MY FIRST YEAR OF OPEN MARRIAGE
OPENING UP A MARRIAGE CAN BE THRILLING, LIBERATING AND VERY COMPLICATED. KRISTI COULTER EXPLAINS WHAT IT’S LIKE WHEN YOU TELL YOUR HUSBAND THAT YOU WANT MORE – THEN ACT ON IT
What happens when, after two decades, you tell your partner you want to start seeing other people? One writer reveals what it’s really like to open up your relationship
The first time was mostly to see if I could go through with it. The second was to make sure the first time hadn’t been a fluke. But by the third time I had sex with a man who was not my husband, it felt like I’d opened the door to a whole new world. John and I had been happily married for two decades when we made our first tentative forays into non-monogamy. ‘Happily married’ sometimes just means an absence of overt strife. But we were happy for real, as companions and lovers. The impetus for our decision was an unusual one: my sobriety. I’d quit drinking three years earlier and awakened to all the colour and feeling that my decade of alcohol abuse had muted. Since secondary school, most of my sex life had been conducted under the influence, and in sobriety I was delighted to discover how much more
“We decided to KEEP IT SIMPLE: Don’t ask. Don’t tell. DON’T LIE”
fun sex was with, you know, a non-depressed nervous system. During my drinking years, I’d had a few tipsy kisses but nothing more; I knew I couldn’t afford to add adultery to a life that was already on the brink of chaos. Now, clear-headed and bright-eyed, I started to wonder what it might be like to have wide-awake sex with people other than my husband. At first I was ashamed of that urge. Of course I’d been attracted to other men before, but this felt like more than idle attraction. If attraction was like admiring a lion in the zoo, what I wanted was to go on safari without my husband. For months, I told myself I was just trying to replace the dopamine I wasn’t getting from alcohol any more, or looking to ruin my life in a whole new way. Fortunately, as I learned to have compassion for the addict in me who had missed out on so much, I stopped judging myself so harshly for wanting to have sexual adventures with other men. Around that time, a close friendship with a co-worker began to veer toward romance and I noticed that my pull towards the other man felt like a welcome addition to my life, not a substitution. And that’s when I toyed with the idea of, well, cheating. Addicts are expert liars, and just because I’d quit the booze didn’t mean I’d lost all my skills. But sobriety had also taught me to value and prioritise honesty; I’d learned that life was simpler and more rewarding when I bothered to be truthful. In particular, my marriage had benefited from my new inclination to share my actual thoughts and feelings with John, versus what I thought he’d want to hear. So, one bright afternoon, I took a deep breath and told him about the burgeoning friendship and the notions playing out in my head. ‘This might sound crazy,’ I said. ‘But I’m starting to think I have the capacity to have feelings for more than one person at a time, and that maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t depend on you to meet all my needs in any other area of our lives. Why this one?’ My hands trembled as I spoke, acutely aware that I was questioning one of the foundations of our marriage, not to mention cultural norms.
We hadn’t had a serious talk about monogamy in decades, since the first let’s-go-steady conversation in our twenties. It was just How Things Worked. Now, John looked pensive but not shocked, and it turned out he didn’t think I sounded crazy. ‘I can’t give you that kind of variety or newness,’ he said. ‘But does that mean you should go without? Maybe not.’ Though John is the most open-minded man I know, hearing this still astonished me. I’d assumed he would react angrily, not with understanding and empathy. It helped that our city, Seattle, is on the freer end of the relationship spectrum. We knew happy long-term couples who had some degree of sexual or romantic freedom in their relationships, from occasional swinging to full-time life as a ‘throuple’. What John and I gravitated toward wasn’t anything that formal. We weren’t looking for a lifestyle, just an understanding that the occasional outside fling wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Couples adopt varying rules for such arrangements: out-of-town liaisons only, for instance, or no seeing the same person more than twice. We decided to keep it simple to start, with a single principle: Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, but also Don’t Lie. We would grant each other privacy. But if John asked point-blank if I was seeing someone else (or vice versa), I’d tell him the truth. Permission to wander didn’t make me more inclined to jump into bed with just anyone; if anything, the privilege raised my standards. I found myself casually sizing up attractive colleagues, or the occasional stranger in a café, then just as easily thinking, No, not him and moving on with my day. Then, a cute writer I’d known socially for years approached me about collaborating on a series of poems. It wasn’t long before both our project and our in-person meetings turned flirtatious, and I began to get ideas. He’d long described his own marriage as open, so as a bonus I figured I could learn the ropes from him. After settling the ‘Can I even do this?’ question, I answered the next one on my mind: yes, I could compartmentalise an extramarital relationship. Our relationship was warm and affectionate, but not particularly romantic. The sex was fun, but less adventurous than the kind I had at home, which reminded me anew that my husband was great in bed. I liked discovering a new person, and seeing myself through new eyes. And, after two decades with one man, the subtly different shapes my body made with another man’s body were novel and fascinating. I wasn’t consumed by thoughts of my lover at home, and rarely felt guilty about those stolen hours. We usually met in the afternoons, when John assumed I was at work, so I never had to make up a cover story – just shower at the hotel, get home around 6pm, and go about my evening as normal. Sometimes I even forgot I’d spent the afternoon in bed versus a conference room. As I’d hoped, the relationship was an enhancement to my existing life, not a doorway to a new one. Still, I valued it and, having known my lover for years, I trusted
“The sex was FUN, BUT LESS ADVENTUROUS than I had at HOME”
him. So, six months in, I was horrified to learn from his wife that he’d been lying about his so-called freedom to see other people. She threatened to tell John, forcing me to beat her to it despite our Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell agreement. I confessed, with no real idea of how he’d react now that the hypothetical was actual. But he was calm and unsurprised. ‘You mean two writers collaborating on sexy poems ended up in bed?’ he deadpanned. ‘Well, there’s a first.’ John hadn’t noticed any energy leak from our marriage, and he wasn’t jealous of the time I’d spent with the other guy, just furious that I’d been lied to. Part of me thought I should be upset at John’s lack of jealousy, but the truth is I was relieved. ‘We agreed to rules, and you followed them,’ he said. ‘You never seemed absent, and you haven’t broken my trust.’ In her messages to me, my lover’s wife had repeatedly called him ‘my man’. He can be your man now, she’d said, and though I knew she was reacting from betrayal and pain, the implication that we were battling for ownership of a person still bothered me. By comparison, John’s words and demeanour told me he still felt secure about our bond and that he saw me as a free person, not just an extension of himself. Still, the affair and its aftermath shook us. In the weeks following, we re-examined our arrangement in the new knowledge that even if we were above board, we could still get entangled in other people’s dramas. And a funny thing happened through those difficult talks: we got even closer, and more comfortable with our openness, not less. Given the tumult it had caused, I thought John might demand we end the experiment and was fully prepared to agree in the interest of putting our marriage first. But to my surprise, he argued for keeping it – and not because he had side action going on. He said he hadn’t slept with anyone else, and didn’t have a particular urge to, though he liked knowing it was an option. But he had his own interests that I didn’t share, like sleeping in tents and surfing in icy waters. He’d begun to see our respective side trips as parallel parts of a marital pattern in which sometimes we tightly overlapped, and sometimes we operated as individuals. If the overlap shrank, he said, we’d need to re-evaluate. But so far, transparency and introspection had only made for a more intimate partnership.
Still, I berated myself for months for being a grown, supposedly sophisticated woman who’d been played for a fool and become an accessory to harm. A longtime polyamorous friend told me some women insisted on talking to a man’s primary partner first, just to be sure. ‘That sounds
“SOME WOMEN were describing me as SELFISH, GREEDY... a seductress”
awkward,’ I said, imagining the world’s most stilted coffee date. ‘More awkward than what this guy put you through?’ she asked.
My biggest learning from that first, disastrous relationship was that I was a human being, not a character in a French film. I’d thought I could swan glamorously in and out of hotel rooms, essentially untouched and unchanged by the men I met there. That delusion died, replaced by an awareness that my ability to separate sex from love didn’t mean I could leave my heart at home entirely. I’d be smarter next time, choose a lover who actually deserved me. But I would still be vulnerable to hurt, and maybe that was as it should be. Sobriety had given me my emotions back. I should use them. It’s been a long time since John and I opened our marriage. Given the explosive way it ended, for ages I swore my first liaison would also be my last, which made John laugh. ‘Baby, it’s not in your nature to be done with love,’ he said. He said that one day someone of real substance would appear my life and I’d remember. Not a chance, I responded, and I meant it. I also saw how extraordinary John was to hold the possibility open for me even when I couldn’t see it for myself. He’s more naturally monogamous than I am, and I used to worry that he was secretly unhappy about my need for extra leeway. But gradually I’ve accepted that when John says he’s never felt more secure, he means it. Knowing we can talk about anything and honouring our individuality as well as our couplehood has made us feel solid to a whole new degree. Not that the outside world wants to believe it. Few people react mildly to the concept of open marriage. Our closest mutual friends reacted with equanimity, having already seen our marriage evolve over the years to meet the challenges of enveloping careers and, more recently, my addiction and recovery. A few female friends said they’d love a similar arrangement, but knew their husbands would never agree to it (to which I responded that I hadn’t thought mine would go for it either, until I asked). But through the grapevine – John and I didn’t advertise our status, but word gets out – I heard that some women I knew more casually were describing me as selfish, greedy, even a compulsive seductress. Knowing the fairly staid reality of my own life, at first I was bewildered to be judged in such dramatic terms. But then, good wives (monogamous, selfless) and bad wives (dishonest, promiscuous) are recognisable cultural types. There is no catch-all word for wives like me, no visible role models. In the absence of those signifiers, I’ve found that people tend to lump any wife who is not flawlessly monogamous into the ‘bad’ category, as though sleeping with more than one man is pretty much sleeping with all of them. Similarly, John was frustrated by well-meaning male friends who refused, no matter what he said, to believe he could be happy. ‘It’s like they need for me to be miserable,’ he says. When I got sober, acquaintances sometimes perceived it as a judgement of their own drinking, though I was focused only on myself. Vegans sometimes make me feel defensive without saying a word. Perhaps we’re all prone to mistake individual choices as unsolicited prescriptions for our own lives. But John and I had chosen only for ourselves. We alone assumed the risk. And by the end of that first year, it didn’t matter to us what others said. We felt more married than ever.