“How Open Marriages Really Work”

im-with-them “I feel that the biggest benefit to having a relationship that allows for others is that you never have to worry about being everything for someone,” said Skye. “We get to love each other and be with each other, and we get to love other people who are special and important to us in other ways.

Salon’s article “How Open Marriages Really Work” is refreshingly candid about choice and the nature of relationships–that monogamy is not for everyone. Though polyamory is tossed about quite a bit, I think that label imposes a false sheen over the article that aims to shatter the accepted notion that people who do not do monogamy fall into another label, namely polyamory.

Always one to shun labels, I felt a little compartmentalized by that term, even while the article indulged many scenarios where open marriages were either fallen into after initial monogamy or chosen at the outset. In all cases, the catchwords are honesty, openness and love. However, brave is the overall impression I get.

Yes, it takes honesty and ability to articulate jealousies, desires and needs. Some couples felt jealous of the outsiders but later located the source as something missing in the primary relationship that caused the jealousy. If they spent quality time together, either or both were okay to go off on a date with others. But speaking up and facing fears–of loss, jealousy–takes guts.

I was pleased about the mention of some open marriages that are not acknowledged but known by both parties as well as all shades in between complete openness and shadowy closeted. Having enjoyed monogamy for many years before my relationship opened up, I appreciated the nod to necessity as well as choice. Some couples cannot complete one another intimately and so rely on others to do so. And if both agree to any given arrangement, it works, for however long it works. I suspect child rearing years are different from before and after those times. Once again, fluidity.

Monogamy is tough. It is what most of us believe we want, but in truth, most of us do not, not always. I love the options open to the mature who can agree on their relationships from phase to phase, time to time. We are not static beings and neither are our relationships. But more importantly, it is rare to find someone who can be all things at all times for another. Not even the Stepford Wives worked out so well.

Now, if people could just stop being threatened by others doing it differently than they do…what a wonderful world.

credit: polysingleish.files/wordpress.co

Marriage: the Conventional, the Unconventional and the Facts


credit: http://i2.wp.com (No, this is not my family; it’s just weirdly entertaining, kind of like my marriage)

April 19th is my wedding anniversary. In four days I will have been married 35 years–to the same man. Though we have an open marriage, enjoy physical intimacy no longer, I consider our marriage meaningful and committed. We have created and continue to raise two incredible human beings while caretaking two others safely through their twilight. Barring unforeseen calamities, including death, I see no reason for our marriage not to last.

Perhaps my years as a divorce attorney fueled the longevity of my marriage. Witness all day–so many days–to so much grief and acrimony, the willful and unwitting destruction of lives small and big, I avoided arguing when I came home at night. The running joke was always, “If we argue, I have to charge you,” while glancing down at my wrist to the non-existent watch timing billable hours. From clients to opposing attorneys, court clerks, and even my own staff, I was argued out by the time I got home and wanted conciliatory peace. And we did live peacefully in those days, most of our days, for the most part.

My marriage has not been without huge dips in the fairly steady, even road. There were times of grave disappointment and betrayal, cheating and lying, exasperatingly long periods of financial deficits and child rearing disparities. Though most of the big ticket items to tear at the seams of a marriage were little or non-issues for us–religion, in-laws and politics–there was still enough shared life to rend our lives into separate camps, feeling isolated and alone, the union itself contributing to that loneliness, for me anyhow. I confused belief in our couplehood, being on the same team, with sameness. I thought we should never be at odds to such an extent that we bring one another down.

Yes, we have laid each other low at times, blew out our ugliest selves at each other, guts a’spew, but we have also propped each other up, been the very scaffolding of each other’s lives at other times. My husband rescued me in my lowest days and shared in my greatest moments too. And I suppose that is the crux of it: we share history. The one thing that is nearly impossible to divorce is history. Observing hundreds of divorcing couples over the years, I believe that is deepest cut–slicing away the shared past. Many divorce tears shed are in mourning a communal past.

Concluding from my own marriage, those who can simply last–endure disappointment, suffer patiently and hope daily–are those who benefit most from marriage. My husband loathes change and I inherited blind optimism, which provides some of the glue of our togetherness. But apparently additional factors contribute to marital success or failure, according to Woman’s Day and its 10 Surprising Divorce Facts: parental influence, education, location, income, religion and age at marriage. 

If your parents’ marriage lasted, you’re college educated, enjoy a substantial income, are Catholic or Protestant and don’t live in Alabama, your marriage is likely to last, surprisingly. I have never lived in Alabama. My parents have been married for 61 years, which would explain my 35-year marriage but not my sisters’ three divorces between them, one of them having lasted only one year–twice. But it would explain my brother’s 29-year marriage, my one sister’s 23-year marriage before it went south, but not my still another sister’s never having been married yet in her 44th year.

So take it for what it’s worth, an “ah, that’s interesting” reading that may supply your ten minute coffee break with entertainment. This short fact list provoked in me a pondering over the definition of marriage: What makes a marriage? What makes a good marriage? Longevity certainly is not the litmus test for quality, though one might assume so. People can be unhappily married most of their lives. 

Trite as it seems, a good marriage consists of two people with realistic attitudes about the institution specifically and human beings generally. My marriage was a convenience in its inception but grew into the shapes it has taken over the years: love, family, loyalty, convention and the inverse of all of those too. Perhaps the lack of expectation going into it explains in part the “success” of my marriage. Unfulfilled expectations did not root itself in the initial contractual arrangement. Certainly they arose organically as my husband and I developed expectations over time. 

Perhaps it’s because we didn’t believe in the institution as much as we believed in each other. Marriage formulas or divorce statistics abound in the news and in the confines of counseling offices, but ultimately, the unique chemistry and conversing, the melding of two people’s lives, people harkening from separate beginnings, nature and nurture, are the core components of the mysterious making of a marriage. Each marriage rises and falls accordingly. Belaboring the obvious? Yep.

Un-dying, Never-ending.

You:  I need to face you.  
Lock in your gaze to help steer me through the grey.  
Though you have not been the voice of reason in the past, 
I have let you be my voice, my reason.  
The lesson is learned.  
Growing up is hard.  
But we did.
We grew up together, confused,
believing two as one.  
We managed, staving off loneliness.  
That is our cement. 
We have suffered deeply and joyed ecstatically.  
No one else has shared that landscape.  
We are bonded.  
I cannot say that I will leave 
you who cannot love me. 
You have not said that you will leave
me who cannot love you.
We who cannot love one another
the way we need to be loved 
whom we love nevertheless, undyingly, do understand.  
You fathered me, my only one true friend.  
I want your cooling songs warmed. 
Find someone who can make you feel 
make you new, admired, special, thrilled, alive, 
awaken the deadened laboring hollow walking shade.  
You need to find the colors of the world, paint your vision.  
I will prop you up as always.  
We can steady our frames while others pump our hearts.  
We always fly home for replenishment, for safekeeping.
Me:  I will see you there.

“When the Best Sex is Extramarital”

When the Best Sex is Extramarital by Lawrence Josephs, a New York psychotherapist, chronicles the study of one patient, Cynthia, who, though married to a devoted husband and father of their two young children, begins an affair with a co-worker. Sex with her husband is reported as “boring” while she claims to have had the best sex of her life with her lover, Neal. When Neal suddenly dies of a heart attack, she is left to mourn him in secret, which drives her to the therapist, Josephs, who makes her realize that her work is in reinvigorating her sex life with her husband. 

Other than the therapist’s inserted judgment of the deceased Neal, which I found disconcerting, the article drew intriguing insights into that long-perceived dichotomy of good love vs. good sex. Apparently a Freudian, Josephs cites the good father of psychotherapy on love and lust:

Freud claimed that people often split love and lust. It is not uncommon to have great sex with someone who isn’t lovable, or to have a trustworthy loving relationship with someone with whom the sex is boring. Recent empirical research shows that individuals who exhibit high degrees of narcissism, like Neal, have difficulty integrating love and lust in a single relationship. This is also true of individuals, like Cynthia, who are “avoidantly attached” — they can’t tolerate the vulnerability of being intimate with someone on whom they are dependent, and so they create a self-protective distance from their partner.

The latter term “avoidantly attached” is not a phrase with which I am so familiar and since Dr. Josephs does not define his term or discuss how he reached the conclusion that Cynthia was “avoidantly attached,” I had to research.

Avoidant attachment yields two different separate behaviors: “fearful” and “dismissing.” Fearful avoidants have a negative self-image, but are also passive and dependent; they actually want intimacy but they are also desperately afraid of being hurt and distrust others. Fearful avoidants are the hardest category of insecure people to deal with in a relationship since they send out a mixed bag of signals. The dismissing avoidant has a more positive self-image but would agree with the following statement: “ I am comfortable without close emotional relationships, It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient and I prefer not to depend on others and have others depend on me. “ These working models affect individuals in myriad ways.

In the article with the above excerpt, Avoidant Personalities Destroy Relationships, author Peg Streep later notes what we all know: people marry their opposite sex parents. Hearing this early on in my dating days, I thought I was safe in that I married someone so different from my father. But having lived with my father the last few years, I realize I am mistaken.  

My father, when physically present on those rare occasions he was not working or sleeping, was not a warm, accessible guy when I was growing up. As an adult, I was more relatable to him and he showed a very warm, sentimental side amidst his general crankiness and abusive language to not only my mother but all of his five children.

But that overly sentimental side lurched between the nasty brutal cutting side, which later showed me that he is simply incapable of relating to others, incapable of truly attaching. He either loves you or hates you depending on what you have done for him lately. Then again, how could he have learned how to attach when he was one of 9 children of scraping by parents?

So it’s no wonder I married someone devoted yet aloof and emotionally unavailable, he coming from parents who were the same. My mother, at least, was very warm and affectionate, but very busy with five children. I, being the middle child, fashioned my world, my niche in this enclave, as the independent one who needed her least so as to caretake her some. I still do.

All arrows point to the “dismissing avoidant” in the mirror, but the arm chair self-analyzing therapist is a lousy therapist indeed.

What do you do when the best sex of your life is outside of marriage, but you still want the emotional security of a stable long-term relationship with someone you love and trust? I’ve worked with a few couples over the years who have been able to make an open marriage work, but most people, even those who think they might want such an arrangement, are too insecure and jealous to do so.

Interestingly, Josephs does not discount that an open relationship could work, only that most people are too insecure and jealous to succeed. But how about two people forced into honestly engaging with each other about their needs and inability to fulfill them? What about those forced to stay together despite a lousy sex life because they have higher responsibilities to fulfill, like kids and aging parents? 

Cynthia decided to work on her sex life in couples therapy, but how often does that “fix” an ailing sex life? I don’t have the data, but I do have a couple dozen years in divorce story land. My gut and experience tell me that many couples do not work out a sex life even after proper diagnosis and willingness to do so.

Sex is as mysterious as it is natural or primal.The complex of psychological, emotional, intellectual and physical cocktails that make some sex the best and some the worst is rocket science or voodoo to me. Honesty is critical to a healthy sex life but not easy. How do you instruct someone you love how to kiss you or please you, especially if you don’t really know how to instruct or what you need–for example, young teen or twenty something starter couples?  

Sometimes the circumstances are such that two people want to stay together, perhaps at first for the kids, but later for more reasons than that; maybe there is no one out there to go rushing to that’s any better suited or as time tested as their marital partners, despite the dead sex life. Though the two may feel jealous and unwilling, they both know and are open to sex outside the marriage. And when they do so, in time both parties become acclimated. Exigencies make it work at first and time settles everything else afterward.

Freud claimed that children are emotionally possessive and jealous creatures who don’t like sharing their parents’ affection with anyone else. As a clinician I try to keep an open mind about romantic partner sharing, but when it comes to our spouses, it seems most of us never outgrow being fundamentally childlike in our possessiveness. At our best we learn to refrain from doing things that would make our spouses jealous and insecure, despite our temptations, and when they make us jealous we try to restrain our hostility, despite our hurt.

This would describe the majority of people most of the time and some of the people some of the time. I can remember being jealous of my husband’s friends, the coveted time he spent with them. When we separated and I dated someone else, he was jealous. And later when we reunited and then agreed to an open marriage, we were both jealous at times, but knew it had to be this way and so became inured to seeing other people come and go in our communal lives. The other option was divorce, which was clearly unnecessary.

We talk about our lives, but do not open up to each other much emotionally. He has always struggled with articulating what or that he feels. Yet, we provide each other the steadfast support that allows security, safety and adventure too–time tested love and respect–immeasurably comforting.

The best sex of my life has been with those I have been most emotionally connected to, felt the most love for–at that moment of enjoyment. With some, it has been easier to have great sex due to chemistry (scents, voice, hormones) or physical compatibility, similar aims, fantasies and spirit. Those relationships that afforded the greatest sex were firm, committed, yet clearly not forever. Perhaps the attachment avoidant in me has made that so.

So What if a Couple Agrees to Have a Little on the Side? Chris Ryan on Marriage


The loosing of restrictions outside of marriage might help the institution as a whole, argues Christopher Ryan in his Big Think interview. When our culture responds negatively to natural urges, like seeking sexual satisfaction outside marriage, the results can do more harm to marriages than good:

And one more for the revisionist thinking about the marriage institution in this Big Think interview entitled “Income Inequality Helping to Build ‘Generation Single” with Chris Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships. His words are excerpted above, but the three minute response in the video portion is worth a listen as he radically asks, “Whose business is it if a couple decides they’re going to allow a little casual sexual behavior on the side…it lets the pressure off.” He maintains that marriage has loftier aims and satisfies larger needs like child rearing, sharing a life and getting old with someone. The reality of who we are biologically–titillated erotically–and the expectations of lifelong fidelity, he says, are at odds and marriage expectations need to be changed to reflect the reality rather than “shoehorn” lives into the mold of a marriage concept.

He does not intimate that marriage is doomed. In fact, he specifies cogent reasons for marriage, which are the long-standing reasons anyone gets married: to share a life together. I know I will be reading his book to find out more.