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Life In An Open Marriage: The Four (Not-So-Easy) Steps

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From Chapter Nine of the book Open by Jenny Block. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2008.

As time went on, she realized that several key elements make a successful open marriage, and though those factors involved the community of people she surrounded herself with, it was mostly about how she chose to act and react, and how to be in her relationship and her own skin. Having come this far, she more than realized that it was never going to be easy. She was always going to need to protect her daughter. Things couldn't always be exactly as she wanted them to be. But she was doing it, and she knew she wasn't alone in her journey.

Being in a successful open marriage is about four things: 1) finding the support you need, both within your marriage and from the people around you; 2) accepting that jealousy is a manufactured emotion that, with enough conscious effort, you can learn to let go of; 3) treating an open marriage as you would a "traditional" one--that is, normalizing it as a choice for everyone; and 4) overcoming people's fears and misunderstanding of open marriage and its supposed consequences on society at large.

Despite the fact that few people who are in open marriages talk about it either publicly (in the media, for example) or openly (that is, within their own community of friends and family members), open marriage--in any number of forms, and going by a variety of alternate names--is becoming more and more common. Oprah has featured couples in open marriages, and it's the subject of a variety of new books and articles, from Tristan Taormino's book Opening Up: Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships to Em and Lo's article in the June 2007 issue of Glamour magazine, "The Secret Sex Lives of American Couples," which featured a couple in an open relationship. In other words, if mass media is any indication, it's increasingly treated as a viable lifestyle choice (though only in more progressive areas, of course).

Unfortunately, I don't live in a particularly forward-thinking part of the country, which means I have to live less openly than I'd like to. That is, although I don't hide the way I live, I don't announce it, either. I introduce my husband as my husband, and my girlfriend as my girlfriend, and answer any questions that might arise. But unless friends and neighbors and colleagues read my work, they might not have any idea about the way I live. We are neither out nor closeted. In a way, it's terrific that it then is no big deal, because why should it be? By the same token, it would be nice to be surrounded constantly by like-minded people with whom I could discuss freely the ins and outs of living openly.

I will say, though, that in certain venues and events, my situation is readily accepted, particularly in the LGBTQ and arts communities. We now know that non-monogamy has a long, long history; it's just that it hasn't always been referred to as "open marriage." But many people are beginning to see lifelong monogamy for the facade it is. Along with soaring divorce rates, more and more people are defining for themselves what their families will look like, and open relationships are gaining traction.

In my very humble opinion, this has a lot to do with people's wising up. Many thinking men and women find themselves reflecting on why their marriages aren't working, and what marriage might need to look like in order for it to succeed. And for those people, who want to retain a relationship they value but that is lacking something, be it large or small, open marriage can be a long-term, happy, and healthy solution. It's the smart way of approaching something that deserves more reliance on logic and less on magic. It takes a heck of a lot more than fairy dust to hold a relationship together.

So, back to the things you need: Number one is support from your spouse. Open marriage is productive only if both partners are onboard. And because the rules can morph and change, it requires ongoing attention and communication. I remember when the need for Christopher and me to support each other, unconditionally, first became abundantly clear to me. It was after our first major "bump," which happened early on with Lisbeth. It was after she decided she no longer wanted to sleep with me, but did want to continue sleeping with Christopher. I specifically asked him not to have sex with her one night, but he did it anyway. I was crushed. His explanation? He thought my request was silly. I was astounded. His behavior showed a blatant disregard for the boundaries we had set. And what's the point of setting boundaries if they're going to be so casually dismissed? Without at least some sort of guidelines, our open marriage simply wasn't going to work.

When I found out that he had specifically ignored my very simple wish, I felt compelled to leave him--not because he'd slept with her, but because he'd betrayed me. My anger and frustration weren't about sex; they were about trust. I reminded him how betrayed he had felt when Grace and I were together, and with that, he was able to see my perspective. He apologized, but I still felt torn. It was obvious that he was genuinely sorry, but I was also incredibly upset. The bottom line was that we were just beginning to navigate how our open marriage was going to operate, and it dawned on me that the only way it could work would be if we caught each other when we stumbled, even if that meant supporting each other in what seemed like unusual ways. I had to juggle being the hurt wife and the friend to the guy who'd hurt his wife. It wasn't easy, but it also turned out to be a very deep way of better knowing someone I already loved.

Because most people consider being in an honest open relationship living alternatively, it's not always easy to get the support you need. I've been lucky enough to find it through the friends and family members I've told, as well as from online communities like Polyamory.org and PracticalPolyamory.com. (You'll find a more complete list of sites and publications in the appendix and the Works Consulted pages of this book.) No one has rejected me because of my choice to open my marriage. I also know that not everyone understands. Through the friendship grapevine, it has gotten back to me that some of my friends can't completely wrap their heads around it, but they have been supportive nonetheless. I believe that's because Christopher's and my friends genuinely care about us, even when they need some help understanding our choices.

People who choose open relationships have to be prepared to stretch a little, too, both to help other people understand and to support one another within the relationship. Sometimes the only person you have to talk to about what's going on is the very person you are having the relationship with, and you can often talk to each other in ways that might not be possible in closed relationships. For example, people in traditional marriages may not be "allowed" to express love or sexual interest, or perhaps any feelings whatsoever, for anyone other than their primary partner. Being closed necessitates hiding. Being open necessitates revelation.

Christopher and I recovered from our first big debacle almost instantly, simply because we decided we would. So much of navigating a new lifestyle involves letting go of the "norms" and "meanings" to which people have grown accustomed. We were figuring things out together, and we had to learn to talk to each other and to listen--not to what we thought the other person was saying, but to what they were actually saying. We continue to work at that. Of course, people in monogamous relationships must work at this, too, but because of the intricacies of open marriages and polyamory, being extra communicative becomes, or at least feels, more crucial.

Even though we know that talking is paramount, it's not always easy, especially for Christopher. For example, when things ended with Christopher and Lisbeth and we all went back to being "just friends," it was tough for all of us, as any change is. But Christopher suffered a different kind of loss than either Lisbeth or I did--and, I believe, a more difficult one. She and I fell back into our friendship easily, but he had had no real relationship with her before our sexual one started, and so he was left feeling like an outsider. He had been intimate with her, as physically intimate as any two people can be, and then suddenly he was back to being the husband of her best friend. Period.

"Is this too weird?" he asked me one night as he described his feelings of loss.

"Not at all," I answered. "I'm the only one you really can talk to, and I'm happy to listen." It was an amazing affirmation of our choice to be open, and in terms of communication, the experience provided a bridge of sorts for us. We were talking as we never had before.

Christopher's loss was real, but it was also strange and uncharted in terms of my helping him to work through it. How do you comfort your husband when he has broken up with his lover? The same way you would help anyone else you love survive a difficult time: You listen and love them and appreciate what they are experiencing for what it is. And you don't insert yourself. It would have been easy for me to say, "How can you be so upset if you love me?" or, "What does this say about how you feel about our relationship if you're so worried about losing her?" But I had nothing to do with what he was feeling. And seeing him through it--watching him, listening to him, helping him--helped me, once again, to see him as a whole person, and not just as who he was in relation to me. It's a marvelous human and intellectual challenge to think solely of someone else, and to not interject yourself into their particular scenario. It is not something we do often enough. Open marriage and polyamory have given me that opportunity at many turns, but it's not for the faint of heart.

If you do want to give open marriage a shot, you have to be strong enough to deal with all of the new feelings, problems, and experiences that it might throw at you. You have to know that jealousy is bound to rear its ugly head. This is the second issue on my list, because it's the unfortunate sibling of the supportive lover. It's a dangerous relation, and you'll need to decide what you will do with it when it inevitably arises: allow it to eat you up or make you question yourself and your relationship? Or can you use it as a chance to address why you're feeling jealous in the first place? We feel jealous when we feel insecure, so it's imperative that we examine our relationship's security, or lack thereof, and where it's coming from. Is it you? Is it your partner? Exploring your reasons for feeling jealous can help you gain some perspective on it.

I'm not suggesting this is easy--not by a long shot--but I do believe that it will allow you to see yourself and your partner differently--as individuals, not as wholly defined by each other. And that can result in your creating a space where more love can grow, instead of one in which resentment insinuates itself as it does when jealousy, rather than understanding, is your guide. Not being jealous has to be a conscious choice, and it's a choice I have to work at and remind myself of, one that requires years of deprogramming.

Acknowledging, assessing, and discussing each issue, challenge, and question as it comes up has taught me things about both Christopher and myself that I could not have otherwise learned, and that, to an extent, I did not previously imagine were possible. It's not easy work, but the pleasure is in the challenge. When Socrates was on trial for heresy for prompting students to think for themselves and challenge what they had been told, he responded by telling the court, "The unexamined life is not worth living." I couldn't agree more. It might seem easier, but what's the point? When I started looking at my own life and my marriage was when I figured out how to get to where I wanted to go--that is, how to continue my journey toward having a happy partnership.

Even when you do have a relatively easy time transitioning into an open marriage, it's highly unlikely that everyone around you will see your choice as something they understand, or even consider legitimate, either socially or romantically. Despite having my family's and close friends' backing, I have had plenty of experience with people whose responses to my lifestyle have been anything but supportive. These include being aggressive, condescending, and just plain mean-spirited. As I mentioned earlier, people who see open marriage as deviant feel perfectly comfortable labeling me a whore. It makes it easier for them to rationalize and compartmentalize my life. Thinking of me as a bad person and a bad wife and a bad mother is convenient and facilitates their separating themselves from me. Otherwise, they could be just like me. And that's simply too scary a proposition to address. The best thing I can do for myself, then, as well as for others who choose to live in open relationships, is to own being open, and to respect it as I would any more traditional arrangement. Normalizing open marriage among its participants is the first step toward gaining acceptance in the community at large.

For me, it's not so important to meet the standards that other people impose upon me as it is to be able to live in harmony with my neighbors and friends and acquaintances, particularly where Emily is concerned.

The scenario I fear most--which, thank goodness, hasn't happened and I pray never will--is that people will stop letting their children come over to our house to play with our daughter. One of my very closest friends, Alex, ended up taking issue with my lifestyle at one point in our friendship. She was worried that her children might "see something" when they were playing at our house. She felt unnerved by my own comfort with my open relationship, and because she and her husband and I had experimented a bit together at one point, she lashed out at me, rather than talking through her reasons for feeling upset or regretting her choice, or whatever the issue was for her. I respect my partners' privacy just as I expect them to honor mine, but other people can be unpredictable, to be sure, and that is one of the greatest hazards of being in an open relationship. That risk can require significant management, and it cannot always be controlled.

Alex and I ended up having a long talk and working out our problems, though I don't know that we ever quite got to the root of her discomfort. The problem stemmed from her not being able to wrap her head around what had happened. There was no tidy little box into which she could fit our liaison--or me, for that matter. I had no problem with what had happened with Alex and her husband, and I didn't want us or our children to lose out on the friendships that were at stake. But without the box, she questioned her own acceptance of me.

It's sad when we question our own judgment, our own gut instincts, because they don't mirror what everyone else is saying or doing or believing. Making an open marriage effective means being prepared to work through any rough spots with your friends, surrounding yourself with as many enlightened people as you can, and setting an example for people of just how normal and reasonable an open marriage can be. I feel like I'm finally at a pretty good point with most of my close friends, but there's always the potential for missteps with them, and then there are the issues that arise when I meet new people or acknowledge my circumstances to current acquaintances, particularly people I know through Emily's school. It's a calculated risk. But I can think of few things in life worth doing that aren't.

Things are different for me now because Jemma is the only person I see outside of my marriage. Without doing a lot of dating and having various relationships, I have less potential for turmoil, to be sure. But it's still hard to juggle. I want to be with Emily and Jemma and Christopher all the time, yet I can't because Jemma doesn't live with us. And that makes me sad sometimes. When I think about it in the simplest of terms, our arrangement feels like a forced, contrived, and unnecessary separation of people who, outside of social conventions, would likely live together. The idea of living with my family and Jemma has certainly occurred to me, but that's not something any of us want, at least not for now.

This has to do with where I live, my desire to protect my daughter, and the fact that our society cares too much about how people love. And so, despite my comfort and my openness, and despite living alternatively and following my heart in my relationships, I still, in many ways, live under the thumb of others' expectations and ideals. That will likely continue as long as Emily lives at home, because I want to protect her from other people's ignorance and potential wrath.

What an awful commentary--that because I enjoy sex, particularly in a way that too many people find abnormal, I'm automatically deemed mentally ill or unstable or dangerous to my own child. In an incredibly unscientific survey, I gave questionnaires to people in open relationships, and asked them about the hows and whys of their daily lives. One respondent, whom I'll call Sara, expressed fears that were all too familiar to me. "We do not look like the ideal family, so it would be easy for people to take that next step to the idea that there is something wrong with us as parents."

The final stage in figuring out how to be in a successful open marriage is overcoming our own worries and other people's misunderstandings about how we define our relationships. There's nothing unusual about people who choose open marriage, except perhaps that we opt to tell the truth to ourselves and to one another. There wouldn't be any great apocalyptic end to life as we know it if the "accepted" definition of a marriage or a relationship or even a family were to include those of us who don't look like a family straight out of Leave It to Beaver.

Open marriage does not and will not disrupt life as we now know it. It already is life as we know it, even though some people pretend not to understand that. They seem terrified of open marriages, of any alternative lifestyle, for the same reason that they're scared of anything unknown: They don't know what to expect around the corner. This situation is similar, and not surprisingly so, to society's struggle with interracial marriage and its continued wrangling with same-sex marriage. My hope is that others will come clean about their lifestyles, as I have, as we work toward creating a society where people in heterosexual, monogamous marriages are not the only ones who are permitted to live free from harsh and unfounded judgment.

I'm not out to change anyone. I'm interested in changing how we look at everyone. Everyone needs support. No one needs jealousy and no one benefits from it. Open marriage is happening all around us. And no walls are going to come tumbling down because of it. Living openly is about living honestly, loving fully, and being able to embrace that choice freely. This is what I want or myself and others, both those who are already living in open marriages and those who are interested in exploring its possibilities.

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