It was one of those cool California nights. We drove, giddy like little kids with a big secret. He parked the car on the side of a quiet street. We piled quickly into the back seat of his SUV and ferociously made out with each other. It was midnight on a weeknight, and it was awesome. It continued to be awesome, that is, until my husband called my phone, worried about where I was.
This would have been a shocking discovery for my husband Steve — that is, if it wasn’t for the fact that we were knee-deep in a crazy experiment, and there was no turning back now.
A few weeks prior, Steve and I were celebrating our 11-year anniversary as a couple with a short vacation. We were chatting together when, out of nowhere, I proclaimed, “Hey honey, what would you think if we opened up our marriage for a month?”
We were used to saying the craziest possible things to each other. After all, my hubby and I were college sweethearts — joined at the hip for over a decade and essentially grew into adulthood together. We had joked a bunch of times about spicing up our romantic life, but never proposed a tangible idea and meant it.
A bit taken aback, Steve asked why I wanted to do this now. I naively sputtered out, “We have so much love to share!” and “this will bring us closer together, ya know?” What I didn’t include in my answer was the deep (I mean very deep) down reasons I wanted a big change for us. Reasons I didn’t even know were inside of me at the time.
For starters, a cross-country move to California had completely opened my world to an ever-growing social circle in this new community. As it grew, I found myself more confident, more curious about the people around me, and more excited to connect with as many of them as possible. Then our sex life slowly dwindled down from a weekly thing to a “hey, remember when we had that quickie last month?” kind of thing. I also had a quiet yearning for a family that I knew in my gut Steve was just not ready to start. Add to all of this a huge dollop of codependence with the only man I’ve ever been with and you have all the makings of an open-marriage proposal.
Steve laughed as I pitched the reasons this experiment would work. I could see I was winning him over, especially with the fun, reciprocal quality of the whole thing. If I get to enjoy the benefits of other people, he would too. About 99 percent onboard, he agreed to give it a shot.
We had four rules:
- Be honest about everyone you meet.
- No actual sex (heavy petting is acceptable).
- He and I must go on regular dates, too.
- Check in after a month and stop, if needed.
One month stretched into two.
And then three.
There was plenty of heavy petting and hand holding with a long-time friend of mine. There were mounting feelings toward my friend that shook me up inside. There were times when we’d laugh together and he’d began filling a small hole in my heart — a hole I had never noticed was there before. There was my friend revealing he didn’t feel the same about me, and maybe it would be smarter to just be friends. And then, came the grief and guilt as I sat with the feelings of wishing he had wanted to break all of the rules with me.
There was watching Steve, the man I loved for over a decade, struggle to get his own part of the deal started and how lonely that seemed while I was high-flying for a while. Then the day came when he told me he had kissed someone else for the first time. All loneliness left Steve’s voice as he found himself surprisingly delighted by this new development. I pretended to be excited for him, but inside my heart broke a teeny tiny bit.
There was a newness with other people and a growing newness in myself that I was beginning to love more than I was ever willing to admit to Steve. There was a tension in not completely knowing how to still be a couple amidst all this craziness. It was clear that Steve, while hesitant to share me in this way at first, was beginning to love the openness of others. As the months rolled on, I wasn’t so sure I was still loving it.
There was both of us eventually breaking rule #2. And then came the conversation where we decided to temporarily separate.
Less than a year later, Steve and I divorced.
You know that story about the frog that dies in a slowly boiling pot of water because he doesn’t realize it’s going to heat him to death until the water is actually boiling? Well, the delicate and untended to problems of my marriage, barely noticeable on the surface, had been boiled by our experiment. And by the time we realized there were even problems to contend with, it was too late to do anything about it.
My open marriage, my deep down desire to crack my relationship wide open, led it to completely break down. And it really, really sucked.
But, you guys, here’s the thing. That break down? It was the best thing to ever happen to me. It led me to experience much needed heartbreak and healing. To stand on my own two feet and live on my own terms. To meet, have a beautiful baby with, and re-marry an amazing man. To fall in love with my awesome stepdaughter. It led me to choose marriage again, and happily put loving boundaries around it this time. Boundaries that include making this new marriage a sacred priority above everything else, bravely talking through anything that feels conflicting for us, and reminding each other in ways every day that we are in it for the long haul.
I don’t think I’d ever attempt my experiment again. And my now husband, while incredibly supportive, agrees with my sentiment. It just feels too precarious to try anything other than choosing each other this go around, which I am all too happy to do. But I will say this: opening up my first marriage carved me into a more authentic and empathetic partner in my next one. And that’s enough to be okay with having failed at it.More On