Open marriages are something I struggle to wrap my head around, because despite the fact that the idea seems simplistically based on sex, the factors involved are quite complex. People who support the idea of open marriages say that the whole premise behind the arrangement is open communication about one’s wants and desires, but I wonder if it is more about the lack of control over those wishes.
Not too long ago I attended a panel on Monogamy, Cheating, and Dealing with the Side Piece (by now you can probably gather that I’m somewhat of a Together Apart groupie). On the panel was a couple, Carl and Kenya Stevens, who have had an open relationship for five of their 16 years of marriage.
As I listened to the couple describe having boyfriends and girlfriends and not stopping one another from experiencing new people as they come into one another’s lives, all I could think was, “Well then why get married?”
As “luck” would have it, I happened to be sitting next to a woman who told me that her first marriage was open because her husband had certain sexual proclivities that she wasn’t down with and vice versa, therefore they allowed each other to fulfill those needs with other people. In my head I said, “So basically it’s all about sex, like I thought,” and pondered how society had become so liberal, if you will, in their thinking that sex has become the paramount experience for us as human beings?
I equated their logic to the desire I sometimes have to choke someone on the subway who thinks there is room to squeeze into the middle chair of one of the three-seaters when there clearly is not—you have a choice to either satisfy an urge or repress it, and all itches don’t need to be scratched.
Sexual exploration has come to be synonymous with liberation and I’m not totally sure that those are equal terms in all settings. Part of the bond of marriage, in its traditional context, is having a sexual and intimate connection with one another that once upon a time was seen as sacred and unmatched by experiences with any other partners you may have had (or never had). But it seems as though not giving in to ones desire to have a sexual experience with someone who you are attracted to is now seen as suppression rather than self control.
Nevertheless, I tried to keep an open mind, and in researching the couple they explain that for them, having an open marriage is about more than sex, it’s about being able to receive more love—progressive love as they call it. As they explained being so secure in their connection with one another that they wouldn’t want to stop the other from experiencing the pleasure, sexual or not, of someone else’s company or energy. I thought, is this the ultimate form of selflessness?
I have to say I am intrigued by the ability to be able to maintain multiple relationships to the level that they have described. They both know each other’s partners, their partners know their children (they subscribe to the “It takes a village to raise a child” school of thinking), and they function with complete openness within these partnerships. As hard as it is to build a healthy relationship with one exclusive partner, I can’t help but wonder how this complex system of openness works on a practical and emotional level. If these agreements are truly about more than sex, then an enormous amount of work has to be put into having a husband or wife and multiple partners on the side—an aspect of open relationships that’s usually overshadowed by the mystique of unbridled sexual escapades.
Having multiple women is always presented as a dream come true for men, but several women in the audience, to my surprise, were also intrigued by the idea of having multiple partners, but were doubtful that most men would agree to such an arrangement (good ol’ double standards). However more troubling was the question of whether women should begin altering their expectations of relationships and perhaps engage in open relationships in order to circumvent the possibility of being cheated on. To that I’d say that if your heart isn’t truly in having an open marriage because it’s what you really want, then you’ll feel cheated on anyway.
If indeed monogamy is an antiquated, unnatural social construct and open marriages represent progression, I’d say we have some work to do on building better one-on-one relationship before attempting to throw more people into the mix. Of course, at the end of the day relationships are personal and are shaped by the ideals of those involved, but to share a bit of advice from the title of one of the Stevens’ workshops: master monogamy, then move on if you want to.