Recent television shows such as Showtime's “Polyamory: Married and Dating” have explored open marriages, and other forms of non-monogamous relationships.
While these arrangements are being dissected publicly on national TV, you may not be aware that a small but growing percentage of average American couples are practicing some form of open relationships. The reason it is not obvious is that most couples are discreet and keep their outside sexual and romantic relationships private.
There may be married couples right on your block, or even next door to you, who are in an open or polyamorous relationship without anyone outside the family being aware of it. In fact, it has been impossible for researchers to estimate how many couples practice some form of non-monogamy because the vast majority of these couples are very careful to keep their lifestyle secret.
As a counselor in private practice, I get calls every day from married couples all over the country who have made an agreement to allow each other to have outside sexual or romantic relationships. The usual reasons they give for keeping this from their families, friends, and co-workers? Fears of their children being taken away from them, being ostracized by family members, being rejected by their friends, or losing their jobs. These fears are usually at least partially based on reality, as many couples have experienced negative consequences when they “came out of the closet” or if others accidentally found out about their open marriage.
It's generally pretty easy for couples to conceal their lifestyle. They can continue being married, sharing a home, raising children, just as they always have, while pursuing outside sexual relationships quietly. No one is likely to guess when someone drives out the driveway on a Saturday night that they are going to meet another lover. Or when neighbors see that another couple has come over for dinner, they are unlikely to imagine that the two couples will commence with sex and romance as soon as the dinner dishes are cleared away.
So who are these couples and what are their lives like?
Here are a few examples:
Jim and Melissa are an extremely attractive couple in their mid-thirties, who live in a Boston suburb. Married 12 years, they have an open marriage, and have had many outside sexual relationships as a couple. They were raised very traditionally in Memphis, Tennessee, but decided to “open up” their marriage after they both had secret affairs and eventually the truth came out.
Jim explains, “We both cheated on each other and lied about it, like millions of other married couples. We remained deeply in love with each other and wanted to be together. But we married young and had no previous sexual experience, so we wanted to have other lovers. So we just decided that the couple that plays together, stays together.”
They generally meet other couples or singles through on-line profiles or through parties, and usually have sex together as a couple with others, rather than individually. With a gorgeous wife like Melissa, Jim is frequently asked why on earth he needs other women.
He responds, “No matter how attractive someone is, and no matter how fantastic a lover they are, after many years together, you start to take your wife for granted. Having sex with another woman makes me truly appreciate my wife, and also give me a new and different experience. And when we are involved with another couple, I see another man making love to my wife, and I see how much other men are attracted to her and how much they want her. That makes it impossible for me to take her for granted, and rekindles my passion for her even more, knowing that she could go out and get another husband any day of the week if she wanted to.”
And does Melissa get jealous of her husband sleeping with other women?
“I used to at first, but I soon realized that I am bisexual. I noticed that he has really good taste in women, I was really attracted to these same women, and sometimes they wanted to sleep with me, too, so that was a huge added incentive for me.”
She adds, “We're very clear that our marriage is absolutely primary to us, and no other relationship can interfere with that. So if we had to make choice, we would choose our marriage and end any other relationship that seemed threatening in any way.”
Neil and Joanna, raised and now settled in Phoenix, have not found it so easy. They decided when they got married 9 years ago to have a non-monogamous marriage rather than be tempted to cheat and lie. Both are in their 40s and had been married before, and both marriages had ended due to a cheating spouse.
Their marriage worked well and they both had a number of short-term outside partners, each pursuing separate lovers. However, a year ago, Neil came home from an out of town meditation retreat and announced that he had fallen in love with another woman.
Joanna was devastated, but Neil responded, “But we have an open relationship, what's wrong with falling in love with someone else?”
Joanna cried, “I thought that meant having casual affairs, you never said you'd fall in love!”
They were not the first couple to discover that they had not set up guidelines or discussed boundaries, and each of them had very different ideas of what was allowed.
Many couples have a painful awakening when one person does something that their spouse thought was forbidden, only to discover that they have not talked about it or clarified their visions of what being “open” or non-monogamous actually means. Neil and Joanna struggled over this “after the fact,” when another serious relationship was already in existence.
Eventually, Neil agreed to “dial back” the other relationship to a more “secondary” sexual relationship, and to prioritize the marriage over the outside partner.
Many “veteran” polyamorous couples warn that heartache and even divorce can result from couples not having clear guidelines spelled out in advance. Some couples agree that only casual affairs or short-term relationships are acceptable. Others decide that a serious outside relationship is fine but agree to end any relationship that starts to threaten the primacy of the marriage or demand so much time and attention that the spouse feels neglected. Others agree to have sexual encounters only at “swing parties” or sex parties, so there is no expectation of an ongoing relationship. Some couples “play” together with other individuals or couples, others have separate outside partners.
Be sure to check out the second part to this article, and discover more couples next door who are experimenting with “out of the box” style open marriages and relationships.
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