Well Being

An Open Marriage Can Save Your Relationship

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Dr. Julie Elledge

Last week I published a post called Expert Tips on How to Fix Your Sexless Marriage, in which I asked Dr. Julie Elledge (pictured) – a psychotherapist for individuals and couples who deals with many issues of sexual health – about what’s considered “normal” and “abnormal” when it comes to having sex (or not having sex, as the case may be) in a marriage or long-term relationship. Today I'm grilling our resident sexpert on the deal with open marriages, a controversial and complicated subject about which I've always been fascinated. Can they ever really work? What are the pros and cons? What kinds of people are able to maintain them? Sorry, but I have a lot of questions about marriages where couples openly sleep with other people, and suspect you might, too. So let's get them answered:

In our last conversation about sexless marriages, you said: “A Hall Pass” (where a wife gives her husband a week “off” marriage) can be a risky venture in any relationship. There are many unforeseen emotional (and physical) consequences of such a venture.” Can you explain exactly what you mean, particularly if the “Hall Pass” arrangement is mutual?

It's normal to desire both pair-bonding (commitment) and sexual variety (sex drive), but playing with trust is always a highly risky venture in committed relationships, because trust is critical to sustaining a long-term relationship. The concept behind the “Hall Pass” may appeal in the short-term, but the aftermath may not make it worth the week of freedom. If one person feels less desirable, rejected, humiliated, or shamed by the experience, it will cause injury to the relationship. Healing injuries of infidelity are challenging, and in some cases, infidelity ends the relationship. In the aftermath of broken trust, it doesn’t really matter if the agreement was mutual in the beginning. The trust is still breached.

There are better ways to integrate the need for sexual variety into a committed relationship that don't risk the emotional intimacy between the couple. Self-help tools like Videos for Lovers show couples how to introduce variety into the relationship. My book, Lovers Exploration Guide, Developing an Intimate-Erotic Connection helps couples talk about their sexual needs without feeling overexposed.

Why do people pursue an open marriage, if not simply to be able to have an “affair” and get away with it?

The reasons vary (with an affair being one of them), but those open marriages that are successful are usually an adaptation to a specific need or circumstances. For example, a couple can truly love each other, but one person may have medical or emotional issues that prevent sexual relations, or a couple may have a strong asexual love for each other but share children and financial responsibilities that they want to continue sharing. Because they value their family structure over their sexual union, they're able to make a mutually beneficial arrangement that suits their specific situation. They're more of an exception compared to what most couples expect out of their long-term committed relationships.

Is there such a thing as a truly healthy open marriage? If so, can you describe what it takes to have one? If not, why not?

Yes, a couple can have a healthy open marriage when it's truly mutual. For example, one of the Videos for Lovers couples, Todd and Nancy, have an open relationship. Nancy is bisexual. Her relationship with Todd is separate from her relationship with Kaylan. Todd and Kaylan know each other, but the three do not share the bedroom together. Nancy keeps the relationships separate to avoid emotions that can erode the trust in each relationship. Her honest communication has made both of her partners feel secure in the role that each plays in her life.

Are there any emotional/mental benefits to experimenting with an open marriage for both you and your partner?

I can’t think of any emotional/mental benefits to experimenting with an open marriage for most people. Successful open marriages are usually an adaptation to an unusual set of circumstances or needs.

Be honest: Is an open marriage truly sustainable? Or are people who think they can live a healthy, happy, balanced life that way just kidding themselves?

We are pre-wired with the desire to pair-bond or commit to a long-term relationship, but we're not predisposed at birth with the skill set to negotiate the challenges that life throws at us. We learn that skill set as we grow into adults and continue to refine throughout a lifetime. Experimenting with an open marriage often compromises the trust between the couple. One or both members can feel jealousy, rejection, humiliation, or even failure — leading the relationship toward injury. Even if the couple believes that it's what they want, they may not be ready for the flood of emotions that the reality brings. Keep in mind that if one person is pressured into an open marriage (or commitment), that duplicity will undermine the agreement. Some fantasies are better kept for the imagination than brought into the light of reality.

Before embarking on an open marriage, consulting a relationship coach or a therapist will help couples examine the motivations behind the decision and avoid surprises later by developing safeguards. It's paramount to set up boundaries that protect the couple’s emotional intimacy. If an open marriage is an attempt to jumpstart ebbing sexual desire, the right consultant can help a couple examine solutions (including possibly an open marriage) without jeopardizing the trust that's sustaining the emotional connection. After all, every couple experiences sexual boredom at some point in a relationship, but there are remedies.

Dr. Julie Elledge has a Ph.D. in education, masters in clinical psychology and a bachelor of arts in psychology with a minor in communication arts. She is a psychotherapist and coaches couples and individuals to optimize their performance at work and in their personal lives. Using a variety of storytelling methods Julie helps clients to develop powerful self-stories that overcome past traumas and crisis to lead a happy fulfilling life.

Julie and her colleague Tom Hicks have penned the book Lovers Exploration Guide, Developing Your Intimate-Erotic Connection that works in combination with Videos for Lovers to lead the reader through a journey of self-discovery and an exploration of what their relationship is and could be emotionally and sexually.

Founded in the latest research and theory, Julie and Tom have also developed a theory, How Couples Develop an Intimate-Erotic Connection and a treatment model, Restoring Intimacy and Eroticism for mental health professionals. Professional training for mental health professionals is available through Academic Alley.