Jessie Sherman is the pseudonym for a writer who has been trying to find a way to write about her open marriage for the last seven years. Because explaining and understanding the whole thing has been so challenging, The Archeology of Open Marriage series is her attempt to pick up some of the pieces, turn them upside down and tell the story that way.
If your husband is cheating on you and his lover gives him a scarf, he might try to hide it from you, tucking it into his sock drawer or leaving it at work. But if you're in an open marriage your husband might wear that scarf 24/7, morning, noon and night.
"Uh, hon, could you give the scarf a rest, please?" I said the other morning when he walked into the kitchen, the cotton scarf knotted at his neck.
"Sure," he said, untying it.
It's not that I'm in denial of my husband's new girlfriend, it's just that I like my open marriage in its proper place. That's one of the things I've had to figure out these last seven years. Just because it's called open doesn't mean you're open to everything. Letting each other have lovers didn't preclude us from also having boundaries.
In the beginning we didn't know anyone who had consciously opened up their marriage so we had to figure things out ourselves. We also didn't know what to call what we were doing. Open wasn't quite right because we weren't open to everyone. We were just two middle-aged couples who'd worked hard at their marriages for over a decade and who happened to meet each other at a very unusual juncture in each other's lives. Not only were we attracted to one another, but we were also able to forge a bond that included our commitment to our marriages and our families, as well as our desire to open to each other.
We didn't want to affiliate with anything, we just wanted to break open the four square walls of marriage and see what else was out there.
And in our case there was a whole new life.
After 14 years of monogamy, encountering the surprising touch of a new lover was like putting your finger into the electric socket of high school sex -- a shocking contrast to the tried and true 9-5 sex we'd all fallen into. We were suddenly dating again. Not mom-and-dad dates where the kids wave their gooey banana fingered goodnights from the window and the baby sitter promises to get them to bed by 8. We were going on dates -- my husband with Jenny -- and me with her husband, Peter -- that required more than just a little mouthwash. We were sprucing up girly parts, pulling on skimpy thongs and wearing dresses with easy access. These were dates that might involve a martini, some serious make out in the back seat of the car, or a hotel room. The kind of date that really put a skip in your step for the rest of the week.
We weren't just going out and having a nice time. We were getting our sexual super powers back -- something our spouses couldn't do for us simply because we'd pressed that button so many times it had lost its pop.
It was disorienting.
"They're like cookies," I attempted to explain to both Jenny and myself. "You can't eat them everyday, they're a treat, something to enjoy once in a while and then go back to our regular diets." Jenny agreed. But a couple of weeks later she called me back, "Not cookies," she said, "more than cookies."
And it was true. Days after I'd been with Jenny's husband the thought of him was enough to make my private parts go public. I could not wait to see him again.
But it was more than that. What started as attraction was deepening into friendship with Jenny and Peter. We'd all done a lot of personal work, had friends in common, read the same books. We liked to cook, dance. Dates with each other's spouses were interspersed with family dinners. Months turned into years -- we were celebrating birthdays, watching kids get older, watching our parents die.
We started to feel like family.
Which also meant that the fantasy of THE OTHER WOMAN and THE OTHER MAN faded away pretty quickly. We witnessed each other tired, with bags under our eyes at the end of a day, or frustrated with something that had happened at work, exasperated for having to pick up yet another wet towel from the bathroom floor. I began to see that even though Peter possessed some snazzy qualities that my husband didn't have -- he loved going out to nice restaurants, knew his way around a bar, and was more articulate in some ways -- I realized that if I brought him home our late night whisperings would also include -- "honey could you take out the garbage, honey did you pay the bill?" -- effectively turning him into A HUSBAND and then we'd be back to our four square walls, banging at the windows to get out.
Domesticity is not sexy. But it does have a tremendous value. It's no small thing to make a home with someone for 14 years, and Jenny and I knew this.
So we took care of our marriages and we looked out for each other. Before a date with each other's husband we checked in. We took care to actually see the whites of each other's eyes. Family took priority. If your spouse wanted you to stay home you would, no questions asked.
The day after the date Jenny and I called each other to say thank you. It was simple respect.
The idea was to return the husbands in better shape than we had found them -- to have the kind of date that left everyone -- especially you -- juiced up and ready to return to the marriage. Maybe open marriage would make our marriages better. And in a lot of ways it has. Our lovers have helped us see ourselves in new ways; our connection with them has exerted a welcome vaccination against boredom and resentment at home. And it takes boundaries -- it takes talking to one another -- it takes negotiating and apologizing for ways we've hurt the other.
Just like marriage...with some perks.