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Natasha Burton

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Open Marriage: It's Intriguing But It's So Not For Me

Posted: 04/20/2012 6:05 pm

On Friday, "20/20" is airing a special on open marriage entitled "Strange Arrangements: The New Sex," which centers on one married couple, Martin and Sierra, and the various partners they have outside of their relationship.

Reading about the couple's family dynamic (which includes girlfriends on both sides, boyfriends and other couples) revived my long-held position on open marriage: I can't, for the life of me, understand how people actually do it. Not in a judgmental how dare they! sort of way, but more in the sense that I can't imagine how having sex with other people -- and telling your partner about it -- wouldn't completely wreak havoc on your marriage and on your emotional sanity. Therefore, I don't get why people would ever agree to voluntarily do such a thing.

Practically, open marriage makes a lot of sense. It allows partners to once again feel the rush that a new sexual partner inevitably brings. It takes the stress off couples who feel obligated to put the spice back into their bedrooms, since outside forces take care of those needs. These couples get to have their married companionship and their hot sex, too.

There are no conclusive studies that can speak to the success of open marriages, according to Brian Palmer, who wrote about the subject for Slate in the wake of the announcement by Newt Gingrich's ex-wife, Marianne, that Gingrich had once proposed such an arrangement to her. Palmer explained that these relationships are often too varied for researchers to be able to make conclusions on the practice in general, as some couples might fold purely sexual extra-marital partners into their relationship, while others decide to embark on an open marriage as a last resort to save their relationship.

I think that, in theory, an open marriage can help relieve the expectations that some spouses have of each other to be their "other halves." Marriage counselors often talk about the emotional danger in expecting your partner to fulfill your every need, to be your everything. An open marriage takes the pressure off partners: It allows each of them to spend time with other people who can fill in the gaps of what they aren't getting from their marriage, which could ultimately allow couples to simply enjoy each other for who they are.

Of course, the idea of taking lovers outside of marriage is nothing new. History is full of infamous mistresses, couples who built their marriages on various "arrangements" and steamy affairs. (One can hardly make it through five minutes of period-piece dramas like "Game of Thrones" or "Mad Men" without seeing these sorts of situations play out.)

In modern "open marriage," (a term first coined by George and Nena O'Neill in their 1972 book by the same name), these dalliances are made common knowledge and the choice to sleep with other people is agreed upon by both partners in the relationship.

Proponents of open marriage often say that their relationships are healthier than if they were to merely cheat on each other, and this seems to be the key for their relationships' success. In fact, a 2010 study found that open relationships in the gay community are highly successful, as long as ground rules are set and followed -- and as long as couples are honest about what they're up to. "The combination of freedom and mutual understanding can foster a unique level of trust," Joe Quirk, author of the best-selling book "It's Not You, It's Biology," told the New York Times in regards to the research.

While this all sounds well and good, I for one have neither the stomach nor the heart for an open relationship, let alone a marriage. I'm too jealous, too territorially, and, let's face it, too needy. An arrangement like the one that will be featured on "20/20" would only exacerbate these qualities and, I imagine, ultimately make my spouse and I more miserable. (Which kind of defeats the whole point of having a piece on the side.)

WhileI understand logically how these couples might be able to compartmentalize their relationships with their husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, I don't see the point in being married if that's the kind of life you want. To me, having an open marriage is antithetical to what I believe the purpose of marriage is: Agreeing to share your life -- and yourself -- exclusively, with someone you love.

Perhaps my perspective comes from my very limited experience with open relationships. In my early twenties, I suggested to my then-boyfriend that our at-that-point-doomed relationship could be saved by opening up our sex life. This decision was not made lightly. I'd fallen out of love -- and out of lust -- which inspired an uncontrollable desire to have sex with other people (or, if we're being honest, another person). Miserable in my relationship, yet unwilling to muster the courage needed to get out of it, I suggested taking a road that I didn't really want to go down, but knew would satisfy me immediately. Smartly, my boyfriend at the time shot down the idea and we broke up less than an month later.

Because opening up my relationship ultimately wasn't about another person, nor the sex, but my unhappiness, I know that I wouldn't want to stay married to someone if I was having the same conflicted feelings that I did years ago. The emotional state that I have to be in to even think about sleeping with someone other than my partner is a pretty bleak place. Certainty not one in which happy relationships thrive.

Since the idea of engaging in an open relationship didn't occur to me until I was basically desperate, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that happy people choose to participate in them and that they can remain happy over the long term.

Maybe this is why those unions intrigue me like they do -- not because I think they are weird or wrong but because I know that they require an emotional capacity that I simply do not have.

Below, a preview of "Strange Arrangements: The New Sex" on "20/20"








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