aren’t you just back to square one anxieties that a non-open marriage can fall prey too anyway, except now your husband’s penis happens to be dipping in someone else’s hoo-ha? So not fun. Score one for the con side.
I grilled on. Has it created an element of anxiousness that would not be present if this arrangement wasn’t in place? Yes. The flip side of the giddy excitement of their very planned dates outside of the marriage, is a depth of anxiousness that they didn’t experience as singles. Because that’s just it. They are not single. They are married. And therefore a laundry list of unexpected concerns can infiltrate and dampen the fun. What if common friends spot them out in public canoodling with a stranger? Will someone get hurt? What if the woman gets pregnant? What if he catches an STD? Will this be the one they unexpectedly fall in love with? What if this person turns out to be their "real" soulmate? Talk about a can of worms! Con, con and then some.
Was it worth risking all the work just to get your rocks off?
All I could see was a messy list a mile long of potential soul and emotional injuries. There is no truer intimacy then the kind that develops over time in a monogamous relationship. Monogamy is the yoga of the West! It’s a practice. As is loving and staying open and reopening to your partner after a fight or shutdown. Was it worth risking all the work just to get your rocks off?
The more this couple talked, the more my soul started to ache. I didn’t see anything enlightened about the boundaries of commitment being fluid. To me it feels like a thin and flimsy argument, and I couldn’t help but feel the enormity of self-protection involved to stomach such a situation. Self-protection does not an intimate relationship make.
So what’s the upside? I wanted to know! How many boobs that don’t belong to his wife does this guy need to feel? How many foreign hard-ons does she need to check out? Turns out, not many. In fact, I don’t think they’ve walked the walk more than a couple of times each in five years. It started to sound like declaring their marriage open gave them a sense of marital identity. A way to be labeled apart from the rest because what they saw didn’t look so good. It was political. More philosophy than practice. A prophylactic stance they suspect to be the antidote to the pitfalls of monogamy. Talk about defensive screwing!
Do they think this is sustainable for a lifetime? They shrugged. Was it something they looked forward to doing? More shrugging. And like so many things couples can’t agree on and tend to have shifting views about as they grow as a unit, wasn’t this just another area where massive complications could arise as they evolve? What happens if/when the time comes that they are no longer on the same page? Con, con, con and frankly, the case was rested.
There is no easy answer in the good fight toward long-term commitment, monogamy and happiness other than it being a war with one’s own ego. A healthy partnership is one that understands that when "fights" occur they are often with our deepest selves, not each other. Our partners can make the most perfect dumpsters, tidy little containers to project and dump all our shit on, and this usually happens unconsciously. So much about marriage is constantly checking in and asking ourselves, who’s shit is this, really? Most often, it’s ours.
Blaming our partners when the going gets tough isn’t the answer. And certainly looking outside of the marriage to decompress and air out is not the answer. A truly evolved, long-term relationship is one where both partners remain forever fearless about looking within. The only openness in a marriage that I stand behind is the creating of more and more space within us for our spouses to be themselves, without judgment. It’s the expansive sense of connection that comes from authentically doing the work of being fully present and staying in it that makes a marriage truly open.