The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an open marriage as “a marriage in which the partners agree to let each other have sexual partners outside the marriage.”
M a 47-year-old client of mine is in such an open marriage. The couple is in the 21st year of their marriage. They are great friends, but romance and physical attraction are over. Both their children are studying in different parts of the world, making the setting perfect for an open marriage.
Exploring an open marriage was M’s idea and her husband agreed. It’s been two years since they decided to give it a go. According to M’s memory it was an uncomfortable conversation to initiate and have, and they have not discussed it again since. I must mention here that I have not had any interaction with M’s husband as she considers this her individual journey.
Her first encounter was by chance and not by design, at a networking event, where she really hit it off with P. He was single and M was available. Soon things progressed and M was in the bliss that one feels in a new romance.
Three months down the line, P ghosted M. She knew clearly at the start that she didn’t want anything emotional from this relationship and there was no way she was ending her marriage to be with someone else.
Yet, she experienced heartbreak, pined for P, and found herself confused about how an open marriage works. She put it down to being new to the experience of an open marriage and how it plays out — so she dealt with her emotions and moved on eventually.
Things were quiet for months. And then she met T, her sister’s friend who had moved to Mumbai from the US. She was his local go-to person as he settled in. There was a mutual attraction, one thing led to another, and six months went by. Then T’s family joined him. This time M’s heartbreak was worse. She had got deeply emotionally involved with T. When his family arrived, M got jealous, and couldn’t bear to see T with his wife.
The open marriage experience had so far only left her broken hearted and confused about her own choice of wanting it. That’s when she started her sessions with me.
As attractive as it may sound to couples with waning sexual interest in their partners, open marriage comes with a set of complexities that unravel once you start on that path. A few of my clients, who’d wanted to explore an open marriage, have given up on that thought because they don’t even know how they will find someone else. They have been so “out of the game” as per their admission. The other major factor is societal conditioning — we are always looking for solid outcomes and tend to want to find meaning in things. All our decisions, from what we study, the work we do, to the relationships we choose, or have, to keep, are assigned a meaning, purpose, and eventual outcomes.
As I saw it, this is one of the major struggles that M faced in her journey into an open marriage. Unbeknownst to her, she was seeking some meaning and/or outcome, especially with T, who she had a longer and perhaps better connection, with than she had with P.
When one shares intimate moments, whether physical or not, they pave the way for some dependencies. This is true for both men and women.
A single male client of mine has such a dependency to a woman who has been in his life for the last five years. He’s not in love with her, is not seeking a relationship, they do not even have a physical relationship anymore. Yet, he seeks her out for a sense of comfort he feels in this undefinable relationship they have.
The popular HBO series Succession also throws light on the confusion associated with an open marriage. On their wedding night, Siobhan Roy (Sarah Sook) tells Tom Wambsgans (Mathew Macfadyen) that she would like to be in an open relationship. Tom agrees to this arrangement, even though he is clearly not at ease with it. As the show and this subplot progress, the couple experiences jealousy and discomfort. Finally, Tom admits that he was never fine with this arrangement in the first place.
Centuries of conditioning in favour of monogamy has set certain expectations and behavioural patterns when in a romantic or sexually intimate relationship. That pattern is very hard to break. Despite having the permission of their partners, individuals also end up facing their own ingrained notions against ‘infidelity’. This conditioning means that there is also a shroud of secrecy that a couple feels compelled into, so as to not ruffle feathers in their own circle of friends family, and by extension, society. Sometimes, the resultant pressures, and confusion of attachment compels couples to extend this secrecy between each other too, undercutting the very premise of an open marriage.
In its ideal form, the open marriage might seem like an ultimate sign of security in a relationship. But it also leaves people with a myriad of emotions that they cannot account for. The fact is that the lines are and will always be blurry till the institution of marriage holds good.
This is a limited series by Simran Mangharam, a dating and relationship coach, who can be reached on email@example.com