This is not a discourse about the morality of an open relationship. In my practice, I deal with the psychological implications of life choices - and not with the morals of such decisions.
I have always believed that some of the problems of complicated relationships, like open marriages, are due to the clash of heart and head – the head believing it can do it; with the heart struggling to deal with a host of confusing feelings such a choice brings with it. Current research and literature indicates that brain chemicals also play a role.
Dr. Helen Fisher in Why Him? Why Her? explains that brain chemicals play a huge role in the mate we choose. She points out that the purpose of these chemicals is, amongst other things, to keep us monogamous for four years until we have secured the survival of our species. If this is how we are physiologically programmed, why do we strive to have monogamous relationships? If we get a bit technical, Fisher points out that the Oxford Dictionary defines monogamy as “the condition, rule or custom of being married to only one person at a time” – this does not suggest that partners are necessarily faithful to one another! Monogamy in the strict sense of the word does not imply fidelity. According to her the different practices of ‘monogamy’ are culturally predicated (Anatomy of Love).
Ruby Wax puts another spin on the matter in Sane New World. She points out that we have a brain chemical called vasopressin that “supports pair bonding attachment and monogamy”. So what this means is that we (our conscious volition) may decide on a path only to find that our brain chemicals drive us in another direction. The vasopressin makes us want to stay, while the craving for a dopamine rush makes us look for excitement and thrill.
Head, heart or brain chemicals, in my experience open marriages are complicated and difficult. Partly because it goes against a culturally imprinted taboo and partly because of our emotional need to be special and to retain what we believe is ours.
Except for relationships where the contract is from the onset poly-amorous, in that it includes more than two people, or polygamous, I believe that most couples start off believing that theirs will be a monogamous one.
So why does a couple to choose an open marriage? Boredom with the relationship and a need for something new and trilling is a common driver. Many couples believe it will spice up their relationship and break the monotony of a sex life that has become staid and predictable. This is often at the instigation of one party (who sometimes has someone in mind) or because of becoming sensitised to a rousing, fantastical world of possible sexual experience explicated in a Fifty Shades of Grey.
Another reason why a couple may choose an open marriage is because they have reached an impasse in their relationship where they feel that an open relationship is the only way forward. This is where one party, or both, feel that they want a connection/relationship outside their marriage, but they don’t want to do it behind their partner’s back or they feel that they are not ready to end their relationship.
Changing the contract of a relationship from one partner to more, means that the parameters and ground rules of the relationship need to be re-negotiated. In order to secure the marriage the ground rules adopted by sexually open couples, tend to prohibit behaviors that provoke jealousy or sexual health concerns. What couples tend to do to manage possible feelings of jealousy is to forbid falling in love; and to limit, and clearly demarcate, the contact they have with extraneous partners. If they are able to ‘not fall in love’ and stick to their agreed upon contact times, couples generally manage to deal with their unsolicited feelings. It also works best if both partners manage to find an interest who is willing to have a part-time relationship.
Some of the psychological ramifications I have seen are:
A functional couple develops a boundary which indicates what stuff pertains only to the couple and is deemed as private, and what about the relationship is lived in the public domain. A healthy, flexible boundary gives the couple a sense of security and keeps intruders at bay. In so doing they create a ‘sacred space’. Extramarital partners are brought into the relationship space if the couple give that person air time. This may be internally or they may literally be brought into the space by the couple talking and fighting about them. Sms’s and phone calls often become intrusions in the space.
Anything or anyone brought into the sacred space dilutes the quality of that space. And in some instances it can take over the whole space. For a client it became so big that “it took over her whole life – it became the only story that consumed her being”. (See the CASE STUDY below - Claudia and Christopher - from my book, 'The Key to a Loving and Lasting Relationship'. ). When this happens all one’s emotional energy goes to assessing how much damage is done to the space by evaluating how much credence is given to the ‘intruder’. The quality of the space also gets monitored incessantly with questions like: "Are we connecting?"; "Was sex good last night?"; "Does he/she still enjoy making love to me?".
With little clarity of how well the relationship is actually doing, everything becomes provisional - with the following thought pattern: "It was good …. but …."; "I could deal with this …. if …."; "I am feeling safe …. but …."; and so on. Everything becomes loaded and has ‘meaning’. The result is rampant insecurity.
Some uncertainty is normal in relationships. However the level of insecurity unleashed in these situations is vast. Individuals often fall into a pit of self-doubt, questioning their worth, attractiveness, ability to satisfy someone and ability to love. And if they have a notion of who their partner’s new interest is, they start comparing themselves to that person – falling short more often than not. Many individuals feel that they have been relegated to a second place in their partner’s affection and attention hierarchy – they feel marginalised. Where this would generally provoke feelings of jealousy, open marriage spouses suppress these feelings and often turn them on themselves (feeling inadequate) because they are ultimately willing collaborators.
Feelings of insecurity and inadequacy make one look for attention and affirmation. ‘Side-lined’ partners hence become needy and co-dependent. This creates anxiety.
On the other side of the coin, is the partner who has found a satisfying connection with someone. They often feel bad and guilty for hurting their spouses, and torn when they are not able to contain their fledgling love interest. Because of the thrill they are often not able to curtail this slip-road relationship and the fear of putting their marriage at risk is daunting and can be palatably real. This similarly creates anxiety.
Work and family often bear the brunt of such emotional roller coaster rides.
In my experience few couples come out unscathed. Both excitement and pain are the companions of such a journey.
Claudia and Christopher were both 18 when they met on a package holiday. Their young love blossomed and, after a courtship of eight years, they got married. Because they felt that their relationship was fulfilling enough, they elected not to have children.
However after 18 years, ten years into their marriage, they felt that though they really loved each other, their relationship was becoming staid and boring. At the age of 35, they felt trapped in a predictable, monotonous marital rut.
To make their relationship more interesting, they decided to bring a young lady, Heather, into their relationship. Christopher had met her and was attracted to her. Claudia who was quite adventurous sexually was not averse to the idea of experimenting with the notion of a threesome. For six months they navigated their way through this exciting, scary and foreign terrain until Claudia realised that she could not deal with it any more.
Unwittingly, it had brought up buried feelings of jealousy and resentment in her and had made her insecure and doubt Christopher’s love for her. Although he assured her that he did not love her any less and that this was an ‘experiment’ that they had embarked upon as three consenting adults, to her it had become a deal breaker. He found her reasoning untenable and insisted on continuing the relationship with Heather with whom he had fallen in love.
After much heartache and many misunderstandings Claudia left the relationship. If she had stayed she would have settled for something of which she did not choose to be a part any longer.