When I met Elizabeth and Daniel, Elizabeth had already received Daniel’s permission to keep seeing Joseph; Daniel was contemplating how he might, in turn, meet someone. Their marriage had already strained to accommodate another person, someone whom Elizabeth would meet while Daniel was at work, whom she texted in the car while her husband drove. They had to consider the possibility that the marriage’s resiliency might not withstand the challenges of adding another romance, another person.
But Daniel said he was past the point of fear. “Basically you could say maybe we loved each other before all this — but maybe we were just asleep. And maybe being asleep is more dangerous and worse to you as a person than what’s going on right now. I want to be married, and I don’t want anything to happen to us. But I have no idea what would happen either way. Would you rather be asleep and have things fall apart? Or rather be alive and have things fall apart?”
I met Elizabeth and Daniel through Tammy Nelson, a sex and couples therapist in New Haven and an old friend of theirs. She was not officially their therapist, although she had a particular interest in open relationships. In 2010, she wrote an article in Psychotherapy Networker, a professional publication, about the frequency with which she was encountering married couples whose ideas about fidelity were more lax than those she encountered at the outset of her career. She thought of the phenomenon as “the new monogamy,” which became the title of a book she published in 2012. “The new monogamy is, baldly speaking, the recognition that, for an increasing number of couples, marital attachment involves a more fluid idea of connection to the primary partner than is true of the ‘old monogamy,’ ” she wrote in the article. “Within the new notion of monogamy, each partner assumes that the other is, and will remain, the main attachment, but that outside attachments of one kind or another are allowed — as long as they don’t threaten the primary connection.”
The spectrum of those attachments included one-night stands and ongoing relationships; as she understood it, honesty and transparency, rather than fidelity, were the guiding principles underlying the healthiest of these kinds of marriages. The couples did not perceive their desire to see other people as a symptom of dysfunction but rather as a fairly typical human need that they thought they were up to the challenge of navigating.
Terms have long existed for arrangements similar to those she was seeing — they could fall under the category of polyamory, which involves more than one loving relationship, or the more all-encompassing term, consensual nonmonogamy, which also includes more casual sex outside of marriage or a relationship. (The use of each term implies full knowledge of all parties.) But most of the couples she was seeing did not feel the need to name what they were doing at all. “Most people don’t like the word ‘polyamorous,’ ” Nelson told me. “It’s not easy to say; it sounds a little French, with all respect to the French.”
If pressed to find language, the couples might have said they were in open marriages, a phrase first popularized in 1972, with the publication of “Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples,” by Nena and George O’Neill. The book, which focused mostly on emotional openness, became a best seller, most likely because of a concept it introduced in three pages toward the end. “We are not recommending outside sex,” the authors wrote, “but we are not saying that it should be avoided, either.”
The new monogamy is clearly not entirely new, although it may be an updated version of the old new monogamy, practiced by the ’70s-era suburban spouse-swappers depicted in Gay Talese’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” published in 1980. The married couples Talese portrays are looking for meaning through sexual freedom, wreaking havoc in the wake of their quests. The book was published just as AIDS and Reagan-era conservatism were taking hold, and the next time open relationships would surface in a landmark book was in 1997, with “The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities,” written by a marriage and family therapist, Dossie Easton, and her co-author, Janet W. Hardy. Its title announced that the authors endorsed free love but believed it could be practiced with responsible care.
In recent years, probably no one has made the idea of open marriage more accessible than Dan Savage, who coined the word “monogamish” to describe his own relationship status. Savage, an internationally syndicated, podcast-hosting and often-quoted voice on sexual ethics, is gay, married, a father and nonmonogamous. He has used his vast reach to defend consensual nonmonogamy, which Savage says is widely accepted in the male gay community as a choice that can foster a relationship’s longevity, provided all parties involved behave ethically. Some gay men believe that it is easier for them to enter those relationships than heterosexuals, because gay men have had no pre-existing model imposed on them. “I find it more impressive when straight couples are open,” said Logan Ford, 29, who is married and lives in New York. “Gay couples know from the beginning they have to create their own thing.”
Technology also imports nonmonogamy into mainstream heterosexual dating life, making the concept more visible and transparent. On the popular dating site OkCupid, couples seeking other partners can link their profiles; users can filter their searches for people who label themselves “nonmonogamous.” The site, an intimate tool in the romantic lives of its users, renders no judgment, and therefore normalizes, institutionally, a practice few people had neutral language for in the past. Among 40-to-50-year-olds who identify themselves as nonmonogamous on OkCupid, 16 percent also announce that they are married, according to the site.
Divorce, or not marrying in the first place, might seem like a more logical response to a desire for openness. But even as marriage rates have declined in this country, the institution has retained a seductive status for Americans. In his 2010 book, “The Marriage-Go-Round,” Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, argues that Americans, who are more religious than their counterparts in other wealthy, developed nations, are also more infatuated with marriage. And yet the tradition is nonetheless at odds, he argues, with the country’s emphasis on individualism, a tension that leads to high rates of divorce but also to remarriage, with worrisome outcomes for finances and children. Openness in a marriage, for better or for worse, would seem a natural outgrowth of those conflicting cultural values, especially since same-sex marriage, open adoptions, single-parent homes, and ideas about gender fluidity have already redefined what constitutes a family. Two-thirds of Americans feel that “a growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in” is “a good thing” or “makes no difference,” according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center.
And yet open marriages — and to a lesser degree open but nonmarital committed relationships — are still considered so taboo that many of the people I interviewed over the last year resisted giving their names, for fear of social disapprobation and of jeopardizing their jobs. It is no surprise that most conservatives would perceive the concept as a degradation of marriage, of a key foundation of society. But even among progressives I talked to, the subject typically provoked a curled lip or a slack jaw. The thought bubble, or expressed thought: How? How could any married person be comfortable with, or encouraging of, a spouse’s extramarital sex? The subject seemed offensive to many at some primal level, or at least ridiculously self-indulgent, as if those involved — working, married people, people with children — were indecently preoccupied with sexual adventure instead of channeling their energies toward, say, their children, or composting.
Married for 14 years, I felt that same visceral resistance, an emotion so strong it made me curious to understand how others were wholly free of it, or managed to move past it. The divide between those who practiced open relationships and those who found the idea repugnant seemed inexplicably vast, given that members of those two groups often overlap in the same relatively privileged demographic (anyone holding down three jobs to keep a family together is not likely to spend excess emotional energy negotiating and acting on a nonmonogamy agreement). The more I spoke to people in open relationships, the more I wanted to know how they crossed a line into territory that seemed so thorny to their peers. I interviewed more than 50 members of open marriages, some of them a dozen or more times. I was drawn to the couples who were just starting out: What would the following months bring, what would they learn about themselves? I knew I wanted to follow the arc of their marriages, but I underestimated what, in so doing, I might learn about my own.
In mid-March, about two weeks after Elizabeth and Daniel first agreed to think of their marriage as open, they drove toward a bar, where Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Joseph, was waiting for them. Tammy Nelson, their therapist friend, had long been telling Daniel he should meet the man Elizabeth was seeing. “Once you meet him, then you can decide how you feel,” she said. “Because right now, it’s just a story you’re telling yourself.” He was ready, and at Elizabeth’s urging, Joseph, too, had reluctantly agreed to meet. Riding in the car, Elizabeth fielded nervous texts from Joseph, who arrived before them. “I’m going home,” he texted her. “I don’t think I can do this.”
Something about Joseph’s anxiety had a calming effect on Daniel. When Elizabeth and Daniel arrived at the bar, the men shook hands. Daniel felt the need to reassure him. “It’s O.K.,” Daniel told him. “We’re good.” He even felt a pang of empathy. Joseph was in a marriage that brought him little joy, but he was committed to it and had not told his wife about the relationship with Elizabeth, certain she wouldn’t accept it.
Daniel, who is tall and dark, has mass to him, and strong features; Joseph has blue eyes and is more compact, a former high-school athlete who still, like Elizabeth, works out with discipline. Daniel’s ideal day entails relaxing around the house or hearing live music; Joseph relishes yardwork and is fastidious about his car. Daniel is a processor, a philosopher, a talker; Joseph is, as Elizabeth often says, “a simple guy.”
Daniel assessed his wife’s boyfriend and decided with a defensive dismissiveness that he was “not a threat.” The conversation stayed light, the encounter ended without incident and then Daniel and Elizabeth went home and had sex: Reclamation sex, as it is sometimes called among the polyamorous.
Daniel had started to think of episodes like this one as part of a new marital order he called Bizarro World. Bizarro World, Scene 1: His wife taking photographs of him to post on his OkCupid profile. Scene 2: He reaches under his pillow on a night when his wife is with her boyfriend and finds a note she has left, knowing his hand would slide precisely there. He opens it up to see a picture of a heart, with their names written inside, a plus sign between them. Scene 3: One night, close to bedtime, Daniel and Elizabeth explain the concept of polyamory to their two teenage children and tell them that although their mother is seeing someone, the marriage is still strong. Their son, who is 17, sounds almost proud of them for doing something so alternative. Their daughter, who is 15, takes it in more quietly, uncomfortably. She is just relieved, she tells them, that they are not fighting anymore.
And it was true: They were not fighting anymore, not the way they had been in the first months of Elizabeth’s relationship. If anything, they were fighting harder for their own relationship, making more of an effort. Daniel finally started accompanying Elizabeth on those hikes; Elizabeth stopped putting up a fight when Daniel wanted to buy pricey concert tickets for them.
And yet Daniel still felt conflicted about how the arrangement had started and all that it asked of him. In June, he sat down and made a document he called Bizarro World Benefits and Drawbacks. Under Drawbacks, the list he wrote, as if addressing Elizabeth, included: “You get distracted by your other relationship — emails, texts, etc. — and that can pull you from our moments. There is a third person in our relationship who is pervasively there and not there. The theory of nonmonogamy is easier than the practice.”
Under Benefits, he wrote: “We are introspective about our relationship to make sure it stays solid. We are playing in the sexual energy often, and it feels really good. We are having a lot more fun together.”
Elizabeth encouraged Daniel to invest more effort in meeting someone. She wanted the marriage to feel balanced, and she also wanted him to experience what she was feeling — that new relationship energy (for polyamorists, that is another technical term, frequently abbreviated as N.R.E.).
Daniel took care creating his profile on OkCupid. (Asked to answer “What I’m doing with my life,” he wrote, “Laughing at everything, including myself.”) But he did not live in the kind of metropolitan area with a thriving polyamorous scene, and he did not find many women eager to date a married man. So it was several months after he posted his profile that Daniel went on a date with a woman he met on the site, someone who was also in an open marriage. They were still making awkward conversation at a bar when a woman sitting nearby asked how long they had been together. Daniel and his date exchanged glances; Daniel shrugged, as if to say: “Go ahead.” “He’s married to someone else,” his date said. “I’m married to someone else. We’re on our first date.” That broke the ice. Drinks flowed, and around midnight, Daniel found himself in a Ford Explorer, kissing a woman who was not his wife for the first time in 25 years.
The option for more was obvious, but Daniel thanked his date for a lovely evening, said he’d be in touch and went home, feeling uncomfortable with both what had happened and what had not. It took a few days before he landed on the right metaphor for his experience. “You know that circus elephant who has the chain around its leg when it’s an infant, and it grows up and they take the chain off, but the elephant doesn’t know life without it — so it still doesn’t go anywhere anyway?” he said. “I noticed that the chain isn’t there, but I really don’t know what to do with that.”
Mixed in with the fear of vulnerability that all dating entails was a sense of dread. He found it hard to believe that Elizabeth would not be jealous, and he worried, if she was, who would suffer more for it.
Monogamy is an approach to relationships built on one bright-line rule: no sex with anyone else. Open relationships may sound like the more unfettered choice, but the first thing nonmonogamous couples often do is draw up a list of guidelines: rules about protection, about the number of days a week set aside for dates, about how much information to share. Some spouses do not want to know any details about the other spouse’s extramarital sex, while for others, those stories are a thrilling side benefit of the arrangement.
These rules are often designed to manage jealousy. Most monogamous couples labor to avoid that emotion at all costs; but for the philosophically polyamorous, jealousy presents an opportunity to examine the insecurities that opening a relationships lays bare. Jealousy is not a primal impulse to be trusted because it feels so powerful; it is an emotion worth investigating.
Popular evolutionary psychology holds that jealousy is innate, a biological imperative that evolved to guarantee watchful, possessive males some certainty of their offspring’s paternity. Polyamorists would argue, as would others, that humans are capable of overriding that system with rational discourse. But many of them reject that version of evolutionary biology altogether, citing the work of Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, co-authors of “Sex at Dawn.” The book, which received mixed reviews from academics when it was published in 2011, argues that prehistoric humans lived communally, with a sharing, sexually promiscuous zeal most often seen in our primate relatives bonobos. Jealousy may be part of human nature, but social constructs amplify its power, with devastating costs.
In her book, “What Love Is,” published this year, Carrie Jenkins, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia who is married and has a longstanding boyfriend, questions the likelihood that humans, en masse, were built for any one mode of child rearing or sexual partnering, including, as she puts it, the “hippie commune” model that Ryan envisions. “We are definitely equipped with biological mechanisms that support collaboration and bonding and communication, and those have evolved to help us succeed in the difficult task of raising infants,” she said. “And anything that can threaten those bonds, that’s real pain, that’s real brain chemistry involved. But we are a diverse and adaptive species, so what we should predict is a suite of biological mechanisms that would allow diverse approaches to that challenge of raising children. Flexibility is what is distinctive about us as humans.”
Susan Wenzel, a therapist in Winnipeg, Canada, whom I met through Tammy Nelson, did not open up her relationship with the man she was living with because she subscribed to any evolutionary theory. She did so because he had told her, gently, even fearfully, that he was concerned about the future of their relationship. He had been in love before, he explained, but those relationships had always ended with him growing restless, intrigued by another woman. Susan understood what he was seeking; she had patients she’d counseled while they opened their marriages. She felt equipped to manage the arrangement, and she and her boyfriend cautiously agreed that they could see other people, so long as those relationships remained casual. Susan did not feel it detracted from the strength of their relationship when she started seeing someone who is, like her, an immigrant from Kenya. But when that faded and her live-in boyfriend started dating someone, she found that jealousy hijacked the relationship. At the peak of one fury, she grabbed his phone and sent the girlfriend a text: “Get your own boyfriend.”
“I was out of control,” she said. “And I didn’t like that. I wanted to understand my emotions.” She questioned her own volatility more than her boyfriend’s request, which seemed, to her, rational and honest. She sought therapy with Nelson, working by Skype to identify the source of her own jealousy. It was not the sex her boyfriend was having, she realized, that troubled her; it was the sense of scarcity — that she would not have enough of his time. Once that became evident, she was able to tell her boyfriend she needed to feel like a priority. She also had two young children from a previous marriage who lived with them, and she told him that she wanted him to take more responsibility for them, which he did. She eventually wrote her boyfriend’s female friend a note of apology, adding that she had resolved a lot of her own insecurities.
The chief adjustment she and her boyfriend made was the one that seemed the least likely: They married, a year and a half after they first opened their relationship. Her boyfriend felt, for the first time, happy to commit to a woman he loved, knowing he had the freedom he wanted; and the symbolism of marriage gave Susan enough security that she could grant him that freedom, and exercise it herself. They saw no incongruity in their decision to wed — they were flexible, adaptable humans, reshaping an institution to their needs, rather than the other way around.
In August, Elizabeth and Daniel made a road trip to a Lower East Side bar in New York to attend Poly Cocktails, a monthly event founded in 2007 for people who are interested in nonmonogamy, or practicing it. At the event, Elizabeth and Daniel felt overwhelmed, a little out of place. Over the course of the evening, about 300 people, a diverse crowd, packed into the rooftop bar, most of them, it seemed to Elizabeth and Daniel, younger than they were. A woman in cat’s-eye glasses and straight dark hair sat on another woman’s lap; the woman with glasses turned out to be one-half of a married heterosexual couple from Westchester. A 31-year-old man with his hair in a bun sat close to his beautiful girlfriend. Everyone seemed to know one veteran polyamorist: a 64-year-old man with a long, white braid. For the most part, the socializing was studiously nonsexual, but a young woman with a retro look — red lipstick, baby-doll dress — was flirting with a tall man in a sleeveless T-shirt, a 45-year-old dad from brownstone Brooklyn, a musician with a corporate day job. His wife looked on, amused, as she waited for a drink at the bar.
Elizabeth and Daniel had ostensibly come to be among people who would not judge them. It had occurred to them that Daniel might meet someone, but he did not end up speaking to anyone to whom he felt a strong attraction. Instead he spent most of the evening talking to a married woman who complained that she felt underappreciated by the crowd at the bar.
If Daniel was going to begin a relationship, he suspected it would be with someone he knew, and in the months following their outing to Poly Cocktails, he thought a lot about a woman from another state whom he met briefly through professional circles about two years before Elizabeth started seeing Joseph. The woman had subsequently sent him a succession of flirty texts. It had been a small, contained thrill to think of this woman, whom he had liked, reaching out to him, silently, on his phone, as he watched TV with his wife. It took him a while to notice that he had probably crossed a line without even realizing it, a series of harmless pixels coalescing into something that could hurt the feelings of people he actually knew and loved. The marriage was not yet open, and he told Elizabeth about the messages, relieved that it occurred to him to do so, and then — in one of the more intimate instant messages he had ever composed — told this person who had shown up in his life that they could only be friends, as much as he had enjoyed meeting her and was touched by the attention.
Daniel and the woman would text from time to time, and when he heard she was coming to town this past January, he invited her to dinner. Over a meal, he told her that he and his wife had decided to open up their marriage, despite their enduring commitment to each other. He and the woman were already comfortable with each other, but once the possibility of romance hung in the air, the conversation immediately became deeper, as if they were preparing for one kind of vulnerability with another.
Dating, I started to think, as Daniel told me about talking to his companion, is wasted on the young and the single. A young person in his 20s, unformed, skittish, goes out into the world and tries to fall in love, a project complicated by the bulky defenses that allow him to undertake so risky a venture in the first place. Now imagine that same person, many years into a stable marriage, anchored. He is no longer a stranger to himself; he is more likely to have forgiveness for human frailty. He can — theoretically — retreat to the safe harbor of his marriage at any time. What would it be like to be entranced by someone new, without needing, simultaneously to lay claim?
At dinner, the woman told him about her past relationships, her worries about her children; he offered some advice and liked feeling that, although she heard him, she did not seem to need his help. She asked if he would mind if she moved her chair from across the table to sit beside him; she wanted to be closer. By doing so she brought the actual idea of sex right there, to the table where they were drinking margaritas: Was he attracted to her? Did he want to spend more time with her?
After dinner they went back to her hotel. Elizabeth had been well aware that something might happen between them. “Are you naked yet?” she texted her husband around 10 — it was a joke, a poke, a bit of bravado. They were not. But by 11, his new romantic interest was.
Later, when he thought back on the evening, he thought less about the sex than about the easiness that there was between them afterward. They had that conversation people often have after confirming a suspected mutual attraction with actual sexual intimacy — the “when did you know?” conversation, the one that shines a spotlight on your sense of being chosen. She wanted to talk about the first time they met, and how much she, right away, felt that spark. And Daniel found himself reminiscing about the first time he met Elizabeth, early in his career, and how she looked so strangely bathed in a bright light at that moment, as if the universe was trying to make something clear to him.
“And we’re just having a normal chat, and I’m telling her how I feel about my wife, which in retrospect could have been really stupid,” Daniel told me. “But that I could share my love for my wife with her, and not have that takeaway from the experience, or even be awkward, even though she’s naked, lying on top of me — I really felt like it was kind of beautiful. And it struck me that she could have gone to this other place, and been insulted, ‘How dare you talk about that, you have me here now.’ But instead, she kind of saw it as a beautiful thing, too.”
Conventional wisdom has it that men are more likely than women to crave, even need, variety in their sex lives. But of the 25 couples I encountered, a majority of the relationships were opened at the initiation of the women; only in six cases had it been the men. Even when the decision was mutual, the woman was usually the more sexually active outside the marriage. A suburban married man on OkCupid told me he had yet to date anyone, in contrast to his wife, whom he called “an intimacy vampire.” There was a woman in Portland whose husband had lost interest in sex with anyone, not just her. A 36-year-old woman in Seattle said she opened her marriage after she heard about the concept from another young mom at her book club.
Perhaps the women in the couples I encountered were more willing to tell their stories because they did not fit into predictable unflattering stereotypes about the male sex drive. But it was nonetheless striking to hear so many wives risk so much on behalf of their sexual happiness.
It took decades for sex researchers to consider the possibility that women’s fabled low libido might be a symptom of monogamy. An entire scientific field, well chronicled by Daniel Bergner (a contributing writer for the magazine) in his book “What Women Want,” has evolved to try to understand the near-total diminishment of lust for their partners that so many women in long-term monogamous relationships feel. One 2002 study found that men and women in committed relationships shared equal desire at the onset of their relationships, although for women, that desire dropped precipitously between one and four years into the relationship; for men, the desire remained high throughout that period. In his book, Bergner cites research suggesting that women desire novelty as much as men. The recent attempts to formulate medication to address waning sexual interest has been predicated on the assumption that one possible response — indulging an interest in newer partners — would never be practical and could be destabilizing.
The women I met who initiated openness seemed to be defying some stereotypes about gender, but their interest was also consistent with more familiar ideas about women and intimacy: They seemed to be doubling down on building relationships in their lives.
At Poly Cocktails, the wife who was watching her Brooklyn husband flirt said that although they had opened their marriage a few months earlier, she was the only one of the two of them who was seeing anyone: a wealthy entrepreneur, and a soccer player. “It’s an element of fantasy,” she said. “It’s play. And if it ever stopped being that, I would get out.” She was also a business owner, and had found, from the entrepreneur, a form of emotional support that her husband could not provide.
Her husband told me he had little interest in putting in the work necessary for even casual flings. “If I could meet someone for sex once a week with no emotional obligation, like a regular tennis game, I would do it,” he said. “But I already wooed someone, my wife,” he said. “I don’t want to have to do that again.”
The wife, who asked to go by her middle name, Ann, said she was friendly with couples whose marriages were open and ended badly. And yet neither she nor her husband, David (also a middle name), found those stories prohibitively ominous. Talking with me over several months, they explained, sometimes overtly, sometimes in more roundabout ways, that the instability they had invited into their lives worked as a counterbalance that allowed Ann to feel more secure within the marriage. Someone outside her marriage did the work of providing the structure of romance, dates, courtship; that heightened her own sense of sexuality in a way that David — who was consumed with his music, who was a creature of habit, who had thoroughly relaxed into the relationship — could not. Instead of resenting David for his distractions, demanding more focused attention from him, she seemed content to embrace the marriage for the security it did provide. The space between them that the open marriage introduced had, in fact, improved their sex life; but she also was more appreciative of the depth of the bond she felt with David, compared with the one she had with her boyfriend. “It’s been comforting to me,” she told me on the phone one evening this past March.
She said she had to cut our conversation short — she was about to sit on the couch with David and watch a documentary. She laughed at herself a little, at the picture of her and David doing the thing that cozy but bored married couples do. “I’m wearing a onesie” — otherwise known as footed pajamas — she admitted. It was flannel, it was loose and it was very, very comfortable.
For most of the late 20th century and early 21st century, therapists tended to champion monogamy with every bit of the consistency that religious institutions did. Many applied some form of adult attachment theory to their work, a theory that held, in its most simplified form, that if two people could create a secure attachment, if they could each patiently witness and soothe the other’s vulnerabilities, then love, growth and sexual fulfillment would follow. In 2002, the book “Can Love Last?” by the psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell, complicated some of these concepts, positing that trust and comfort can also become hurdles in the way of sexual passion. “Since respectable monogamous commitment in our times tends to be reciprocal, the selection of only one partner for love dramatically increases one’s dependency on that partner, making more love more dangerous and efforts to guarantee that love even more compelling,” Mitchell wrote. “So we pretend to ourselves that we have, somehow, minimized our risks and guaranteed our safety — thus undermining the preconditions of desire, which requires robust imagination to breathe and thrive.” Mitchell valued committed relationships but thought it essential to acknowledge the ways that sexuality could collapse under the weight of the security that couples construct.
Seven years ago, Luce Cousineau, a 47-year-old makeup artist in Seattle, had to admit that her own desire for her husband had dwindled past the point of recovery. She met her husband, Tim Aguero, who is 48 and a photographer, when they were in their early 20s. She never stopped loving him, wanting his opinion, considering him her best friend and the ideal father of their two children. But when she turned 40, she had a kind of midlife crisis that included a new, intense desire for more variety in their sex life. She and her husband could not find a way to talk about it — it was a series of endless missed connections. “And then I started shutting down in bed,” she said. They had sex less and less often. Her husband thought they could work through it. “Whereas I felt like it’s the end of the world,” Luce said. She finally realized that it was not just that she wanted varied sex; she wanted varied partners. “I felt like, I don’t want to be kinky with you — I want something different.” She developed an intense crush on a friend and lost hours thinking about him; she remembers sitting in her car in her driveway in Seattle, listening to an interview on NPR with Chris Ryan, an author of “Sex at Dawn,” and thinking his philosophy about the unnatural state of monogamy was speaking directly to her.
“The standard issue would have been to have an affair, but neither of us wanted that,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine being excited about meeting someone and not being able to tell him.” But the lack of sex in her life, or sex that she wanted, was making her miserable. She finally broke down, sobbing, at the breakfast table one morning. They realized they were facing a serious issue. “I guess I felt like, We have to do something about this,” Tim said. “I was fearful, but I also had to consider her happiness.” Ending the marriage was never on the table, but Luce mentioned the idea of opening it up. They were two artists living in a big progressive city, with multiple polyamory meet-up groups, broken down by age. They agreed they would start dating, and they quickly found potential partners when they put their profiles up online.
Forging new relationships was complicated, at first, and bruising: Could they go without a condom, if everyone tested clean and the relationship seemed to have potential? Could one spouse’s partner veto the other spouse’s new love interest, if that person had an S.T.D.?
Tim, after a few false starts, started dating a married woman, a former minister, whose husband also had a serious ongoing partner. He is six years into the relationship with her now, and the four of them — Tim, his girlfriend, her husband and her husband’s girlfriend — sometimes have drinks. His girlfriend is important enough to him that most of his and Luce’s close friends and neighbors have met her and understand her role in their lives. Their children are 10 and 14; they have grown up knowing, as Tim put it, “that their parents are a little bit different.”
There may be people who are more inclined toward monogamy or polyamory than others, who may even, at least one study shows, have some genetic predisposition toward one or the other. Tim seems to be a case study in adaptability, someone who never even considered, much less longed for, the option until his wife brought it up; he has since found the arrangement suits him.
For the past three years, Luce has been seeing someone in Portland, a man with whom she says she is highly sexually compatible. The sex in her marriage, in recent years, she said, has improved, although she still sees it as a struggle within the committed, loving relationship she has been building since she was 21. “But don’t misunderstand — what Tim and I have is a joyous thing,” she said. “I’m so proud of the life we have built together.” Tim said that they’ve noticed that they have their best sex when they are on vacation — as if domesticity in their own home eviscerates the erotic.
The insistent need for security stifles couples’ sexual excitement, Stephen Mitchell argued, but it also builds the relationship on false premises — the deluded idea that your partner is knowable and entirely safe. Clinging to that illusion, neither partner really sees the other, or even acknowledges that the other has hidden, private selves. Mitchell ended his book offering the hope that commitment, under the right circumstances, could yield romance and passion — not through contrived “novelty” but through an embrace of the risks inherent in building a shared life.
Mitchell’s book, as well as “Mating in Captivity,” Esther Perel’s 2006 exploration of similar issues, suggests that the kind of marriage most people seek — secure, mutually desirous — is a precarious, elusive construct. Perel, whose forthcoming book is titled “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity,” has become interested in the emotional growth that comes from having different partners. In the book, she writes that “so often the most intoxicating other that people discover in the affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.”
Some of the couples I followed as they forged their open marriages seemed to be reaching out, systematically but also unpredictably, to make transparent the vulnerability that was there all along. Implicit in the arrangement was the understanding that each person has an alternative self; and yet it was all in the name of the kind of committed relationship that Mitchell believed would yield the most happiness and personal growth. “You are the known way leading always to the unknown,” wrote Wendell Berry in a poem called “The Country of Marriage,” “and you are the known place to which the unknown is always leading me back.”
As I talked to couples over the last year, I often found myself reflecting back on my own marriage. I started to feel less baffled by the boldness they were showing in opening up their marriages, and more questioning of my own total aversion to the possibility. In interview transcripts, I saw that I was forever apologizing for my own conventionality. I felt, at times, that I was a rusty caliper, trying to take the measurement of some kind of advanced nanotechnology. I was a blunt instrument, or a chipped mirror: Where I discerned motives of retaliation or evening of scores, I was told to see generosity and understanding. Where I read humiliation into a situation, the people I was interviewing saw a kind of expansive love that defied pride, possessiveness, traditional notions of masculinity and ownership. I kept wanting to define terms — but who is your primary? Whom would you choose in the event of conflicting needs? My instructors were patient but resolute in their overarching easygoingness: It works out, and when it does not, we talk about it and are better for it.
Open marriages, I started to think, are not just for people who were more interested in sex, but also for people who were more interested in people, more willing to tolerate the inevitable unpacking conversations, the gentle making of amends, the late-night breakdowns and emotional work of recommitting to and delighting each other.
Few claimed there was no pain in nonmonogamy; but they were not afraid of that pain, whereas the notion of any extra pain in my life seemed an impossible burden, a commitment along the lines of taking on a second part-time job or caring for an ailing parent.
Occasionally, my reporting would inspire me to turn to my poor husband: Why don’t we work more on our marriage? But more often than not, I felt protective of what we had, more certain of its beauty, its cosseted security. I imagined our marriage transpiring within a genie’s bottle, all silk and luxurious hangings in a protective cocoon, a warm, private world in which transformation could occur; the nature of the surrounding boundary providing enough safety that we could feel confident in taking risks. Breaking out of that cocoon would be an act of needless destruction, its violence transforming the retreat into a hornet’s nest. But there was something about that idealized vision of the cocoon that seemed contrived; was it also cloying, or confining, or implicitly fragile?
In February, Daniel planned a weekend away with the woman he saw the previous month — his girlfriend? His date? Neither word felt exactly right. He still felt concerned, both about how Elizabeth was going to feel about the weekend upon his return and about how he would feel in the midst of it. “I was nervous about how I was going to be received, and how I was going to handle it emotionally,” he said. Even the thought of being naked in front of someone new gave him pause. “There’s a little hesitancy — like, what is she going to think? But I think in the end when you’re with somebody who is compassionate and interested in you as a person, that all quickly just goes away — because, look, we’re all people, and we have our flaws and our good parts, and you either dwell on those things that aren’t perfect, or you see beyond it.”
They ordered grilled cheese from room service and ate it on the couch as they talked about why they were there. They smiled at each other quietly as they sensed the attraction building. “And then we kissed, and honestly, it felt good,” Daniel said. “It just felt like, wow, I can be in this moment, and feel this other person kissing me, and me kissing them, and I feel I can do so in a way that is not violating my marriage and my commitment to my wife.” They had sex several times over the course of the weekend. Emailing about it, several months after the fact, Daniel wrote: “It was good, very good. … As I write this, I am taken back to the moments there, and it does evoke a flood of stark imagery, emotion and sexual desire. … There were no expectations or history to draw from. She was not afraid to express what she wanted, and in doing so, she challenged me to show up in ways that I don’t regularly — mainly in a more aggressive and dominant way. I guess what I’m saying is that it taught me some very valuable things about myself, or maybe invited some aspects of myself to come out.”
Elizabeth claimed to have no ambivalence about his weekend away. She said she knew from experience that an outside relationship did not have to diminish your love for your spouse. And yet when Daniel returned, he found her a little bit cold, judgmental not about the premise of the weekend, she said, but about the particulars. She and Joseph had waited for months before having intercourse, building the relationship first; Daniel did not wait, which bothered Elizabeth. Also, Daniel had called her to say hello, which she had not expected, then jumped off the phone for a work call and failed to call back. That she did not like — the feeling that he had engaged her, almost deliberately, and then left her hanging, as if to force her to concentrate on him in his absence.
As much as Daniel felt Elizabeth’s irritation, he felt a tremendous relief — her grievances were specific and manageable. She did not express the pain or anger or self-righteousness of someone who felt betrayed. Their understanding had made it possible for him to have that weekend away, for which he was enormously grateful. Over the weekend, he told his lover — at that point, there was really no other word for her — that he was committed to his marriage but not afraid to fall in love. She admitted she was already halfway there. Although they lived far from each other, they left with a sense of possibility, Daniel said, feeling “that there was more to come.”
Many couples often start their open marriages with the idea that insomuch as an open marriage could be normal, theirs would be. For some people that meant that they would each have unattached sex but not do anything crazy, like fall in love with outside partners. For others, it meant that the spouses would never meet each other’s respective boyfriends and girlfriends, and certainly not those people’s partners. But some couples told me that once they opened their marriages, unexpected things happened. It was as if one major rethinking of convention subtly rewired their brains to allow for others. Antoinette Patterson, 34, and her husband, Kevin, 38, who live in Philadelphia, have been open practically since they met 15 years ago. Once she became a mother, she gave up on the idea that no partner of her husband’s could help parent their children. “By now my husband jokes that his girlfriend and I could raise our kids without him.”
Many people I talked with said they were surprised that opening the marriage changed the nature of their sexuality, that something was unleashed: They developed a new interest in a certain kind of role play, or acted on a long-suppressed desire to sleep with someone of the same sex. “You have to be willing to spend more time deconstructing your inner internalized ick factor, when it comes to being open — your own self-judgment,” said Zaeli Kane, 35, a writer in Austin.
Zaeli met her husband, Joe Spurr, when they were both 21, and they have been nonmonogamous for most of the time they have been together. When Zaeli and Joe married, they agreed to only one real limit on their openness: That they would not cohabitate with someone else.
Nonmonogamy has been, since then, a defining feature of their life, a source of great pride, if for Zaeli, in some periods, an emotionally trying exercise. Her own past forays outside the marriage were short, brief affairs, more like adventures while traveling, discreet but romantic excursions; Joe, 36, by contrast had had deep, ongoing relationships, the details of which sometimes merely irritated Zaeli and at other times wounded her more deeply. “It took me years to realize that what feels like anger is sort of the pinched nerve of my admiration for another woman,” she said; she had often compared herself unfavorably with the other women Joe was seeing and worried she was not something enough: creative enough, say, or bold enough. “It’s a worthiness thing, or an impatience with myself to grow into the person I want to be,” she said. “But ultimately, I recognized that either I’m on the path I want to be on, or if I’m not, then that’s a good thing to notice.” Most recently Joe had started dating a traveling wedding photographer, Alexandra Kirkilis, to whom Zaeli was initially cautiously welcoming.
Because she made no secret of the nature of her relationship, friends often called her to talk through the possibility of opening up their relationships. Then those friends started referring friends. Without really trying, she developed a small business, working as a kind of relationship coach to the newly polyamorous, among others.
Both Joe and Zaeli agreed that she was happier in the marriage since she had developed her first meaningful relationship outside it. Two years ago, she was performing stand-up comedy when she met Blake Wilson, an aspiring comic himself who had relocated from Palo Alto, and they connected immediately: They shared a kind of hyperverbal, slightly dark, comedic sensibility; they were both thoughtful, but neither could ever be described as overly earnest. Blake started spending more time with Zaeli during the day, with Joe’s consent; Blake was working as a contractor and had a flexible schedule, which meant he could hold Zaeli’s hand through the long days that a young mother spends with a toddler, accompanying her to Costco, joining her at the park. Joe often came home to find them snuggling on the couch, at which point Blake would abruptly get up. Joe was comfortable with everything except the jumping up off the couch. “He really doesn’t need to do that,” he told his wife. “It makes me feel like the bad guy, or the cop.” Eventually, Blake and Joe, who comes from a tightknit Boston family, watched a few Patriots games together; he started to feel, toward Blake, the warmth you feel toward a brother-in-law who turns out to be more than tolerable — a relief mixed with genuine affection.
And then, just over a year after Zaeli first met Blake, when Zaeli and Joe were planning to move to a new home in Austin, they discarded the one rule that had governed their nonmonogamy and invited Blake to move in with them and their daughter, who is now 3. For Zaeli, nonmonogamy was also an antidote to the atomization of families, to the loneliness of how people live. “People think of this as a home-wrecking. But this can be a nice family structure.”
I thought that by the time I met Joe and Zaeli and Blake in February at their home in Austin that I had become used to the idea of openness. But from the moment I entered their house, I did not know where to look. Joe, warm and outgoing, greeted me at the door, making small talk I could barely engage in, as his wife and Blake were, at that moment, nuzzling by the stove, reunited after having been apart for most of the day. We sat down to dinner, Blake ushering their daughter — Joe and Zaeli’s daughter, biologically, but one Blake was helping to raise as part of the family — to the table. Blake does an equal share of day-to-day caregiving of Joe and Zaeli’s child, and Blake also does most of the cooking. That night, he made a Thai chicken soup for dinner.
As we ate, Zaeli recalled first meeting Blake. “I could just tell with him, that it wasn’t just, this will be a guy that I hang with. It was more like, ‘Oh, I’ve found you,’ that whole thing.” Blake talked about how he felt when he met Zaeli. “It seemed a little bit safe, because I was like, ‘Oh, this person’s already married.’ And she just happened to be so caring and open and honest that we fell in love in like a month and a half.”
I watched Joe take it all in, his daughter on his lap; he was playing with some tiny balls of Play-Doh that she had left on the table and was flattening them out, shaping them into one big heart. The conversation wore on, but I eventually admitted to them what they already knew, which was that this was all strange, maybe even hard, for me to witness — Blake kissing Zaeli in front of Joe, the two of them recalling how they fell in love.
“I felt you checking in on me,” Joe explained. But there was no need, he said. He and Zaeli still shared a bed most nights of the week; they shared a daughter. She was his beautiful wife, and Blake was someone important to her. “It’s a person I love, loving someone,” he said. “How is love bad?” The generosity of his response almost made me angry, frustrated, perhaps, with my own limitations. Didn’t he feel excluded? “No,” he said. “I mean, I’m still here, you know?”
This spring I went to a conference out of state. Afterward, a few attendees lingered to talk and then drifted off, with the exception of one, a man, also in his 40s, who spoke impressively earlier that day. The conversation was easy between us, and we ended up, as did everyone else, walking back to the hotel across the street, where I invited him to join me for dinner. I felt the need to justify this — there was no room service at the hotel, I felt awkward eating alone in the lobby — but I was also enjoying his company, and it seemed, especially after all the interviewing I had been doing, that it was absurd to worry about something as safe as a meal with a man, also married, with whom I shared professional interests. I was curious, even, to know what it would feel like — I realized that outside work interviews, I could not remember the last time I had dined alone with a man who was not my husband, which suddenly struck me as an amazing fact of my adult life.
He looked uneasy at the outset, glancing around at the other people he knew in the lobby, nervous, I supposed, about what they would think. But he soon relaxed, and I was curious to hear who he was and why he did what he did, specifically, for work, and we probably tried hard to make each other laugh, and then we said good night and went our separate ways, an outcome that was never in doubt. Then I called my husband and told him, when he asked about my evening, that I had dined with a group of three or four conference attendees.
Over the next day or two, I thought about the man, sometimes, and even wondered if he was thinking about me. Part of what I enjoyed in thinking about him, I realized, was that he was a private thought of my own, like a room in my house where neither my children nor my husband had ever so much as left an empty cereal bowl.
Why had I lied? The triteness of the setup — a conference, a hotel — made me reflexively defensive; I was sparing my husband what would have been a wholly needless pang of jealousy or discomfort. And I was instinctively acting out a familiar, but also ridiculous, paradigm of marriage, one in which we collude in the fiction that no one of the opposite sex ever draws our interest.
Maybe the impulse to lie also came from some other motivation: an insistence, in the moment, that I was not entirely knowable, or as safe as my husband thinks. And yet this seemed to be a signal he might even detect, if only subconsciously, precisely because we are so close. In a way, creating that space was in the spirit of openness, a tacit, healthy acknowledgment that we each have a private self, that no marital circuit is ever entirely closed.
I wanted to keep my small secret; but I also wanted to go out to dinner with my husband, to hear what he would make of the minor intrigue, of my lie about a wholly harmless flirtation, if it even was that. And I wanted to hear how he felt about all the women in the world he will never really get to know, never get to kiss, a thought that makes me feel an existential sadness on his behalf. I was fairly certain I knew what he would say; but that I was not totally sure, that we had not discussed any of it for so long, seemed like an emotional infraction within our marriage, lazy and blinkered. There was so much to talk about.
One year does not a marriage make; it is just long enough however, for couples to decide whether they have improved an already-strong marriage, or miraculously saved it from imminent demise, or recklessly endangered what was once a beautiful thing. Open marriages, like traditional marriages, fall apart for all kinds of reasons, but probably the most common one is that the marriage in question was troubled enough that no amount of tinkering with its parameters could save it.
In April 2016, Jamie and Rich, a childless couple living in Pensacola, Fla., decided to open up their marriage. Jamie loved Rich, the way he had risen in the ranks at work despite never having attended college, the way he took care of their massive Bernese mountain dogs, took care of her. “He is everything to me,” she said one year ago. “I see myself growing old with him.”
But she also had recently had affairs, and confessed them to Rich because she was fairly sure she wanted more: she wanted men she had never met, and that guy with whom she played online Scrabble, and to explore sex with women, and to have fun in a three-way. In early March, Jamie, 39, suggested that they consider separating, but Rich, 43, remembered that several years earlier, she brought up the idea of opening their marriage. He started looking for books on the subject, and he came to hope that the arrangement “was something we can grow with and explore and learn together.”
And so it began. For Jamie, an endless series of dates; for Rich, one lost weekend with a woman he thought he could love. There were several nights of three-ways involving them both; relationships that flared then fizzled for each of them. Their own sex improved. And then, this April, one year after they opened their marriage, Rich asked for a divorce.
The year had had its thrills, but Rich also felt perennially on guard, unnerved by the sense that there would always be more bruises to come. He had never really recovered from Jamie’s affairs, and he hated wondering, when he was home alone, what Jamie was doing with someone he had never met. He longed for the security of one partner, the beauty of its simplicity and romance. “I still love her,” he wrote about his soon-to-be ex-wife in an email. “I will support her.” She had offered to stop seeing other people, but he said he did not want her to feel resentful. “This is not the life for me, and just as important, I don’t want to stop her from being who she is.”
Speaking a few days later after moving into a new apartment, Jamie said she was having more downs than ups; it was hard not to see Rich every day. But even as she mourned the end of the relationship, she could appreciate the generosity with which Rich had tried to please her, until the point at which he realized just how miserable he had become. And she also felt a surge of love for how strong he had been, in the end, to turn down her offer to stop seeing other people. “I hate to say it,” she said, “but I feel like he released me.”
Their story is a kind of counterpoint to Daniel and Elizabeth’s, the couples’ marriage plots overlapping at crucial times but diverging at others. Daniel, too, after a year, also felt burdened by resentments, disappointed by how painful the path to a better relationship with his wife had been, and by how many logistical hurdles were in the way of a relationship with someone else. Neither he nor the woman to whom he felt so close had the finances or time to support a long-distance relationship. After a few months of sweet, sad instant-message exchanges, they agreed that they would not be able to see each other again any time soon — and that it might be less painful, especially for her, to break off the steady communication.
Elizabeth was still seeing Joseph one year after she and Daniel opened their marriage. The fact that Joseph’s wife didn’t know troubles her, and she wrestled with guilt. But he had become someone she loved. Their relationship had permanence. When Daniel and Elizabeth fought, they no longer wondered if that might mean the end but knew instead they would work it out. Daniel had come to see Joseph as “part of my tribe.” He often helped Joseph out with computer problems; when he heard that Joseph had the flu, Daniel texted to see if there was anything he needed.
Joseph agreed to speak to me only once. He was quiet and nervous and said little about how he felt about the arrangement. But he emailed Elizabeth with his thoughts the next day. “The reporter asked if I was jealous of Daniel,” he wrote. “Absolutely no. I know he is your husband, and I never want to stand in your way of loving him. It is obvious that he loves you unconditionally. However, I do want to express that I am jealous of one thing. He stands by your side through thick and thin. … I realized you are one lucky girl. Never underestimate his love for you. Thinking back to the reporter’s question — yes, I am jealous. I’m jealous of the support he gives you and the freedom you desire. … However, I am not jealous that you go home to him.”
Instead of detracting from Elizabeth and Daniel’s marriage, Joseph sometimes served as a foil, a contrast against which Elizabeth could better see her husband — and not just her husband, but their history, the way he pulled over, without even asking, any time they drove by an ice-cream parlor, knowing it would delight her, or brought home a Diet Pepsi for her on his way back from work. And in starting something new with Joseph, she found she had refreshed her idea of what love could look like, which also infused her marriage.
Daniel and Elizabeth had turned their union into an elaborate puzzle, one they could only solve together, had to solve together, for the well-being of their family, even if doing so demanded more from each of them than their marriage ever had. Energy for generosity in a marriage can easily suffocate beneath the accumulation of grievances and disappointments, or even laziness of habit; now both Elizabeth and Daniel felt the weight of those histories somehow shifting, if not entirely lifting. They had experienced enough to know that they could not predict how much their lives might change in another year or two; but they felt more confident that they could weather what was coming their way. “The marriage is better than it was when it started,” Daniel said in March. “It is. It really is.” He recalled something his wife said to him a few days earlier that had moved him. “Maybe it doesn’t sound that amazing, but we were just lying in bed talking, and she said, ‘What can I do to make you happy?’ ”
An earlier version of this article described incorrectly a detail about child care in one marriage. Blake Wilson and Joe Spurr are equally involved in the day-to-day care of Spurr and Zaeli Kane’s child; Wilson does not do more of it.