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Health & Sex

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The Truth About Open Marriage

Couples who practice ''polyamory'' say it's good for their relationships. Some therapists disagree.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jenny Block often invites her best friend, Jemma, to join her, her husband, and their 8-year-old daughter for dinner. "We might order Chinese and then play Scrabble after dinner," Block says.

It all sounds very Middle America, until you know the rest of the story. Although Block and her husband, Christopher (not his real name), have been married for nearly 11 years, Jemma (not her real name) is Block's other love. They regularly go out on "dates," although Block's daughter knows only that Jemma is a family friend. And Block and her husband go out regularly, too. Block is intimate with both of them.

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For several years, Block has had an open marriage. "We're not freaks," she tells WebMD. She simply couldn't get everything she needed -- sexually, physically, or emotionally -- from just her husband. So Block, who says she is bisexual, broached the topic of open marriage with her husband.

Christopher agreed to the arrangement. He isn't pursuing another relationship himself at this time, although he knows he is free to. "All that's going on here is feeling open to loving other people," says Block, 37, whose book, Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage, is due out in June 2008. Limiting love, she says, doesn't seem normal to her.

The term "open marriage," coined by the late George and Nena O'Neill in their 1972 book of the same name, has been expanded as more couples choose to follow the concept without getting married. Another term to describe one type of open relationship is polyamory -- literally, "multiple loves."

Those who practice open relationships or polyamory often say they are "hardwired" this way and that laying the ground rules for multiple relationships spares everyone hurt and disappointment. Not everyone agrees, with some therapists calling the polyamorous model a recipe for hurt, disappointment, jealousy, and breakups. On one point all agree: a "poly" relationship isn't going to work unless all partners are in favor of the arrangement.

How Common Is Open Marriage?

The number of adults with open relationships -- be they formal marriages or more informal arrangements -- is small. Probably about 4% to 9% of U.S. adults have some sort of open arrangement, estimates Franklin Veaux, 41, an Atlanta-based computer programmer and web site developer who also runs a polyamory web site.

Others, including Steve Brody, PhD, a psychologist based in Cambria, Calif., put the number much lower. "It's got to be less than 1%," he says. He has counseled thousands of couples in the past 30 years and has encountered very few instances of open relationships among his patients.

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