Maybe you love your spouse, but you’re also in love with someone else. Maybe your spouse is your best friend but has never been your match sexually. Maybe an illness precludes your spouse from ever having sex again. Maybe you’d simply like to try sex with someone of the same (or a different) gender or with multiple partners.
With the recent infiltration and public shaming of users of Ashley Madison (the pro-infidelity online dating service where married people can find sexual partners), it seems you're damned if you don’t tell, but in this sex-shaming culture of ours, you may be damned for honesty, too.
It can be terrifying to broach the idea of an open marriage.
But I say, be daring. Erotic energy has its own intelligence, and throughout history it has been an engine of change. It has reordered domestic traditions, religions, and entire nations. Open marriage is not new. Historically and across cultural divides, there are many examples of ethical non-monogamy. You may feel like you’re pushing a 100-pound diesel truck tire uphill, but take heart: this has worked for a lot of people.
This first conversation is pivotal. How you approach the discussion sets the tone. You can’t take it back. Here’s a primer for those first, difficult steps.
1. Begin with an exploratory mission.
Ask your mate if he or she would be willing to discuss the possibility of opening your marriage. This is much less threatening than jumping directly to “I want to have sex with other people.”
2. Praise your partner.
Tell him or her all the ways you value your marriage and/or relationship. Be specific about what you appreciate. This conversation should remain respectful. After all, this is someone you care for deeply. Emotionally charged discussions can turn ugly in a heartbeat, and reassuring your partner of his or her best qualities can buffer any hurt feelings that might start to arise in either of you.
3. Brush up on good communication skills.
If your partner asks why you want an open marriage — and he or she will — avoid speaking negatively about his or her attitude or behavior in your relationship. Speak in “I” sentences:. “I want more freedom” versus “You are stifling me.”
4. Know where you stand.
If you are feeling resentful of or disgusted by your partner, you may be at your breaking point. Know that you risk losing your marriage if you open it up. Two people need to be strongly bound to make contracts of this nature. It’s not necessarily bad or wrong to open your marriage out of desperation, but if you want to preserve the relationship, the next bullet point is crucial.
5. Strengthen your connection with your partner.
Perhaps do some counseling, work on your communication skills together, spend quality time together without electronics or other distractions, make an activity you like to do together a weekly routine. Honestly evaluate what is happening between you. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship?
6. Avoid labels and jargon.
Sometimes lingo like "polyamory," "swinging," or "open marriage" scares people off. The truth is, everyone has a very different idea of what “open marriage” means. Having an open marriage can mean anything from occasionally getting to make out with someone else to watching porn with a love interest, having a flirtatious lunch with a colleague, multiple relationships, or living with more than one partner. Get a very clear picture of what you want before you begin the discussion.
7. Get some support.
It’s great if you have a community of friends who have similar lifestyle choices, but this isn’t the case for most people. Enlist a sex-positive counselor or therapist who can witness your process and help you sort out what’s possible for you as a couple. This could be a long process. Remember, patience is a virtue.
8. Let your spouse go first.
When I suggested we open our marriage, my husband was intrigued but afraid. We worked with a therapist for five months and were still at a standstill. Until I suggested he try it first. I encouraged him to date for a few months while I focused on supporting his process. After twenty years of marriage, he was captivated by the plan. And because I offered to let him go first, his fears over the thought of me hooking up with another man lessened. The fact that I was generous enough to let him venture out on his own, without worrying about who I had my eye on, gave him the added trust in our marriage that he needed to move forward.
9. Allow for mistakes.
We all want to do ethical non-monogamy perfectly, but unforeseen situations will pop up. There will be a certain amount of mess. Try not to shame each other for miscommunications and misunderstandings. Amend agreements and keep going. It’s like learning Spanish — you wouldn’t expect to speak fluently after three classes. There’s a learning curve here too.
10. Go slowly.
Promise your spouse there will be no fast moves, no hairpin turns. Promise to drive within the speed limit and pull over if you lose your way. Erring on the side of caution can help you avoid too many big goofs. Have some short exploratory ventures out into the world of open marriage. You will make interesting discoveries about yourself and your spouse, and you’ll need to make adjustments and review your standards and practices.
11. Think progressively.
Open marriage is just another way to set up your relationship. It does work for many. Customize it to work for you and your spouse. Just as no two monogamous marriages are the same, no two open marriages work exactly the same way. Be open to your own interpretations of what it means to have an open marriage — and good luck.
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