Do Open Relationships Work?
Some couples are agreeing to open their marriages to other sexual partners. We know the "benefits." But what are the costs?
Admit it. You love her, you really do, but sometimes you'd like some . . . variety. Perhaps a different body type. Or maybe you'd like to see or hear how someone else responds to your moves. It's tough to suppress that natural "hunter" instinct. You're not the only one playing video games well into the night to get that chick at the office out of your head. With about 50% of marriages ending in divorce, many reporting infidelity as the reason, some couples are challenging the boundaries of traditional relationships in order to keep the spark.
Call them cheaters, swingers, or "whatever couples"—the bottom line is these couples buck monogamy for a more open approach to their relationship. Sex with another person is allowed, but it's not flaunted or discussed outside the household. Their openness isn't a license to bed everything in sight—respect and discretion rule. Those who've tried it say it isn't always easy. But what if you could actually make it work?
THE SCIENCE OF MONOGAMY
"There are a wide variety of open-relationship models out there, and they can vary drastically from one couple to another," says David Barash, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington and co-author of The Myth of Monogamy. "Having an open relationship can work really well for some people," he says. "However, as people, we're also inclined to be sexually jealous of a partner being with someone else, and from a biological standpoint, we're resistant to that partner having another relationship."
"Usually, you see open relationships in one of two situations," says relationship expert and nationally syndicated Radio Chick Leslie Gold. "There are the kind people engage in because their partner is a rock star or a politician and they're getting something else out of the situation, like status. And then the other category is when it's just a person who likes to have sex with a lot of other individuals. Both types of relationships can survive, but you have a lot of minefields to overcome to make it happen."
Philip Gale*, a 28-year-old Hollywood agent who lives in Los Angeles, learned that the hard way. He knew his girlfriend, Elizabeth*, wasn't faithful, but he came to terms with it—or so he thought—because she always brought home girls for him. "It was a lot of fun. I never had a relationship like that, but then it started to get to me," he says. "My pride couldn't take her seriously. I didn't like that she wanted to share me." Although they still hook up every now and then (extra girl included), Philip and Elizabeth are no longer together. Others, however, have actually made the "whatever" concept work. Here are their tales:
FREEDOM TO HUNT
Rapper Pitbull, 26, takes an extremely different approach to his relationship of nine years compared with that of other guys in hip-hop. The Cuban artist lives by the words Ojos que no ven, corazon que no siente, which loosely translates to "What the eyes don't see, the heart doesn't feel," he says. "I'm not going to be worried about what she does when I'm not around. I think men are more bitches than women. They let their ego and insecurities come into play."
Obviously, that means he gets to do whatever, too. In fact, the problem comes more from when her friends call her when they see Pitbull out with other girls. "She's always like, ‘Yeah, I know, he told me.' Other people's bullshit doesn't affect us. We talk about everything," he says.
Most of Pitbull's friends in Miami aren't as open, and they think he's a bit nuts. "At the same time, they'll be like, ‘Damn, I wish I had a relationship like yours,'" he says. Guys like the idea of freedom for themselves, but the thought of their girl doing the same is too much to handle. "Men have to under- stand that women are loyal," he says, perhaps naively. "If she gets something she likes, she'll stick with it."
"People are stuck on what's normal, what's right, what's wrong," Pitbull adds. "Well, maybe what's right to you is wrong to me. A couple from Kansas probably can't even begin to imagine the kind of stuff I've done or the type of relationship I have. What counts at the end of the day is everybody being happy."
DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL
Once upon a time, if you lived in a small town, your options for the opposite sex were limited. You picked the hottest girl at your high school (or at least the hottest one you could get), married her, and enjoyed your small-town life. Jake Scott*, 26, an investment banker originally from Virginia Beach, started getting into trouble the moment he moved to New York City. "My high school sweet- heart followed me to college, so it wasn't hard to stay faithful there," he says. "Moving to the big city and traveling the world for work was another story."
Although they married shortly after graduation from Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech, he started cheating on her within months. When his wife was pregnant with their first child, he stopped, but he resumed three months after she gave birth to their son. "I felt so bad, but I started to feel like I had made a mistake getting married so young," Jake says. "It sounds like a complete cop-out, but I felt I wouldn't be happy if I didn't have the freedom to experiment."
Although Jake simply figured this phase would pass and he'd eventually stop "experimenting," he didn't realize his wife was doing the same thing. That changed the day he spotted an unused condom in her purse. Instead of being mad, he was relieved. "I can't explain why I didn't flip out. I guess my own guilt forced me to deal with it logically," he says.
That night they had a long, frank conversation about their relationship. Neither wanted to end it, but both agreed their desire to experiment with others wasn't something they were ready to abandon just yet. "It was painful," says Karen*, "but the fact that we could be so honest with each other, I think, made our love stronger." Full disclosure allowed them to clear the quiet tension that had been building between them. They now have an understanding but don't discuss the details.
"It's funny, but I don't cheat as much as I used to," says Jake, "and I look at things differently. Before, I'd often wonder if I'd be happier with one of these other women. Now, I know they can't come close to what I already have."
Kevin johnson* always knew he'd marry a "good girl." He wasn't looking for a virgin, but he wanted someone who'd only been with a couple of guys. "A whole bunch of dudes who could say they'd had my wife? That wasn't going to happen," he says.
In the meantime, the 30-year-old music executive from Atlanta did his thing with countless women. "They say the ratio of girls to men down here is like 9-to-1, and I took full advantage. Sometimes more than one girl at a time," he says, laughing. Always believing he would stop once he met the right girl, he never considered he might miss this carefree lifestyle. "I thought being a horny dog would get it out of my system, making it easier to be faithful once I got married."
He met his wife, Lisa,* in church, of all places, after his sister dragged him there one Sunday. "She was sick of hearing all my crazy stories and wanted me to settle down and have some kids so she could be an auntie," says Kevin. He says it was love at first sight, and within six months he and Lisa were engaged. They married six months later.
Lisa, then a 23-year-old receptionist, had had only one prior sexual partner—just as Kevin had envisioned. "I loved that she was so beautiful and wholesome. She was everything I dreamed of," he says. Except her inexperience showed—she wasn't exactly an expert in the bedroom. Kevin tried teaching her, but it was di∞cult and awkward, and it just made her uncomfortable. "She couldn't let go," he says. "Deprogramming a good girl was harder than I thought."
Determined not to give up, he wondered if she'd be down to allow other women in their bed to show her. "Man, I know it sounds crazy, but she was so worried I was going to leave her—even saying things like she wouldn't be surprised if I cheated on her, given my player background," says Kevin. "It was almost like she was giving me permission since she didn't think she could please me."
He brought up the idea carefully, stressing that he didn't want to exclude her from his sex life and that he would never leave her. By this time, he also realized that giving up the occasional ménage à trois was easier said than done. "She listened, was quiet for what seemed like a long time, but then she said yes," says Kevin.
"I was a little hurt, but he was so sincere; I felt a responsibility to my husband to at least try," says Lisa, who admits her willingness surprised her. "The rules were clearly drawn. The girls knew I was the queen, the one he had chosen, so they couldn't compete with me on that. And the way my husband controlled the situation, I felt very empowered, like I was directing the whole thing." She says she felt comfortable learning from the different women and actually enjoyed watching them please her husband. "Seeing firsthand how other women experience their sexuality has freed me from my hang-ups," says Lisa.
Now that he's created a freak, does Kevin worry she might try out her new moves with someone else? "I'm really hoping she doesn't, but what can I do if she wants to? She's handled my issues like a trooper," he says. "I'm gonna have to do the same."
CAN IT ALL BE SO SIMPLE?
Clearly, being a "whatever couple" is not for everyone. Living such an unconventional lifestyle can make the already difficult challenge of maintaining a relationship even more complicated—even when it "works." "Sometimes I struggle and think it's wrong to give in to temptation, but I think it's worse to destroy your family," says Kevin. "I'm living the fairy-tale marriage because I know me and Lisa are gonna live happily ever after. We're committed to each other, and, c'mon, what's more important than that?"
"The key to an open relationship working is that both people really have to want it," says Barash. "Don't push for one if your relationship isn't working. You really have to have both partners in agreement. If not, it's a recipe for complete disaster."
But, according to Gold, if you're someone who thinks you can make it work, and you're dating a like-minded individual, it just might be successful. "As long as there are ground rules laid out and you adhere to them, and you're with the right kind of person, those relationships can survive," she says. "I think people are willing to be in a lot more different models of relationships than they used to be. The one-size-fits-all, let's-get-married-and- never-bang-anyone-else-ever-again thing doesn't fit everyone anymore." In fact, some would say it never did.
* Not their real names