The concept of an open marriage was first popularized in the United States during the 1970’s. In 1972 a book by that name was published and had an impact during the “Women’s Liberation” movement. That book primarily focused on a socially open marriage were the partners were free to have their own friendships outside of the marriage. At that time, that in itself was a radical idea. The extension of that concept to sex was only obliquely addressed in the book. However, in the public mind and usage open marriage meant that there was an agreement within the marriage that the partners could not only have friendships outside of their marriage, but they were free to have sex with those friends if they chose.
While for most American couples, social openness has over the past four decades become just an accepted part of the modern marriage; sexual openness has never gain widespread acceptance, even in very liberal circles. Why this is, will be the subject of a future essay. What is interesting to me is how little most people, even sexually liberal people, understand how open marriages actually work. So, I thought I’d pen a few thoughts about our marriage which has been “open for over twenty-five years now.
It was in 1996, when my wife and I agreed to have a sexually open marriage. We didn’t make this decision because either of us was in an affair or had just had one. In fact we’d both been monogamous since we'd met each other, over a decade before. It wasn’t that we were board or were dying to go out and have a fling. It was a cool rational decision to reject the concept that lifelong marriage, which we intended to have, meant we must forever give up the possibility of other sexual partners.
This decision seemed natural to us in part because we had never had a socially closed relationship. Even before we were married neither of us saw a need to own the others social life. In our case, we explicitly extended that social freedom to include sexual encounters because Paula had the courage to tell me that she wanted more sex than I was able to provide at that time. In retrospect that honesty and willingness to address issues head on was foundational to the success of our marriage, not just open marriage, but our marriage in general. Further she openly told me that she was very strongly sexually attracted to other people. She was clear she was very much sexually attracted to me, but rather she simply knew she had desires to have sex with a good many people who crossed her path. Not to have love affairs, but to fuck. She was not focusing on one person in particular, but she just had a general desire to expand her sexual horizons. She was not going to cheat on me, but she knew she was somewhat frustrated in our sex life and was interested in having other sexual relationships. Our decision was simply giving her liberty to act on those interest if she so desired.
It may be that our two and a half decades of success in having a sexually open marriage has a great deal to do with the dispassion of the initial decision. Inevitably decisions like that made under the pressure of sexual or emotional desire by one of the partners will create a state of both internal and external coercion. Coercion in marriage will always reap negative consequences in time. So, getting ahead of that was important. Many a failed attempt at maintaining a positive long term open marriage will trace the root cause of the failure to the fact the initial agreement to open marriage was made under the coercive power of lust or love for a third party.
Not only was that not true in our case; but as a couple we were in the midst of reexamining the core moral values of the Fundamentalist Christian way of life we had been taught by our spiritual leaders. As I was then a full-time minister, and thus one of those leaders, I took it upon myself to compare the validity of the sexual rules of fundamentalist to the actual words of Jesus. In the end we could find no moral reason to forbid mutually consensual extra-marital sexual activity than we could find for many of the long list of “thou shalt not’s” we had been taught.
Thus our transition to open marriage was simply an agreement. We agreed that should the circumstances arise where she had the desire and opportunity to have sex with someone else, it would not be a violation of the mutual promises on which our marriage was dependent. At the time I did not even ask for the same permission because I simply couldn’t imagine having the time, energy or desire to have any more sex than I was having at home. While it was purely theoretical at that point, it laid out a foundation. And, significantly, it did not lead her to act on that agreement for several years. From the very beginning, we viewed open marriage not as the act of having sex with outsiders, but the permission to do so. Perhaps that is one of the keys to our success.
Since then we have been sexually active with quite a few other people. Over the years my wife has had sex with well over one hundred men and women, while I have been with less than half as many as she has. Both of us have had one-off sex with people we hardly knew and ongoing sexual relationships with friends. Additionally she has had several serious love affairs. There have been times when she’d have sex with other people several times a week, and others where neither of us had sex with anyone outside our marriage for a year or more. For instance in the mists of the Covid pandemic we have completely suspended seeing other people. There have been times when we were actively going to several swinger events in a month and other times that we didn’t go to one in several years. We have been to parties where she or I had sex with a number of people in a night, but far more where we did not “hook up” with anyone. However, what has underpinned all this is that literally at any time or with anyone we met we could have sex…if we chose to. That option is there 24/7/365, even if neither of us choose to take it.
Our pattern of activity is not uncommon in the open marriage community. Couples will be active for a while, then inactive, then active again. In part this is simply due to what I call “real life” crowding out recreational time. Over the time we have had an open marriage we raised our kids who had school events or had demanding extracurricular schedules or got sick, or had personal crises that took our full attention. Those things often impeded our ability to go out with new potential bed mates. When her father became sick and eventually passed away, we were monogamous for 18 months. But, after that we bounced back and had the most active sexual period of our marriage. And now our kids are grown, our grand-son and Paula’s ninety-three year old mother get the time that once went to our kids.
All that to say this; an open marriage is not so much about the frequency of fucking other people as it is the fact that fucking other people is always an option. Not just a tolerable option, but one that we both know the other will positively support and will be happy we had a moment (or a few hours, or a whole afternoon/night) of sexual bliss. So, when we meet new people and they ask about what we have done over the years, it can sound like we constantly jump from one bed to the next. Yet, that perception is not correct. In actual fact; the spaces in between wild times are longer than the wild times themselves. After all, even if we counted up and found Paula has had sex with a hundred different men and fifty women, that would still be only a few new partners per year. So no, open marriage is not about constant sex, but it is about constant love, trust and support.
All in all, open marriage has worked for us. If I were to guess it will only be old age and infirmity that will permanently close our marriage to others. And that too is just a part of life.
A final note: the photos on this post are of my wonderful wife Paula and a man she had met only hours before. She decided not only did she want to have sex with this guy she just met, but she wanted me to take photos of her doing it. She called me and asked if I would be willing to take pictures of her having sex with this hot guy. That ability to share special moments is part of the reward of not claiming ownership. While that time she obviously told me she was going to have sex, she is under no obligation to do so. Many times over the years she has had sex and not told me. Sometimes, months or years later she will tell me “Oh, I had sex in hotel once,” but to this day there are sexual liaisons that I have never heard about, and likely never will. Of course I have no idea how many, but that is her privilege.