More and more, the subject of open marriages has been popping up in conversation. I don’t mean group marriage or a Sister Wives man-plus-harem situation—I mean people having sex with someone besides their spouse... and that spouse being okay with it. Of course this has been going on for a long time (swingers, “key parties,” etc.), but nowadays we’ve been hearing a lot more about it.
I’ll admit to having a few assumptions about people who engage in open relationships: Perhaps they married young—before having a chance to enjoy a variety of sexual partners. Maybe they’d been monogamous for a long time and wanted to broaden their horizons. Perhaps they came to the conclusion that having kids was the death knell for their sex lives and adding partners was the obvious solution. Or perhaps their marriages were on the rocks and opening things up was the last-ditch Hail Mary pass that could salvage their crumbling relationship.
But were any of these hunches correct?
Out of curiosity (and as a trained biologist with a fairly solid foundation in statistical analysis), I decided to collect data on the subject—which is to say I created a survey and shared it on social media. First, I was stupefied to receive a whopping 65 responses within five hours. However, these posed more questions than they answered, and I began to realize this is a complicated, intricate subject that can’t be neatly explained with a simple online survey. As it turned out, none of my hypotheses were true. Or rather, none of them were statistically significant.
The length of the relationship and a person’s age when they got married were inconsequential to the decision to open the marriage. For one thing, a third of all respondents already had an open relationship with their partner before they got hitched; another third were married fewer than eight years (the average length of marriages that end in divorce) before they opened things up.
Questions about overall satisfaction or improvement in the relationship were the ones most often skipped, with a third of respondents passing on those. Of those who did respond, the vast majority—about 92 percent—felt their relationship had been improved by opening things up. Unsurprisingly, if opening the marriage had been their spouse’s idea rather than their own, the numbers dropped by about 10 percent... but by and large, people were happier when they opened the playing field. Only about half of respondents felt they and their partners were equally satisfied with the outcome. For example, a few reported they had gone along with it to make their partner happy, but were ultimately hurt by the experience, and either returned to monogamy, or ended the marriage altogether. But in the long run, most people reported that their relationships benefited from the additional communication, even if turned out that swinging wasn’t for them.
Some reasons for opening a marriage are obvious, and many boil down to partners having differing sexual needs—either because of disparate libidos, tastes, or sexual preferences/orientations (one respondent reported she’s bisexual and her husband doesn’t mind if she dates and sleeps with women).
“For me, polyamory feels like as much of an orientation as being gay,” reports writer Sierra Black in a piece for Babble. She and her husband are both bisexual, and have had an open relationship from the beginning.
In many cases, people with open marriages never actually take their spouse up on the offer to see other people. (Honestly, with work, kid duties, home life, and a spouse, who has the time?) However, they enjoy knowing the option is on the table should the desire and opportunity arise.
“How Does That Work?”
On a related note, the most common question the monogamous ask the non-monogamous is “how does that work?” It’s a valid question, considering the aforementioned busy, time-sucking barriers that plague every parent’s life. Some people have non-monogamous partners that act as extended family, enabling childcare duties to be shared among different adults. For some, intimacy occurs between family friends and their spouses, harkening back to old-fashioned spouse-swapping. The couples get together for euchre and maybe two of them pair off to go out for the evening.
Everything else appears to come down to details; couples often report having ground rules, like checking in about overnight dates, whether or not dates are welcome at home, where sex takes place, etc. One challenge is gaining acceptance among friends and family, but this appears to be more common in rural and conservative areas than in urban environments like Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco. Online support groups and message boards ease the transition for some and build the sense of community.
“But... but... what about the children?”
That’s the second most common question poly folks are asked. With the growing prevalence and social acceptance of blended families, it’s not uncommon for children to grow up with multiple sets of parents; seeing kids with families that include adults other than their biological parents is not unusual, and so kids with non-monogamous parents are rarely outed. And growing up in open families doesn’t seem to have any of the negative impacts one might assume; studies from as early as the 1970s show that kids from households with multiple adults tend to have better self esteem, communication skills, and academic performance.
To gain a bit of perspective, I talked to my friend, “Esmeralda” (name obviously changed to respect her partners’ privacy) about her experiences with polyamory. Unlike most poly families, Esmeralda has had the unique circumstance of having non-monogamous parents in addition to having an open marriage of her own. But more than having influenced her preference for sexual inclusivity, her parents instilled qualities that have carried on into relationships with all of her partners.
“I was raised in a very value-centric household—love and mutual support were primary,” she said, adding that she and her husband (who began dating in college) have always maintained an openness. “We were explicit in writing our marriage vows that we would commit to mutual support—not sexual or romantic fidelity.”
Like other poly parents (or most parents, for that matter), Esmeralda finds time and space management to be among her biggest challenges. This is especially true during the exciting beginnings of new relationships and during break-ups. Both situations can turn into a huge emotional sinkhole, running the risk of drawing too much energy away from her primary commitments—Esmeralda’s husband and kids.
Her kids, by the way, are fabulous, from what I’ve witnessed. Consistent with what studies of kids with poly parents have shown, they’re smart, imaginative, and kind, as well as being very articulate young people. With so many caring grown-ups around, it’s no surprise. Esmeralda says she and her husband don’t try to hide their lovers from their kids, and they talk to their children about everything—but they also exercise common sense regarding how much information to give them when they’re still so young.
“The kids are only starting to [understand the idea] there are different kinds of 'friends,’” Esmeralda said, “but they know and hang out with everyone I date. I feel the crucial thing is to not let it be a shameful thing, or a secret that they need to keep. So we’re open about it to the extent that makes sense.”
In her book, The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families (and in her Psychology Today blog of the same name), polyamory expert Elisabeth Sheff presents the results of her fifteen-year longitudinal study of poly couples with kids, ranging in age from toddler to teens. Of the kids she interviewed (22 between the ages of five and 17), most were completely unvexed by their family arrangement, and the kids’ friends could not have cared less either. The secret to these families’ success was the same as Esmeralda’s: engaging in direct and honest communication with each other and their children.
Of course, many kids with poly parents are just like us when it comes to hearing about the sex lives of parents: They put their fingers in their ears and go “LALALALALALA.”