The Truth About Open Marriage

Couples who practice ''polyamory'' say it's good for their relationships. Some therapists disagree.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 20, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

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.

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.

The Back Story

When the O'Neills, trained as anthropologists, wrote their book, Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples, they weren't just talking about the freedom to explore sexual relationships outside the marriage, although that idea got the most attention.

They also suggested that marriage partners be free to have their own separate friendships and that they trade domestic chores, for instance -- novel ideas back then, at least to some.

Now, the term polyamory or "poly" is viewed as the hipper term, with numerous web sites offering chat rooms, bulletin boards, and personal ads. One even posts a glossary of poly terms, explaining that relationships can be triads (three people), vees (in which one person has two lovers who aren't involved with each other), quads (four), extended networks, and other arrangements.

What's the Appeal of Open Marriage?

Freedom of choice is a big draw, says Cherie, a 34-year-old technology consultant who is traveling around the country and telecommuting with her partner, Chris, also 34 and in the same business. Chris and Cherie asked that only their first names be used in this article.

Before the road trip, Cherie had three boyfriends at once. Right now, she and Chris are monogamous, she says, but they plan to pursue other relationships again.

"Over the years," she tells WebMD, "I have been involved with a very wide variety of relationships and configurations, from triads, vees, quads, and extended networks. At one time, I even co-purchased a house with three other partners."

Her partner, Chris, says that his heart is "wired" for multiple relationships. Those classic love triangle movies, he tells WebMD, were always frustrating to him. "Why should the hero or heroine have to choose between two partners?" he asks. "Why not have both?"

While variety in sex is a big part of multiple romances, polyamorists say it's not the whole story. And polyamory is definitely different from swinging, says Block. "Swinger lifestyles are very sex oriented," she says. For her, having multiple relationships not only helps her fulfill her sex drive, but other needs as well. Her female partner, she says, is also her best friend and gives her a lot of emotional support.

When she goes to a romantic comedy with Jemma, for instance, Block says there's no eye rolling, as there usually is when she goes with Christopher.

Franklin Veaux, an ex-partner of Cherie, says he, too, is hardwired to be a polyamorist. "Why does the princess or the prince who lives in a castle have to choose?" he asks. "There is enough room for everyone." He keeps in touch with Cherie through instant messaging, although they are not romantically linked right now.

"Every partner adds something to my life," he says. "All of these things make me a better person." The big attraction, he says, is emotional intimacy. "Everybody adds value to my life."

Marriage and Relationship Experts Talk

Those who pursue an "open" or polyamorous relationship are obviously not conventional types, says William Doherty, PhD, director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. "There are always some people who want to push the limits of their experiences -- their joy, their ecstasy in life," he says. They feel convention and tradition inhibit them.

Those who pursue multiple relationships simultaneously, Doherty says, say they are capable of many loves and passion and that "artificial cultural constraints" tell them they should restrict their love and passion to just one person.

Polyamorists, to their credit, are often open about it, Doherty says. "There is a kind of idealism around these folks," he says. "They want to be completely open and honest about it."

Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, MFT, a Fair Oaks, Calif., marriage and family therapist and WebMD's sex and relationships expert, agrees that the concept of open relationships has evolved to become more idealistic. "In the '70s, there was the playing loose around the edges idea," she says. "Poly is trying to come across as thoughtful and considerate."

An obvious benefit, Weston says, is that sexual monotony seldom sets in. Polys are not apt to be bored in other areas of life, either. "You always have Plan B," she says.

Some say they learn something about relationship skills from their other partner or partners, something that can be applied with the primary partner, she says.

The Drawbacks of Open Marriage

Scheduling can be a hassle, polyamorists say. "When I'm actively exploring multiple relationships, balancing my time and energy is usually the most difficult part,'' says Cherie." It can also be particularly draining if more than one of my partners has a crisis in their lives that they ask my assistance with, such as supporting them through a career change, family illness, problems in other relationships, or other challenging times." But if the other person has multiple partners, she says, they also have the benefit of getting multiple sources of help.

Handling the "fear response" in partners can be an issue, says Chris. He sometimes has had to assure partners that his interest in others does not mean his interest in them has changed or waned.

"I've also had my own feelings of envy and jealousy," he says, "particularly when I feel that a partner is giving more time and energy to another than they are to me."

"Where it becomes threatening is when [partners] think love implies exclusivity," says Veaux. "It's the starvation model of love. That is, if you love two, each gets half of the love. That's not true. Every single person is absolutely unique. Because of that, it means my partners can never be replaced."

Things can also get dicey when a partner considered "secondary" wants to become a primary, Veaux says.

Sometimes Veaux invites most of his partners -- and their partners -- to go out socially. Recently, he and such a group went to a science fiction convention together.

Ground rules are essential before starting a poly relationship, Veaux and others say. Some Internet poly sites offer sample contracts for multiple relationships.

"You have to figure out what the rules are," Weston says. "Otherwise so much could be hurtful."

But Steve and Cathy Brody think it's next to impossible to lay ground rules. "It's like laying ground rules for an earthquake," says Steve Brody, who with Cathy Brody wrote Renew Your Marriage at Midlife. They question how people can predict their feelings with so many people involved. "You can set up guidelines in a rational and intellectual way, but you can't anticipate the depth of the emotional reaction you are going to have," Steve Brody says.

Even so, Cathy Brody says one rule is crucial: "If one [partner] wants to stop [the arrangement], they both do."

The increased risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease is another obvious drawback. Veaux says he is careful about monitoring his sexual health. "I get a general physical once a year, and I'm screened for STDs. Whenever my partnership status changes I am screened again." He asks his partners to do the same. He asks for written proof that his partners are infection-free and provides it to them as well.

Polyamorists say the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. "The best part is that I feel like I am being true to myself," says Chris. "I always felt I was living a lie when I was trying to fit into a monogamous mold."

WebMD Feature


SOURCES: Jenny Block, author, Open: Love, Life, and Sex in an Open Marriage. Franklin Veaux, computer programmer and web developer, Atlanta. Chris and Cherie, 34, technology consultants. Steve Brody, PhD, psychologist, and Cathy Brody, MFT, marriage and family therapist, Cambria, Calif.; authors, Renew Your Marriage at Midlife. William Doherty, PhD, director, marriage and family therapy program, University of Minnesota, St. Paul. Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, MFT, sex therapist, Fair Oaks, Calif. Wikipedia: "Polyamory." web site: "alt.polyamory FAQ." The Polyamory Society.

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