The Slippery Slope of Open Marriage

The dynamic is more complex than you might think.

Posted Jul 04, 2013

The term “open marriage” has come a long way. It once implied that people had the freedom to choose who they would like to marry, but with the publication of the classic book Open Marriage by George and Nena O'Neill, the term soon came to represent sex outside of marriage, as it does today. 

There are different types of open marriage but they all include letting someone penetrate, literally or figuratively, the primary relationship. For example, those who consider themselves polyamorous place the major focus on securing emotional attachment and support from outside sources. In contrast, swingers emphasize sex outside the primary relationship.

Incidence rates for open marriage in the United States are somewhat dubious, but spanning estimates have ranged from 1.7% to 9% (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Haag, 2011, Spanier & Cole, 1975; Veaux, 2013). As with anything controversial, camps have formed for and against the lifestyle. Those against it claim religious and moral reasons, health concerns, and questions about its effect on childrearing, to name a few. Those who support open marriage claim it is a far more interestng way to live, and it provides a better support system for all parties. While the debate rages on, all sub-factions seem to agree that open marriage can pose a serious threat to the primary relationship if certain rules to protect its long-term viability are not agreed upon and followed. While the rules can change, they must then be re-negotiated.

I’ve treated several open marriages (most polyamorous) and from my perspective, the biggest threat to marriage is indeed when one partner breaks one or more of the pre-established rules. While the most common infractions seem to be “falling in love with an outsider,” or “hiding a relationship from a spouse,” there are other, more complex scenarios which can also lead to the downfall of this type of marriage. I’ve decided to present some of the lesser known infractions to demonstrate just how tricky it might be to make an open marriage work. Here are some examples:

Jan and Tim have been married for eight years and have two small children. The couple has been swinging for the six years. While Jan introduced Tim to the lifestyle, he took to it and the couple has—for the most part—enjoyed their dynamic. Their couple communication was impeccable, and rarely did either experience any significant jealously.

One rule the couple pre-established was to set a maximum limit on the number of times either could sexually engage an outsider (i.e., no more than four times per). Jan and Tim were clearly concerned about outside encounters deepening. However, Jan broke this rule by engaging with a man over the allotted time frame. While she kept Tim abreast of the situation, and did refrain from developing any emotional attachment, her behavior was still considered an infraction of the rules. In her defense, Jan claimed that she simply got carried away with the fun she was having. As soon as Tim complained she immediately terminated her liaison with the outsider.

Although Tim gave Jan a pass on this one, everything broke open on the other end. The man’s wife was enraged because her husband had apparently exceeded his pre-established limit. As a consequence, she demanded that her husband never co-mingle with either Tim or Jan again. Because Tim worked with this man, he became incensed with Jan for costing him a colleague. While the boundaries in this dynamic were sketchy to begin with, Tim believed that if Jan would have played by the rules this altercation might never have happened.

Pat and Sean’s polyamorous relationship broke down when Pat decided to have sex with her lover in the marital bed. Sean considered this an egregious breach of their pre-established rules and insisted the couple throw out their entire bedroom set. He also threatened divorce.

Kristen and Seth ran into difficulty because they forgot to include in their rules that neither could befriend anyone the other disliked. Lilly not only had sex with a man Jed despised, but she refused to stop until her allotted time for being with him elapsed.

Jake and Allison found trouble when Allison shifted the couple’s lifestyle from swinging to polyamory. Jake felt threatened by outside attachment and in response, demanded the couple shift to a monogamous lifestyle. Allison said that the foundation of their relationship wasn’t based on monogamy. She told Jake that if he insisted on a monogamous relationship, she would seek a divorce.

Get the picture? While some couples are able to pull this lifestyle off, it’s a high risk proposition. Books like Easton and Hardy’s The Ethical Slut help couples establish rules for open relationships, but the ability to follow them indefinitely is the key.

I would argue that a couple that partakes in an open relationship be close to perfect: Their love and commitment should be unquestionable; their ability to communicate and to problem-solve equally skillful. Why? Because we humans tend to have trouble setting limits when we want something bad enough. And when we’re angry, all those rules that were painstakingly agreed upon can be used as weapons to attack or destroy our mates. Then again, if a couple were close to perfect, would they even want an open relationship? Is open marriage just another vehicle to avoid intimacy or should we loosen up a bit and embrace this alternative lifestyle? The debate will no doubt continue… as will open marriage.