Updated: Oct 4
The Risks of Open Marriage Come Home
Though I have alluded it the risks of a polyamorous open marriage, I have not gone down that path in this narrative. Now, I will do so. This chapter is not fun, but needs to be told.
The roots of this go back to before Paula became sexually active with her best friend in 1997. She and I had several talks when it became evident that both she and Dianne wanted to their relationship to become sexual. It was agreed explicitly that if either husband asked them to stop that they would discontinue. Looking back, we all clearly underestimated how sex can build bond that are not easily broken.
By the summer of 1999, when we moved back to the South-East, I had already become concerned about the amount of control Dianne was exerting on Paula, so I saw our move as a good time to get out of their relationship without any ugliness. Prior to our move south, I already gently tried to lead Paula to spend less time with Dianne, but to no avail, either she did not or would not understand that I was concerned that her relationship was turning unhealthy.
After the move, she began to spend hours a day on the phone with Dianne, rather than to renew old friendships in the city in which she had grown up. After a few months, I finally made it very clearly. I said in no uncertain terms I wanted her to end the relationship with Dianne because it was taking over her life and becoming a serious drain on our relationship. Much to my surprise, she answered just as clearly that she would not do so. Thus began a three-year slide into the darkest days of our over quarter century of marriage. Over the next year, with Dianne’s guidance, she decided that her relationship with Dianne was more important than her relationship to me or even our children. Unbeknownst to me, Dianne had begun an effort to convince Paula to leave me and our kids so that the two of them could run off and start a new life together.
Once Dianne’s voice was more powerful than either her own values there was little I could do. As in many abusive relationships, other people, such as her sister and mother who had no idea they were sexually involved began to voice their concerns that in her conversations she only talked about Dianne and what Dianne said and did.
With her priority change, came other problems. Relationships cost money, and she spent all we had and more. Not only was she taking regular trips 700 miles to see Dianne at her home, the met half-way in hotels for weekends of sex and shopping.
I took the hard move to opened my own bank account so that she could not access my paycheck and spend the money we needed for housing, utilities and food on Dianne. In response she (unbeknownst to me, she obtained a handful of credit cards in my name, maxed them out and never made payments. She even began tuning out the kids and her relationship with them become very bad indeed. By the winter of 2002-2003 it became clear to me that Dianne’s plan was that she and Paula would both leave their husbands and move in together.
I warned, pleaded and even yelled, but nothing worked. Dianne had an iron grip on her. By that time her mother began to complain about “that Dianne woman”.
Nadir was Christmas of 2002. We had agreed, since we earned about the same salary, I would buy the Christmas presents for Lamar, and she would buy them for Misty. This was a change since I had traditionally done everything, but I mistakenly thought this would get her to focus on our kids. When Christmas came, our found that Santa had forgotten to bring her anything. She’d bought and sent presets for Dianne’s and her kids, but Misty had no idea why she got nothing for Christmas. Mom just said “Oh, I meant we would go shopping for Christmas together.
What brought her back? There is no doubt the sight of our daughter in tears on Christmas morning due to her neglect had an impact. She tried to get her life back from Dianne, but Dianne threatened to commit suicide if Paula broke off the relationship. Now even Paula began to see how toxic the relationship had become.
She started abusing prescription pain killers, she was finding herself driving home drunk, I was served with notices about being sued by credit card companies for accounts I not even know I had.
In the early 2003, Dianne responded to Paula’s efforts to end their relationship by leaving her own husband with the intent, Paula would follow suit. This made the fantasy of being a happy lesbian couple to reality. Paula knew Dianne’s kids and husband very well and liked them, yet now she saw what was happening and it was not pretty. Dianne pushed hard for Paula to follow suit, and had it not been for the fact that she could not face her parents or sister ever again if she left her husband and kids for a lesbian lover, I can’t say for sure she would not have left that winter. However, in the end she just couldn’t do it.
In the spring of 2003 Dianne made it clear that the only time she was allowed to have sex with anyone else was if she was there and approved in advance. For the first time she realized that Dianne believed that she was her master claiming rights of control that even her husband didn’t claim. For the first time she realized she was in an unequal and abusive relationship. This self-revelation was very important and led to a slow but steady erosion of her relationship with Dianne.
Further, all this while, I’d been there for her and the kids with the firm conviction that she would come to her senses and the contrast between how she was treated by Dianne and by her husband finally broke through the power of Dianne’s influence.
The road back took more than a year, but one day she broke down in tears as the reality of how she had hurt everyone so badly. To this day she routinely thanks me for not kicking her into the street during that time.
How does this fit into a narrative supporting open marriage? On one hand, it is a warning that without vigilant self-awareness, things can gets out of hand. In retrospect, I can see where I should have stepped in earlier and possibly prevented this. Our family has survived and thrived, while Dianne’s family is still in an ongoing battle between exes with the children as the casualties. Paula and I can never forget we had a hand in that tragedy and bear a certain level of culpability.
Paula asked several times how I was able to hang on and retain my saintly. As a counselor/social worker, I had a developed a high capacity to compartmentalize thinks in my life. I just put things into boxes with lids and locks. So, for many months at a time I would just pretend, that everything was OK and not let myself dwell on what was really going on. By doing so, and by being “Mr. Mom” to the kids, we were able to make it through with little long-term damage. However, on the occasions when those walls broke down, I would fall to pieces, and Paula and I had some nasty fights. Looking back, I see there were actually very few times that happened, perhaps half a dozen in the two bad years.
Why write all this? If we liken marriages to cars, the typical monogamous marriage is like a mini-van, utilitarian and safe, but boring. The more you upgrade to more adventurous forms of relationships the faster, more exciting, and dangerous the car becomes. Perhaps “soft-swing” and nudism is a Mustang, same room swapping is a BMW and a full open relationship is a Ferrari. It’s fast, sexy and exciting, but if you aren’t careful it can get out of control, so it takes more active effort to manage. In our case, we simply tried to drive our Ferrari the same way we did our mini-van and almost had a wipeout. We learned our lesson and so I’m trying to pass what we learned on to others.
So the question is: What balance of safety verses fun to you seek in your life?