“Is your idea purely sexual, or more of another relationship? Do you play outside the marriage together, or do you play separately? Both?” These are just some of the questions that Gwen Lotery, a certified Sex and Couples Therapist urged couples, in an interview in 2020 to Brides.com, to ask each other when considering an open marriage.
Questions that need to be empowering and uncomfortable: “If your relationship is in a rocky place and you decide to go non-monogamous in order to save it, 99% of the time, it’s just not gonna work,” she adds.
So how does one navigate the path towards having a successful open marriage, and more importantly, what is an open relationship? To start with, no, it doesn’t mean the relationship overnight turns into a limitless ‘free pass’.
“An open relationship can have many forms including, and not limited to swinging, polyamory, and relationship anarchy,” says Rashi Vidyasagar, founder of The Alternative Story, an organisation that provides mental health services that are affordable, intersectional feminist, trauma-informed, queer-affirmative, caste-ware and kink-aware to individuals and organisations alike. “Understanding what kind of relationship style makes sense to you, as an individual and then as a couple is important,” Vidyasagar adds.
This doesn’t, of course, work for all couples, nor is it a decision to arrive at lightly. While it could work for some, if there is no strong understanding of why one plans to enter into an open marriage, both parties involved could drive themselves towards high anxiety, feelings of existential angst, and vulnerability.
For starters, “love is infinite, but time is finite,” says Vidyasagar. “When you open up your marriage, you’re essentially giving a few hours of your day to your new partner. This will take away from time with your [spouse], your friends, your job and most importantly, with yourself.”
One ought to therefore ensure that enough time is dedicated to the marriage, to avoid jealousy which can send a marriage spiralling in the wrong direction. It’s essential to stay in tune with one’s feelings and constantly check-in with your partners to avoid feelings of inadequacy cropping up.
When Pune-based Simran* (32) spoke to her husband Raj* (34) about whether he had thought about being in an open marriage, she was mildly surprised when he said that he had given it a thought too. That night was just the beginning of a series of honest conversations, which even included several trips together to her therapist. The couple has been together for over nine years and have been in an open marriage for the last two years, one that they both say was a transformative step.
Piece by piece, they decided to put a guide in place, a step that relationship therapists believe is crucial. The guide ought to have pointers okayed by both partners, with the boundaries strictly respected through implementation.
Another couple from Bengaluru, Tara* (34) and Ved* (34) have been in a polyamorous relationship for four years now, and have been married for eight years. “For us, polyamory is not the rejection of monogamy on the whole, but as something that doesn’t fit us anymore,” says Tara, “Mononormativity is something that we do reject; there are various relationship styles and identities and we float through them as time allows us to,” she adds.
Here are four conversation touch points gleaned from the learnings of both these couples that those considering a successful open marriage can keep in mind.
Open Marriage: A WIP Conversation Guide:
1. Define your emotional and sexual boundaries. These are hard to set but are crucial to the relationship, especially when you transition from an exclusive to an open one. “You need to have a lot of conversation, this is time-consuming, but it will also help keep emotions like jealousy at bay,” says Vidyasagar. “Jealousy tells you that you are uncomfortable...Sometimes, you want to control your partner and their actions and loss of that control can bring up a lot of negative emotions.”
2. Schedule check-ins with your partner. “While neither of us want a complete don’t-ask-don’t tell relationship, we also don’t want a complete play-by-play; transparency and respect during open dialogue is essential for us,” explains Simran. “Instead of assumptions, we want to process our emotions, make adjustments as required and of course look at our primary relationship, too.”
3. Values are important. “For me, the idea of not being monogamous is that I don’t want to be defined by rules,” says Tara. “However, there are a set of values that are important to me. These include being honest and having an open dialogue with dignity and respect. When my partner has similar values and holds my values as important, I believe that rules will not matter.” Vidyasagar adds: “Having and discussing value systems and how they look in real life scenarios can be much more useful than putting rules in place.”
4. Prioritise your marriage. “Our relationship comes first,” says Simran, “Since we are adding more people to the mix, we understood that we were not looking at this as a ‘solution’ to solve anything that was wrong between us, but that this is something that we wanted to do; to connect with other people.”
Without such conversations that can lead to essential and mutually agreed-upon guidelines and sturdy checks in place, an open marriage can come with the ultimate cost: the end of the marriage itself.
In order to even consider taking a step in the non-monogamous direction, a couple should make sure they know what they want from their relationships and that they have the inner belief to make it work for all those involved. A good idea would also be to include a therapist in this conversation to help prioritise expectations about what a couple wants from an open marriage.
*Names changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.
Richa Sheth is a freelancer writer based in Pune. She explores complexities within human interactions and relationships