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The Truth About Open Marriage

Usually, at least one person becomes an emotionally casualty.

Some couples want their sexual freedom, but don't want their relationship freighted with the lies, secrets and ongoing deceptions that affairs require. In some cases, a contract for an open marriage is negotiated and agreed upon.

For example, one couple I saw in therapy had a "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy. They promised each other that they would only have sex one time with outside parties to avoid emotional entanglements--a promise that struck me as easy to break, given the agreed-upon silence surrounding their encounters and the fact that the emotional consequences of sex are impossible to anticipate. Plus, even otherwise honest people lie about sex.

Another couple had a "Tell all" policy with no holds barred. Another brought new sexual partners into the marital bed.

Last week, a sexually adventuresome woman who was finding herself strongly attracted to other people, asked her partner of eight years to consider having an open marriage. How did I see the risks, she wanted to know.

Here's what I told her:

The biggest risk is that she may lose her marriage. Sex is deep and complicated. Restraining from sex outside marriage is the glue that keeps couples emotionally connected and truly present with each other. This is true even for couples that rarely or never have sex.

If she proceeds with her experiment, she or her partner (in this case, a woman) may start to feel threatened, jealous, angry, anxious, or even a little crazy. Alternatively, they may avoid the whole range of such painful feelings, but find that they have drifted into an entrenched distance and disconnection. She and her partner may end up feeling like cordial roommates in a climate of emotional flatness.

If a negative outcome occurs, will stopping the experiment allow them to restore the bond they now shares? That's the big question. The answer is anybody's guess.

I don't mean to sound like a big prude or a sex cop making rules for others. I've worked with several couples who experimented with open marriages, quickly terminated the experiment when one or both partners started feeling badly, and moved forward from there. I have actually met one (only one) couple in my four decades of professional experience who claim to thrive over the years--as parents and partners--with an open marriage.

They are by far the very rare exception, not the rule. Usually, at least one person becomes an emotional casualty.

For those chomping at the bit to try open marriage, remember that you can't know the outcome of an "open marriage" in advance. What's certain is that the experiment cannot not affect your marriage. (Ditto for affairs) And your marriage is a big thing to put at risk.