Most recently, the USA Network show Satisfaction illustrated the many complexities of contemporary relationships among midlife adults as they explore alternatives to conventional marriage. Although the lead characters, married to each other for 18 years, clearly love each other and wish to remain together, they are also looking for ways to expand themselves emotionally—as they become sexually involved with other partners.
While menopause brings quite unpleasant symptoms, challenging the sexual life enjoyment in some women, overall, they do not show a lower degree of their interest in healthy and fulfilling sexual life. However, many post-menopausal women do need something to keep their fires burning. For some, that may be experimenting with fruit-flavored lubricants and experiencing the joys of oral sex for the first time. For others, it may be leaving a lifeless marriage or finding new love. While the potential group of women, for whom that may be applicable, is still relatively small, the open marriage may also be the one suitable trigger for the life stage transformation.
For your information, incidence rates for open marriage in the United States are somewhat uncertain, but spanning estimates have ranged from 4% to 9%, which is much higher than I would expect.
What is Open Marriage?
Open marriage typically refers to a marriage in which the partners agree that each may engage in extramarital sexual relationships, without this being regarded as infidelity. There are many different styles of open marriage (such as swinging and polyamory), each with the partners having varying levels of input on their spouse's activities.
Couples involved in open marriages or relationships typically adopt a set of ground rules to guide their activities. Ground rules in relationships allow partners to coordinate their behaviors so they achieve shared goals with fewer conflicts. Some ground rules are universal in the sense that they apply to virtually all relationships in a particular culture. Other ground rules apply to specific kinds of relationships, such as friendships or marriages. Still other ground rules are designed to manage romantic rivalry and jealousy. The ground rules adopted by sexually monogamous couples tend to prohibit behaviors that are viewed as acts of infidelity. The ground rules adopted by sexually open couples tend to prohibit behaviors that provoke jealousy or sexual health concerns. Partners may change the ground rules of their relationships over time. One example of a changing ground rule includes where a married couple decides to separate. Without divorcing, they are still legally married. However, they may choose to continue cohabitation.
Open marriage styles
Couples in open marriages may prefer different kinds of extramarital relationships. Couples who prefer extramarital relationships emphasizing love and emotional involvement have a polyamorous style of open marriage. Couples who prefer extramarital relationships emphasizing sexual gratification and recreational friendships have a Swinging style of open marriage. These distinctions may depend on psychological factors such as sociosexuality and may contribute to the formation of separate Polyamory and Swinging communities. Despite their distinctions, however, all open marriages share common issues: the lack of social acceptance, the need to maintain the health of their relationship and avoid neglect, and the need to manage jealous rivalry.
Many open couples maintain rules forbidding emotional attachment, illegitimate children, extramarital sex in the marital bed, extramarital sex with those known to both partners, and requiring use of barrier contraception.
Some open marriages are one-sided as well. One partner who may need more sexual gratification than the other is free to seek it out where he/she sees fit, all while maintaining a functional emotional relationship with their full-time partner.
While open marriage is not mainstream in the modern world, you may consider some potential social caveats of the possible society negative attitude towards the chosen lifestyle. You may be experiencing fear of rejection by other family members who you believe will disapprove if they discover their participation in a particular lifestyle. You may fear the reactions of coworkers and superiors and potential negative repercussions for your careers.
Since certain nontraditional lifestyles involve behaviors that are considered in some states to be illegal, the risk of character assassination or the selective enforcement of those laws can lead to anxiety. Such fear of criticism, rejection, and recrimination may lead to attempts to keep the lifestyle participation a secret and this “pressure cooker” environment may lead to severe problems within the relationship.
When primary partners bring up the issue of non-monogamy for the first time, the change in relationship style is unavoidable. The pre-existing relationship paradigm is immediately altered. The “poly conversation” may force the participants to explore and express needs that are not being met and emotional secrets that have been kept.
Matters often taken for granted in conventional monogamy relationship typically require specific processing in open marriage, for example:
* Time and Resources: How much should be expended on whom? Who decides, and by what process?
* Sex: what type of sex is acceptable, with whom and under what circumstances? (i.e., male or female, casual, party, play w/ or w/o genital contact, penetration, etc.)
* Safer sex: medical issues, contraception
* Disclosure: How much sexual/emotional disclosure about other partners is desired; how much is too much? Under what circumstances does disclosure take place, and at what stage of the relationship?
* Relating to a lover’s other partners: To what extent? Will it be required that existing partners meet them before sexual activity occurs?
* Belongings and personal space considerations: e.g., “No, your lover can’t wear my bathrobe to get in and out of the hot tub,” or, “Yes, it’s ok if you and he make love in our bed.”
* Integrating new partners with family and friends: if, then when and how?
* Parity: Attaining relative equivalence in extra-dyadic relationships. Addressing the ramifications, if any, of lack of parity in outside relationships
* Veto Power: Who has the right to say “no” to a partner’s choice of another? May this power be exercised peremptorily, or must at least some rationale be offered?
It occasionally happens that participants in alternative lifestyles to experience a range of internal conflicts of which they may not be initially aware. For example, while you may be accepting the alternative lifestyle merely intellectually, but not on an emotional level.
Persons who for philosophical reasons have decided to engage in an alternative lifestyle may well find that they have difficulty in dealing with their emotional response once they begin to live that lifestyle and experience a sense of personal inadequacy and guilt because of this. On the other hand, they may have agreed to participate out of fear that if they refused to do so they would lose their lover or spouse.
Some typical emotional “sticking points” encountered on the journey toward open marriage are:
* Making the decision about whether to move forward at all in exploring polyamory, and, if so, determining which form is best suited to one’s needs.
* Learning the ropes: Expect that moving from the exclusive relationship model to an open one takes time and involves growing pains. Mistakes will be made. These can either derail the process or offer important lessons.
* Developing boundaries: All healthy relationships require good skills in drawing, communicating, maintaining one’s own boundaries as well as respecting others’ boundaries. Polyamorous relationships are no exception.
* Adhering to a “no surprises” policy: Sensible caution and a well-developed sense of timing are required to avoid skipping necessary steps in introducing new relationships or adjusting to changes within ongoing relationships. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of thinking ahead and communicating thoroughly so that no one feels surprised by “out of the blue” developments.
* Building a tolerance for uncertainty. People may experience distress, confusion, or self-doubt when idealistic views of open marriage are eclipsed by primitive emotions that seem at odds with their “evolved” thinking. The exuberance attached to some aspects of polyamory sometimes will be counter-weighted by corresponding surges of pain or grief over other aspects. For example:
One’s joy in expanding the horizons of love can be counterbalanced by grief in letting go of romantic fantasies about having and being the “one and only.” The thrill of sexual diversity can be counter-balanced by a struggle with inner demons (fear of loss, abandonment, insecurity about desirability, sense of failure as mistakes are made, etc.). One’s pleasure in having more needs met by more people can be counter-balanced by the weight of responsibility for self and increased accountability to others. There is pain in the recognition that even in the world of alternative relationships, the dream of “having it all” – the perfect blend of emotional, sexual, and relational needs fulfillment - sometimes cannot be realized.
* Coping with fallout: Being prepared to move on if no agreement to pursue open marriage can be reached, and negotiating the least disruptive “exit strategy.”
Starting Open Marriage
Starting an open marriage is neither magic solution for your family problems, nor an easy. You may be feeling excited on the open opportunities, filled with wonder about who it is you are going to meet, or maybe you already have someone lined up as an open marriage prospect. However, before you start, there are a number of issues, that you and your significant other must discuss and come to the solid agreement upon.
1. Get informed
There are many references on the Web, covering concerns on starting an open marriage relationship. There is empirical research on the subject covering everything from the number of couples involved in the journey of open marriage, the success of open marriages, and the problems facing open marriages. Upon thorough investigation, you may find that your decision is the right one, or you may find that it is the worst possible solution for you and your significant other. Work with your partner as a partner to foster a mutual decision to start a journey together.
2. Extensively discuss your rules
Everyone’s rules will be different. You should be adamant about following them, but realize that things do change with every person you meet. Be willing to change some rules, but always be convinced about the ones that are extremely important to you especially if you feel the change would significantly affect the relationship between you and your significant other.
3. Protect yourself
You cannot microwave your next potential partner. Know the signs and symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases. Pick condoms that have the maximum protection over the ones with whiskers hanging off them, or glow in the dark products. Be safe when going out. Confide in a friend and let them know about your arrangement if you can. If you meet someone out and are going to have sex, let your friend know exactly where you are and what time you will return. Always plan for the best, but be prepared for the worse. Carry money and try to conceal your cash and credit cards. You would hate to be stuck somewhere and not have a way back home.
4. Expect growing pains
Starting an open marriage is not easy. Starting an open marriage is filled with plenty of uncertainties. You and your significant other will battle over issues like jealousy, money for hotel rooms, and rule violations, just to name a few. Think twice if you ready for the minefield voyage, with questionable benefits and multiple possibilities to get in serious troubles and ruin your life.
5. Control your jealousy
Discuss the kinds of people you want to meet and under what criteria you will meet them. For instance, you may only want to meet people from out of town who are not married. You may choose not to date people at work. These criteria may be included in your rules. Try to stick to them especially if you are already out there on the prowl. It is not nice to get a call at 2:30 in the morning to let your significant other know that you met a Voodo Priest, and they want to take you to Africa on a safari. Regardless, whomever this person is that your partner meets, check your jealousy at the door when they leave to go out. Know that they may just meet someone who fulfills a need that is important to them, and this may lead to an incredible sexual experience for them. Bottom line—get over yourself! By the way, jealousy is one of the top reasons why open marriages fail.
6. Honesty and trust
Your significant other may have questions after a big night out. It may be about the rules, or details about your encounter. Some details may bring some electricity into your own bedroom. Try to oblige them if you can. If you do not feel comfortable discussing details, make sure these feelings are talked about when first setting the rules. Trust your partner whole-heartedly! Trust that they will stay within the boundaries, and trust that they will talk with you if there is reason to change the rules. A break in trust can lead to heated arguments and feelings of resentment. It may even bring an end to the open marriage, and even the union itself. Honesty and trust represent the foundation that an open marriage is based on. It was there when you first became partners, so embrace and practice it throughout your open marriage.
7. Know you and your partner’s means to an end
Ask many questions and know exactly why you and your significant other want to become involved in an open marriage. It is really a simple question, “Why do you want to do this? What is your purpose for having an open marriage? What do you expect to get out of it?” You should feel comfortable with the answers to these questions. If not, then talk about it. The answers that you hear may relieve any fears you have, or it may help you to decide whether an open marriage is right for you.
8. Get ready to face the music
Empiric research has shown that not too many people take part in an open marriage. If you chose to go public with your decision, expect the consequences. Though there is a tolerance for alternative lifestyles, most people believe in monogamy. After they finish giving you funny looks, they may harbor ill feelings towards you because you do not conform to beliefs that were taught to them by their families, the media, or their church. Again, get over yourself. You got to this place because you believe and want to practice your beliefs. This is a choice you made for yourself. If you are self-confident, you will not care what others believe. So go ahead, if you like, tell them.
As you understand, most your family members are involved in monogamous relationships, know little about open marriage, and care even less. Therefore, the chances of them finding out that your lifestyle has changed, are slim to none, as long as you are discreet. There are no guarantees that your secrets will always be safe, especially if you practice an open marriage in your own home.
10. Know when to stop
The stop rules are different for various people, but setting the boundaries will help to preserve the open marriage and not ruin your relationship with your significant other. For example, one of the main rules may be that open marriage ends, when either of the partners wish to stop. Other may include stopping the relationship with someone, when feeling the emotional danger of falling in love. Basically, the ground rule should be that your family and your relationship come first.
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