My husband and I have been together for twelve years, married for eight. We’ve gone from office jobs in the software and nonprofit sectors to self-employment as an artist and energy-worker. We’ve traveled the world by plane, train, and rickety old RV. We have one awesome kid! We are adventurous, creative, and not particularly risk-averse. Three years ago, in addition to all the other novelty in our lives, we decided to see other people. Our son was three at the time, and finally sleeping through the night.
Although I had toyed with the idea of an open marriage for a few years, it felt impossible to make this work for our relationship. I already had two short-lived, failed attempts at non-monogamy with previous partners. Prior boyfriends who had been willing to give it a whirl, and in both cases ended up jealous and very, very hurt. I came out of those experiences feeling that something was inherently wrong with me, not knowing that there were other people who were naturally polyamorous—not even knowing that polyamory was an option! Emotional and physical intimacy with more than one person felt natural to me, but I had no real-world examples to follow back in the early aughts.
So I swallowed my desires and tried to be monogamous, while still leaving the door cracked for my partner to maybe one day try getting it on with someone else. Even if I was okay with my partner seeing other people, I just didn’t think he could ever be comfortable with me doing the same. I didn’t want to erode the foundation of trust in our relationship by exploring other relationships outside of my marriage—I was too scared to risk it. The only way I would feel comfortable seeing other people was if he did so first. And he had no interest in “complicating” our lives like that.
We officially began exploring a truly open marriage in possibly one of the worst ways: after an affair. Rewind a couple of years, and my husband began working with a passionate, determined woman, and I could feel the chemistry between them. It was mutual. It was palpable. So I asked him if he was interested in exploring that chemistry, and I assured him I was open to that… I liked her. She liked our kid. And there was just… something there. Between them. It was undeniable. But my husband declined my offer and instead suggested that they stop working together. I told him I wasn’t worried. I knew he’d never cheat on me. It was my one condition for staying married. No cheating!
Long story short, he cheated. (IKNOWRIGHT?!) It hurt more than anything I’ve ever experienced. I wasn’t hurt by my husband sleeping with someone else, or having feelings for them. I was hurt about the secrecy, the dishonesty, the betrayal of trust. He made a really bad, painful, destructive choice. And it seriously almost cost us our marriage. And this is a whole other story in and of itself, because there are so many layers here.
After many hours and days and weeks and months of soul-searching, individual therapy, couples therapy, energy work, raging, crying, separation, and despair… we worked through it. I realized I had always wanted an open relationship (even though my previous attempts had failed miserably), that monogamy just isn’t something I ever wanted, and I wanted to give ETHICAL, HONEST, COMMUNICATIVE non-monogamy a try. And I wasn’t ready to give up on my marriage.
My husband realized it was possible to have feelings for someone else and still love and desire and want to be married to me. He was then able to better understand how I could have feelings—and share intimacy—with other partners and remain committed to our relationship, our family, and truly want to be with him.
Is this the ideal way to open one’s relationship? Hell-fucking-NO! But this was our way, and as painful and fucked-up as it is, we survived. We got to a deeper, better space. And now I have not only a strong, loving, supportive marriage but a web of love and connection that nourishes me so much more fully, and lets me be me, with my wide variety of interests and desire to connect with a beautiful diversity of other humans. I am here to make love. I am here to experience the alchemy of intimate connection. I am my best, I am most alive and creative and happy when I have multiple partners with varying degrees of physical and emotional intimacy. I make time for these partners because of how much I gain from these connections.
This Is Not For Everyone
First things first: This is not for everyone! Never, ever force yourself into something that doesn’t feel right for you. It’s one thing to have some reservations/doubts/concerns and be open to exploring and working through them… It’s another thing altogether to have a punched-in-the-gut, deep-down sick feeling at the thought of trying non-monogamy. If even thinking about non-monogamy makes you feel awful, honor how you feel. If you know this is not for you, be clear, be firm, speak up. Go to a therapist together. Preferably one who specializes in non-monogamy. Have the hard conversations. But always honor yourself. You are not a less aware, less open, less loving partner if you say no to open relationships. Monogamy is every bit as valid a choice as the alternative.
So let’s be clear: I’m not here to convince anyone to give ethical non-monogamy a whirl. I don’t think it’s the best or most enlightened way to do relationships. But I do think it is a viable option for those who don’t love monogamy. I’m here to share my own experience, as someone who was curious about open relationships, felt inherently non-monogamous and polyamorous, and has been figuring out what works for me and my marriage and my partners as I go. I’m no expert. I’m not “out” to my family or entire social network. But this is some of what I’ve learned over the last three years.
Why An Open Relationship Is Worth The Work (For Us)
To answer the first and most obvious question: no, it hasn’t always been easy. Even once we re-established trust in the wake of the affair, and moved on to ethical, planned non-monogamy, it’s been pretty fucking hard at times. I’ve been hurt, he’s been hurt, various partners have been hurt. We are not some shining golden example of how to “do” non-monogamy. We still haven’t agreed on how much of our choices in relationships and our partners we share with our child. We have different wants and needs when it comes to seeing other people. Different ideas about what the perfect open marriage would look like. We’ve read some books and seen a therapist, but even three years in, it feels like we don’t really know what we’re doing.
So why are we doing this?! Because we want each other to be as happy, as passionate, as turned on, and lit up as we can be. And we are okay with figuring it out as we go. We are committed to navigating difficult terrain, reaching deeper levels of honesty and intimacy, and to forgiving each other when one of us does something that hurts.
My Non-Monogamy Is Different Than My Husband’s Non-Monogamy
I’m not going to speak for my husband, but I will say we are very different in a lot of ways. We have different experiences of non-monogamy and different wants and needs. We came into this lifestyle differently. I had fumbled through earlier attempts, unsure why one partner wasn’t ever “enough” for me, but it wasn’t until I was thirty-three that I finally, fully realized I was inherently non-monogamous. I don’t get jealous easily. As long as there is honesty, openness, and direct communication, it truly doesn’t bother me that my husband finds other women attractive, flirts with them, dates them, and has sex with them. I do, too! With men and women and non-binary, genderqueer folks. My sexual orientation is quite fluid. I also have a pretty fierce libido. I love physical intimacy, particularly when it is nourished by emotional intimacy. I don’t love my husband less because I also love others or have steamy hot sex with them. I don’t feel that he loves or desires me less, either. (I mean, I’m pretty freakin’ awesome, and I feel that if anyone can’t or doesn’t see that… well, that’s totally fair, but I also don’t particularly wanna hang with you.)
Non-monogamy often comes with a lengthy set of rules, in my experience, designed to keep everyone involved feeling safe and secure as hearts and bodies and lives are opened and exposed. Those rules work, for the most part, and it’s not my intention to knock them. But they also put up barriers to the natural experience and expression of love and desire. It throws a mask of safety on something that is actually quite dangerous. I prefer to look that danger straight in the face. Yes, my husband could fall madly in love with someone else to the point of not wanting to be with me. Yes, there is a (very very small but nonetheless still possible) chance that he could get another woman pregnant, or that we could contract a STI. Those risks are real, and they are there, and they aren’t going anywhere. So I accept them. And for me, that makes all the rules rather unnecessary.
Our own unique experience of non-monogamy is not “equal”—we don’t have a set of boundaries or rules that applies equally to both of us. My husband tends to have more casual connections with women who understand he is in a committed relationship, and he is not willing or able to invest as much time or energy in additional relationships. He enjoys fun dates, stimulating conversation, and lots of flirting. For me, I dive deep. I want to taste your soul. Even though I am married and my family is a huge priority, I’m more of a relationship anarchist by nature. I believe in honoring connections, with fluid levels of intimacy. Some of these connections have lasted years, some just a day or week. I am not seeking relationships in the conventional sense. For me, it is all relationship. My husband gives me the freedom to follow my heart, to fall in love, to spend time with friends/lovers/partners without needing to define “what this is”—and my friends/lovers/partners offer me the same. This doesn’t fit within the mold of traditional relationships, so it’s hard to describe. It’s more an experience of connection, and the freedom to allow the connection I feel with others to take whatever shape it wants, for however long that lasts.
My husband and I trust each other to act with safety, integrity, kindness, and respect. I know that he would never put our son in danger. I know that we have learned from past mistakes and the pain involved. Rather than follow a strict set of rules, we keep each other informed, we ask for time with others, we check in, and we make time together a priority. It’s actually pretty easy. Getting here was hard. Being here isn’t.
Non-Monogamy With A Kid
For us and for now, we commit to making time for each other, and time for our family. We don’t go on a bunch of dates with other people if we haven’t first made time for our own connection. Time can be a challenge! We check in with each other before scheduling dates, and for now we tell our child that one or the other parent is going out with a friend. I’ve begun talking with our child about how some people have a boyfriend and a girlfriend, or some people go on dates with lots of people—our culture and media is SO saturated with monogamy that he has already picked up on the idea that monogamy is the only real way to do relationships. (Hey tribe, any good resources/books/shows for younger kids that present non-monogamy as a healthy, viable relationship option?!)
My biggest concern currently is that I don’t want my child “finding out” one day that his parents see other people and feel that is somehow abnormal or wrong. I also want to respect my husband’s boundaries, and he’s more comfortable with keeping our lives and loves a bit compartmentalized. Like I said, we don’t have this all figured out. And I’m not comfortable with the folks at the polyamory groups/meet-ups I’ve been to, because the vibe seems more sex-oriented, and most polyamorous folks have so many rules, it’s exhausting, so we are mostly winging this on our own. Introducing our son to non-monogamy and polyamory as options for relationships is where we’re at right now. My hope is that he will grow up knowing he can choose what feels right for him, he can explore multiple options if he isn’t sure, and as great as monogamy can be, it doesn’t have to be the only way.
Yes, we’re parents. And the question that pretty much every parent has about non-monogamy (or you know, literally anything else) is how we manage to even have time for this. And the answer is, sometimes, we don’t! We’ve gone long stretches without seeing other people. But we know we have the option, we know we can flirt with people, we know that our work has slow seasons and busier ones, and we truly enjoy getting to know new people. For me—I enjoy time with my longer-term partners, even if I only see them once a month. It is deeply nourishing and stimulating and fun. And I bring that nourishment into my marriage, as well.