What It's Like to Have an Open Marriage

What It's Like to Have an Open Marriage

Have you ever wanted to try an open relationship? “Non-monogamy is way more common than most people think,” says Ava from Texas, “But it’s rarely discussed in public.” So, I recently spoke to three women about their open marriages — the pros, the cons, and how they make it work. Here’s what they said…

Catherine, 30, lives with her husband in Pennsylvania. They’ve been together for six years, and their relationship has been open since the birth of their son four years ago.

How it began: When we met, I was 23. I knew an open relationship was his preference, but we kept ours closed, and I never felt pressured. We ended up getting pregnant a few years later. While breastfeeding an infant, I didn’t want to be responsible for my partner’s sexual needs. I was more than happy to open our relationship, and I was able to separate the emotion from his physical need.

Her first experience: When our son was around two, I became curious to see what was out there for myself. I went on a Tinder date and had so much fun — that new feeling, a rush, I hadn’t experienced it for so long. My husband sometimes gets a little jealous. It’s funny because he introduced me to this lifestyle, but I’m probably better suited to it. I think you can choose to work through your jealousy and grow tremendously as a person.

Meeting new people: At first I used Tinder, but recently I’ve been wanting to meet people more naturally. I teach yoga and there are male students who I think would be into it. I also put it out there to one of my guy friends, and we’re going to hang out soon. For my husband, it’s more of a sexual thing, but I need a connection with someone — we go for drinks and dinner first. I’m also open to having a longer term boyfriend.

The impact on marital sex: It has been nothing but great for our own sex life. I read someone saying that monogamy was bad for their libido and I agree. The more sex I’m having, the more I want to have. My husband brings stuff back to our bedroom — he’s a little kinkier. He wanted to learn how to do ropes, but I wasn’t willing to be his guinea pig. He can practice with someone else, refine his skill set and come home to do it with me!

Why she likes an open relationship: The independence is a turn-on for me — dressing up, going out by myself, switching away from my role as a wife and mom. I started dating my husband when I was young, so it’s nice to be able to have more partners in my lifetime. I can’t see us going back to completely closed; I kind of forget other people don’t live like this.

Telling friends: It’s funny to see friends’ reactions — I’ve gotten a lot of, “Oh that’s so great but I could never do that.” I’m sharing this about myself. Our relatives don’t know — our parents would probably freak out a little. But it’s a wonderful part of my life, and I want to talk about it.

Breaking up: For a few months, I had a relationship with a neighborhood dad. (He and his wife had an open relationship, too.) We all knew each other, and our kids did karate together. It was a little too close to home, so we ended it before it got serious. I was really bummed. I had the urge to turn to my husband for comfort but it felt like too much to ask. He’s my husband, not my girlfriend. That was a learning experience.

What she wants people to know: I’m married, I’m a mother, I’m non-monogamous. Of course an open marriage is still a marriage. Nobody should be made to feel less-than because their marital needs don’t fit the mold. Nobody should be made to feel like they need to keep their love a secret.

Hadley is 31 and lives in Scotland. She has two primary partners — Gregory and Clark. She also sometimes casually sees other people. She identifies as bisexual.

On having two partners: I’ve been with Gregory for nine years (we are married and live together) and Clark for a year (long-distance); but they’re equally important to me. I would never want one of them to feel secondary.

A fluid marriage: Gregory and I met when I was 21 and he was 23. The idea of marriage always felt a little strange to me, but we got married because he was British and I wasn’t, and that’s how immigration works. Like most people, we were monogamous at the beginning – that’s what you do!

Voicing needs: I would broach the topic of non-monogamy with Gregory every two or three years — maybe now? But, nope. He’s very shy and wasn’t into it. Every relationship is going to involve compromises, so that was okay with me. Then, in 2015, we went into business together and bought our home. We agreed we were solid — if something were going to break us up, it wasn’t going to be someone else. And I pushed him to identify: What’s the fear here? What are you actually afraid of? I’d had these really fun friendships when I was younger — they were friends but we’d also sleep together, and I enjoyed the variety.

A husband’s transformation: Although Gregory wasn’t into casual dating, he met someone more like him, who also valued fewer, more intense relationships. I encouraged him — it’s okay that you have feelings as long as you can maintain your commitments to me. They fell pretty hard for each other. Eventually he said she was his girlfriend. They’re still together, they’re coming up on two years.

On meeting a second primary partner: I use OkCupid, Tinder and Bumble. Last summer, I swiped on an American guy who was traveling through town. He was only in town for a day, but we developed an extraordinary connection. Now I fly out to New England every other month, and he flies here every other month, and it’s wonderful. So, now I have Gregory and Clark, plus the occasional sexual friendship or casual date. I value the patchwork of different relationships in my life.

Confronting jealousy: People always ask, “Are you a magical creature who doesn’t get jealous?” But you could just as easily turn it around and say, “You’re monogamous, do you get bored?” You have to reflect on your values and emotions, and think, “Do I want the benefits and drawbacks of monogamy or do I want the benefits and drawbacks of non-monogamy?” And, if it’s non-monogamy, do I want to share a home with someone, do I want to just date, do I want to have a giant house that I share with 12 people? It’s the same as deciding whether to live in the city or country or suburbs — there’s nothing wrong with any of them, but one will probably feel like the more natural direction for you.

On telling others: If anyone asks if there’s someone special in my life, I say, “Yes! I have two wonderful people.” I just let them be shocked and hold their hand through it if I need to. Honestly, most people don’t care — they’re shocked for two minutes, they want the really good gossip, and then they’re like, what’s for dinner?

Explaining an open marriage to parents: My parents have always known Gregory, and when Clark and I got more serious, I told my parents about him, too. It was important to me that nobody felt like a dirty little secret. Even if my parents thought it was unusual, I knew I wouldn’t be disowned. I also wanted to tell them so that if their friends were saying, Oh, there’s this weird new culture, they could say, Oh, no, that’s my kid! it’s normal.

Ava, 30, met her husband eight years ago. They’ve had an open relationship (on and off) over the past five years. She identifies as bisexual and lives in Texas.

On marriage: My husband is my life partner. We adore each other. We tell each other everything. We’re looking forward to starting a family. We have sex. We go on dates together. We also date and have sex with other people. And it has added so much more than I ever thought it could.

Starting an open relationship: After we had been dating for five years, he suggested opening our relationship. My initial reaction was curiosity. I had always been inclined to be monogamous; it had been my model growing up. But a good friend had been in an open relationship and had had a great experience. So, we came up with lots of agreements, and then we went for it.

Setting boundaries: We were very cautious at first — we tried to space out our dates and keep things casual. Now we’ve realized that if you’re going to date someone and see movies and have dinners, you’re going to get emotionally close. But we still say “no sleepovers” — that’s a little too intimate — and we don’t bring anyone to our home.

On jealousy: We both struggled with jealousy at first, but you learn to work through it together, just like with anger or any other difficult emotion. It has added a big element of support and trust to our relationship. We feel like we can do anything now. If we’re able to work this out, what else can we accomplish together?

A fuller sex life: The novelty of an open marriage keeps our marital sex life exciting — you were with someone else, and you’re my husband. We have this analogy: My husband loves to go two-stepping; the more you dance with other partners, the better you get. Also, I’d always thought about dating women, and to be able to do that within our relationship is really special. I get to live part of my life I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to.

On meeting new people: My husband is more extroverted and hits on people when he goes dancing. But I use dating apps. I like to go on a few dates before things get sexual. I also think that there’s sometimes a perception about open relationships that everyone is super sexually active all the time. That hasn’t been our experience. You’re busy, and you’re still going through the dating process.

Heartbreak: That feeling of falling in love with someone else — it’s the best and also the worst. The thing I’d never thought I’d be dealing with in a marriage is heartbreak. You’re sad about someone, but you want support from your partner. There’s no model for that, so we’ve navigated it on our own. I’ve actually been surprised by my capacity to listen to my husband when he’s upset, and say, “Let’s talk about it.” That blew my mind.

On the capacity for love: You can love multiple children, and you probably have more than one friend. You feel love for all of them, even if you’re closer to one. No one says, “Oh, you have too many friends, you should stop.” Just because I’m starting to feel affection for someone else, it doesn’t take away the love I have for my partner. A big thing to realize is that you can’t be everything for someone; it’s good to have other people — it’s just whether they’re friends or lovers.

What might surprise others: Some people assume that open relationships are free-wheeling, do what you want — but we have rules and boundaries and conversations all the time, and it’s not always fun. People also sometimes think that you’re trying to fix something in your marriage, but we started this because we felt very stable — we thought we could throw this new thing in the mix. A couple could always try it, and if it doesn’t go well, they could close it again. It’s your relationship, it’s up to you. A few years ago, I never would have thought I’d be in this position, but it has been overwhelmingly positive.

Thank you so much for reading! Any other questions you have? Have you ever been in an open relationship? Of course, all relationships look different — couples who date couples; people of different sexual orientations; relationships that are open for one partner but closed for another; the list goes on and on. Please share your experiences, if you’d like! xoxo

(Illustration by Nina Cosford. Names have been changed for the privacy of the people interviewed.)