It always seems that we hear about open relationships and they have some kind of mystery surrounding them. Describing how him and his wife, Ruby Dee, decided to give an open marriage a try, Ossie Davis said,
“It occurred to us, from observation and reasoning, that extramarital [intimacy]was not what really destroyed marriages, but rather the lies and deception that invariably accompanied it — that was the culprit. So we decided to give ourselves permission to sleep with other partners if we wished — as long as what we did was honest as well as private, and that neither of us exposed the family to scandal or disease. We had to be discreet and, if the word can be apt, honorable in our behavior, both to ourselves, to whomever else might be involved, and most of all, to the family. And for the most part, we were.”
After trying the open marriage, he said,
“But looking back, I’d say no matter what did or did not happen, we freed each other. And in doing that, we also freed ourselves…S*e*x is fine, but love is better. That’s the most important part of being free. In light of what we learned, is extramarital s*e*x something we recommend as a regular part of marriage? Not now…not anymore. Not since AIDS has entered the equation, and genital herpes, syphilis, and other veneral diseases…”
Sierra Black, a writer, activist and mother who describes herself as “someone who’s been practicing responsible, open, non-monogamy my whole adult life” admits that they are some set-back to open relationships.
There are plenty of misconceptions about what open relationships are like, and too few voices talking about how great it is to send your husband off to his date night and have the house to yourself for a few hours. I love talking about the good parts.
It’s not all good, though. I’m going to take a moment to explore some of the hard parts.
1. Needing a Teleporter – It’s always somebody’s birthday at the same time as someone else’s violin recital. Or worse, somebody’s broken heart needs soothing at the same moment someone else has a car break down and needs a rescue. I can’t be in two places at once, try as I might, and I often feel torn between competing sets of needs. This might seem obvious, but it is hands down consistently my least-favorite thing about being poly. I want to be every good thing in my loved ones’ lives, and the tug-of-war over my priorities just rubs in the fact that I’m simply human, with painful limitations on what I can offer even to the people I love most.
2. Spillover – When things are good in my life, they tend to be good all over. And similarly, when they’re bad they are horrid, as the saying goes. Relationship stress tends to ripple out and affect other relationships. One partner has a jealous fit because I’m spending too much time with another, who in turn gets upset because I’m suddenly distant and stressed out in response, and the difficulty with those two causes me to be distracted and less available to a third, who then feels alienated by my lack of attention. Just for example.
3. Surprise! Big Feelings – Jealousy is the one that gets the most attention, but surprise feelings can take all kinds of shapes: anger, fear, sadness, envy, inadequacy. Being in an open relationship means confronting the limits of your relationships, and it can be all too easy to start comparing yourself to someone else in your lover’s life. You might feel fine about some aspect of your partner’s relationship with their other lover, and then, boom, you’re emotionally overwhelmed.