You’re ready to make a change in your relationship. You love your spouse, but you’re also in love with someone else. Or your spouse is your best friend but has never been your match sexually. Maybe you married your spouse suspecting you might have a different sexual orientation. Or you’d simply like to try sex with the same gender or multiple partners. You dream of adventures that will make you feel alive again in parts of your body and soul that will die off if you don’t act soon.
With the recent infiltration and public shaming of the Ashley Madison website (the pro-infidelity online dating service where married people can find sexual partners and “have an affair”), it seems like you're damned if you don’t tell, but also—in this sex-shaming culture of ours—you may be damned for honestly requesting openness. Statistics on infidelity estimate that between 40 and 80% of married people engage in affairs. Perhaps these numbers are so high because nowhere are we encouraged or instructed on how to forge honest arrangements. It can be scary to broach this first conversation requesting a highly taboo open marriage. There is a furor against upstarts that dare to fashion their own path.
But I say—be daring. Hand the shame back to the Ashley-Madison-hacking prudes. Erotic energy has its own intelligence, and throughout history it has been an engine of change. It has reordered domestic lives, religions, and entire nations. I have been at the same junction and asked to open my marriage, which I write about in my book “Wide Open”. It is a delicate endeavor but one that works for many. Open marriage is not new. If one studies marriage historically and across cultural divides one will find many examples of ethical non-monogamy. So while you aren’t reinventing the wheel, you may feel like you’re pushing a 100-pound diesel truck tire uphill in the current sex-negative atmosphere of the USA. But take heart. It is a lifestyle that works for many.
This first conversation is a pivotal moment. It can feel like taking the cap off a volcano. How you approach the discussion can set the tone of copious possibility or lack thereof. But where do you start? This communication cannot be retracted if it goes poorly. Here is a quick primer to coach you through those first steps:
Begin with an exploratory mission. Start off by asking your mate if he or she would be “open to discussing the possibility of opening our marriage.” This is a much less threatening approach than jumping directly to “Can we open our marriage?” It’s just an exploratory conversation--not an instant debate, and definitely not a command.
Praise your partner. Be sure to tell him or her all the ways you value your marriage and/or relationship. Be specific about what you appreciate in him or her. This conversation should remain respectful—after all, this is someone you care for deeply. The talk can turn ugly in a heartbeat, and reassuring your partner of his or her best qualities can buffer any hurt feelings that might start to rise in either of you.
Brush up on good communication skills. If your partner asks why you want an open marriage—and he or she will!—avoid speaking negatively about your partner’s attitude or behavior in your relationship. Speak in “I” sentences: “I want more freedom” versus “You are stifling me.”
Know where you stand. If you are feeling resentful of or disgusted by your partner, you may be at your breaking point—know that you risk losing your marriage if you open it up. Two people need to be strongly bound to make contracts of this nature. It is not necessarily bad or wrong to open your marriage out of desperation, but if you want to preserve the relationship the next bullet point is crucial.
Strengthen your connection with your partner. Perhaps do some counseling, work on your communication skills together, spend quality time together when electronics and other distractions aren’t present, make an activity you like to do together a weekly routine. Honestly evaluate what is happening between you. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship?
Avoid labels and jargon. Sometimes lingo like “polyamory,” “swinging,” or “open marriage” scares people off. Concepts such as these that aren’t part of everyday parlance can take on characteristics of mythical proportions, resulting in everyone having a very different idea about what “open marriage” means. For example, “open marriage” can mean occasionally getting to make out with someone else, watching porn with a love interest, having a flirtatious lunch with a colleague, having multiple relationships, living with more than one partner, and many other scenarios. Get a very clear picture about what you want before you broach the discussion.
Get some support. It’s great if you have a community of friends with the same open marriage lifestyle choice, but this isn’t the case for most people. Enlist a sex-positive counselor or therapist who can witness your process and help you sort out what’s possible for you as a couple. This could be a long process. Remember: patience is a virtue.
Let your spouse go first. When I suggested we open our marriage, my husband was intrigued but afraid. We worked with a therapist for five months and were still at a standstill. Until I suggested he go first. I encouraged him to date for a few months while I focused on supporting his process. After twenty years of marriage, he was captivated by the plan. And because I offered to let him go first, his fears over the thought of me hooking up with another man lessened. The fact that I was generous enough to let him venture out on his own, without worrying about who I had my eye on, gave him the added trust in our marriage that he needed to move forward.
Allow for mistakes. We all want to do ethical non-monogamy perfectly, but unforeseen situations will pop up. There will be a certain amount of mess. Try not to shame each other for miscommunications and misunderstandings. Amend agreements and keep going. It’s like learning Spanish—you wouldn’t expect to speak fluently after three classes. There’s a learning curve here too.
Go slow. Promise your spouse there will be no fast moves, no hairpin turns. You promise to drive within the speed limit and pull over if you lose your way. Erring on the side of going slow can help you avoid too many big goofs. Have some short exploratory ventures out into the world of open marriage. You will make interesting discoveries about yourself and your spouse, and you’ll need to make adjustments and review your standards and practices.
Think progressively. Open marriage is just another way to set up your relationship. It does work for many. Customize it to work for you and your spouse. Just as no two monogamous marriages are the same, no two open marriages work exactly the same way. Be open to your own interpretations of what it means to have an open marriage—and good luck.
Gracie X is an author, actress and speaker. Her book "Wide Open: My Adventures in Polyamory, Open Marriage and Loving on My Own Terms" is available wherever books are sold. You can contact her at GracieX.com