It’s movie night at my house. Six kids are piled up on the couch downstairs watching How To Train Your Dragon and devouring pizza. My girlfriend and I steal a private moment together while our husbands settle the kids in.
We say a sleepy hello, she gets a work call, and I comfort a sad toddler. End of moment. It’s chaos, but happy chaos. There’s a lot of laughter and smiles amid the juggling act of feeding everyone dinner and making sure no one’s view of the dragons is blocked by an elbow.
When the movie ends, my girlfriend and her husband bundle their kid up and head home. My husband, Martin, and I tuck our girls into bed. He tidies up the living room, getting ready for his sweetie to arrive for their date night. I pack up my laptop and head out to a lover’s house. Not for a hot date. We’re getting together to work for a few hours. I’m behind on a deadline.
This is a snapshot of life in an open marriage: busy, happy, full.
At least the way we do it. There are as many ways to do a polyamorous relationship as there are people having them. You might have a quiet home life and a lover you see once a month who’s never met your kids, or two wives who live side-by-side with you in a big ranch house in the suburbs.
How Does That Work?
When people ask about my open marriage, the same questions come up over and over. They all boil down to this: Does that even work? How?
Yes, open marriages can work. My husband and I will celebrate 10 years together this fall, and we’re looking forward to many more. Our marriage has been open since day one, and I don’t see that ever changing.
Monogamy was never on the table for us. I’d been practicing polyamory since high school and was dating two other people when I met my husband. Martin had never tried non-monogamy, but he thought I was pretty special and wanted to give it a go. It’s certainly not what our parents wanted for us — I think my mom hoped it might be a phase I’d outgrow — but they’re supportive.
While there are infinite ways to structure an open marriage, my husband and I have one with a few lovers who are closely entwined with our lives. We celebrate birthdays together, and go on family trips. In the decade we’ve been together, I’ve had a handful of lovers, all of whom were close friends before they shared my bed. My partners are like extended family — we don’t live together, but we see each other often and our families have close relationships. People take all kinds of approaches to this. Some never introduce their lovers to their kids. Some live together in households where three or more adults are parenting together.
And apparently we’re not that unusual. Around 7 percent of straight couples have arranged some kind of consensual non-monogamy, according to a recent Slate article. Numbers are much higher for gay men and a little lower for lesbians. Still, there’s been little enough research done that these numbers remain fuzzy. What is clear in the research is that practicing polyamory doesn’t make or break most relationships. Couples in these relationships report levels of satisfaction with their marriages comparable to those living in monogamy-land. There’s no evidence that open marriages are more likely to break apart or be unhappy.
What About the Sex?
Martin and I are both bisexual. We each have sexual desires we can’t meet within our marriage. So what? Lots of bisexual people are monogamous, and I date men as well as women. For me, polyamory feels like as much of an orientation as being gay. I’ve always been prone to falling in love; I fall in love with lampposts. Knowing this, I’ve always structured my relationships around the freedom to fall in love and honor those desires. Having more than one partner simply feels right to me.
Many couples are conflicted about sex: how often to have it, where to have it, what kind to have. And once you get married, there’s the expectation that the other person will not, or should not, have sex with anyone else. But how realistic is that? As writer Dan Savage said in an interview with The New York Times last summer:
“Folks on the verge of making those monogamous commitments need to look at all those failed monogamous relationships out there (Schwarzenegger, Clinton, Vitter, whoever’s on the cover of US magazine this week) and have a conversation about what it’ll mean if one or the other partner should cheat. And agree, at the very least, to getting through it, to place a higher value on the relationship itself than on one component of it, sexual exclusivity.”
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Savage wrote about the double standard made obvious in Newt Gingrich’s spat with his ex-wife, Marianne. Gingrich was more comfortable admitting to a 20-year-long adulterous relationship with a staffer than giving any credence to his ex-wife’s claim that he requested an open marriage.
“Marianne Gingrich’s accusation shows that an honest open relationship is more scandalous than a dishonest adulterous relationship.”
Wanting sex, and a lot of it, is almost criminal. But getting our sexual needs met makes us happier. In For Better, her book on the science of marriage, New York Times health blogger Tara Parker-Pope writes:
“But for most couples, the more sex they have, the happier the marriage. Passion and sex are the distinguishing qualities of a romantic relationship. Chances are that physical attraction and sexual chemistry are a big part of what brought you together as a couple, and intimacy and sex remain essential ingredients in a good marriage.”
An open marriage simply takes that a step further, opening the door to getting sexual needs met with partners other than one’s spouse. Though polyamory won’t magically solve all your sex problems, it does open up possibilities monogamy doesn’t. If you and your spouse just want genuinely different things in bed, you can each get your needs met without tearing apart your otherwise good relationship.
That willingness to trust each other and try new things has been one of the foundations of our marriage. It’s helped us navigate the waters of an open relationship and deal with all the mundane stuff that comes with running a household together.
What About the Kids?
While there’s no research on the impact open marriages have on the children who grow up in them, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that they’re doing just fine. When I’ve written on this topic before, in my blog and for Salon, numerous people have written to tell me their parents were polyamorous, and they grew up happy and healthy. As Jenny Block writes in her book, Open: Love, Sex and Life In an Open Marriage:
“What’s normal to kids is whatever’s presented as normal. We want Emily to think it’s perfectly normal that lots of people love her and love us — in a purely platonic way, of course — and for people to hug and cuddle and be together. And so she does, because that is what she sees.”
Since my kids were born into this, they’ve never found it at all strange. In their world, it’s normal that grown-ups have sleepovers sometimes with their special friends. Mommy having a girlfriend is no more unusual to them than mommy having a book club. Martin and I have chosen to live our lives openly. We don’t hide anything from the kids but we also haven’t sat them down to explain the details of our adult lives to them. I don’t think they ever need to know what I do in the bedroom.
What they need to know, and what they do know, is that their parents love them, and that their dad and I are committed to our family. They also know that we have other people in our lives who love us, and that some of them are people we like to snuggle with and sleep next to.
At ages 4 and 7, our children have other concerns. They care about things like learning to read and riding their bikes, about getting to play with their friends, and whether or not they can have candy after dinner. As long as we’re happy, the details of our marriage are no more interesting to them than the details of our tax returns. I won’t be surprised if one day they have questions about polyamory. I hope when they do that we’ll be able to have a comfortable, open conversation about it the way we do with other things in our lives.
Why Be Open?
Open marriages are not that different from their monogamous counterparts. Martin and I sweat over bills and schedules just like anyone else does. We wash the dishes and take out the trash. We have awkward-but-sweet date nights where we split a bottle of wine after the kids have gone to bed and make out like sneaky teenagers on the living room couch.
In our community, we’re fortunate to have a wide network of friends for whom polyamory is perfectly normal. It’s typical for us to go to social events together with our other partners. At a friend’s brunch last weekend, I was sitting on the couch casually holding hands with my lover while Martin chatted with his girlfriend across the room. The kids bounced back and forth from my lap to his, playing a silly game. This is a pretty typical scene for us.
Of course, being out in daily life and talking about open marriage in print are two different things. I’m writing this essay because I think it’s important to provide images of open marriage that counter the stereotypes. We’re just a normal family … who happen to have more resources.
My girlfriend and I share the work and joy of parenting with each other as well as with our respective husbands. On a practical level, that means things like babysitting for each other on short notice, offering a shoulder to cry on when being a mom is hard, and sharing everything from hand-me-down clothes to road trips.
I have a lover who tells my kids unforgettable stories. My girlfriend will spend an entire afternoon making paper cranes with my older daughter. When my husband and I want to go on a date, we can swap for babysitting.
Of course I do these things with my friends, too. Having more loving adults in your life is great no matter what your relationships with those people are. Extended family, close-knit friends, and support networks, like playgroups, all serve vital roles in our lives.
So why is my girlfriend my lover and not my BFF?
Well, there’s the sex. There’s also that ineffable thing called love: I’m in love with this woman. Three years in, she still makes me break out in shivers and sudden bursts of poetry. I’m so lucky to share my life with her, with my husband and with my community of friends and lovers.
What Are the Challenges? (Don’t You Get Jealous?)
It’s the question one always hears, right after “Does it work?” and “What about the children?”
One thing we don’t struggle with is jealousy. For me, it’s just not a big deal. I know that when my husband is with his girlfriend, he’s safe and loved. He comes home happy, and he shares that joy with me. I’m completely secure in his love.
That’s not to say that in 10 years we’ve never hurt each other. We’ve miscommunicated about when one of us would be home. We’ve each gotten so caught up in the excitement of something new that we’ve neglected to talk through all the details. We’ve had bruised feelings over developing crushes.
New relationships in particular can cause big waves in existing ones. A lot of people in open relationships talk about New Relationship Energy, that dreamy period early in a relationship when all you can think about is your new lover. That can be a wonderful feeling, but it can also wreak havoc on your existing partners. It’s important to keep your head out of the clouds enough to keep tending the garden of your home and family, even in the midst of falling in love.
And it’s always a work in progress. The things that worked for us early on in our marriage aren’t the same as what sustains us today. We’ve gone through periods where we had a regular date night with each other, and periods where that’s seemed unnecessary. We’ve had times where we shared a lot of details about our other relationships, and times where we didn’t need to talk about it much.
For those who do struggle with jealousy, there are any number of coping mechanisms. People have little goodbye and greeting rituals with their partners when they go out on a date. They might always text to let their spouse know when they’re on their way home. Some people choose things that they hold sacred in a given relationship: for example, my husband and I never have dates with other people in our shared bed; we go out or have overnight guests in the guest room.
For many polyamorous people, jealousy is seen as a red flag that some other need isn’t being met: a sign that you’re not getting enough of your partner’s time and attention. On the other hand, sometimes jealousy is just an emotion that arises, the emotional equivalent of a headache. You don’t need to do anything about it, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. The answer might simply be to sit with it until it passes, and maybe ask your sweetie for some extra hugs.
The real challenges arise around scheduling and juggling priorities, like in most marriages. It’s always going to be somebody’s violin rehearsal on someone else’s birthday. When there are kids involved, it’s clear their needs come first. I’ve more than once cancelled a date because a school event or PTA meeting wound up scheduled for the same evening.
Keeping things flowing smoothly requires a lot of patience and communication. You also need to trust each other absolutely. If these things are rocky in your marriage, you may want to work on them before bringing anyone else into the mix.
It’s also a good idea to remember that you can’t try polyamory out the way you would a new hobby. When you begin a new relationship, you’re connecting with a real person who will be hurt if you drop them six months later like a pair of running shoes that didn’t quite fit. That doesn’t mean you should be afraid to open up your marriage. For me, and most of my friends, the joys far outweigh the challenges.
As I said before, poly families resemble monogamous families in a lot of ways. I just spent an hour talking to my girlfriend about a charter school we’re both considering sending our kids to. Last night, my husband’s girlfriend came over and sat with my second-grader doing homework while he did bath time with the little one. Our partners are folded into the fabric of our family life. Most of what we do is just normal family stuff.
For Valentine’s Day this year we’re making a silly dinner for the kids: all red foods and heart-shaped cookies. But it won’t be just my husband and me around the table; we’ve invited lovers and friends to join us with their kids. I anticipate some laughter, some good conversation and some delicious food — similar to what my monogamous friends are doing, just with more dinner guests.