In December of 2022, HealthDay News published a study regarding couples in open relationships. Did you know 1 in 5 Americans have been involved in an open relationship at some point in their lives? Did you also know that out of those incredibly large numbers of participants 40% have been judged negatively as a result? Why is this? What is it about a non monogamous relationship that causes such discord with the community? Where did this stigma come from and more importantly is there any truth to such perceptions? Is it possible those unfamiliar with non monogamy are being fed nefarious information? What are the benefits and challenges of a non monogamous relationships anyway?
Having been in both a monogamous marriage and a non monogamous marriage I have the blended benefit of being able to compare personal notes of these two relationship models. First let me be clear, monogamous and non monogamous relationships are both important options for couples. Neither is more or less beneficial when it comes to relating or navigating the intricacies of a relationship. How can I say this? Because the intricacies of a relationship boil down to the participants. To the personalities, perceptions, and desires of the two individuals involved in the creating and maintaining of the partnership.
Let’s also be clear about the fact that whatever relationship model two people decide to navigate together, the journey should never be one of autopilot. In order for a partnership to stay relevant, maintain its vitality, and keep those involved engaged, requires constant attention and a delicate balancing of intent from both sides. The worst thing we can do as a couple is enter into a relationship model and then become complacent. One in which we no longer believe tending to or maintaining the foundation, structure or stable upkeep is required. That we are somehow free from this maintenance once the vows have been exchanged. That we are somehow homefree once we have a spouse.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look into how a couple in a non monogamous marriage operates. Let’s delve into the challenges and benefits of what can be learned and extracted from two people who have agreed to steer their relationship into more open waters. That couple is my husband John and myself. Eleven years ago we entered into an open marriage, which by the way has been our moda operandi the entire eleven years we’ve been together. Our relationship only knows the dynamic of non monogamy.
So, what are some of the challenges and benefits? When John and I sat down to discuss our separate lists I was not surprised by the findings.
Navigating Open Relationship
Even when you are onboard with creating an open relationship with a partner, the dynamics of such a relationship are typically far outside the lines of what most of us have been taught. So the learning curve can be steep. Lots of trial and error, lots of two steps forward one step back instances as you both nestle into the relationships defining boundaries. While this can feel like a challenge, so often on the other side you realize the massive benefit of maneuvering a tailor made relationship together and how it unites and bonds the two of you even closer as a result.
Just like with anything that takes time away from being with your partner, whether it’s work, kids, church, hobbies or household upkeep, the complexity of time management can be another challenge in an open relationship. How to balance quality time with our partner while also being able to share time with others takes practice, trust and understanding. The upside is being able to experience autonomy. To embrace those times where we get to do what we want while our partner is also getting to do their thing. For instance if John wants to grab dinner or a movie or hang out with a friend, I can take advantage of my free time to watch that girl movie or hang out with friends.
It’s sad that I even have to list this “outside element” of an open relationship. You’d assume society would be in favor of any relationship that’s committed to staying together. That society would be in favor of those couples intent on creating a relationship model that enhances and brings about enjoyment and contentment for both parties involved. But sadly this isn’t the case. I suppose part of the stigma of an open relationship is the perceived differences.
While there are some differences it doesn’t automatically mean those changes are negative or will impact the relationship others are having. Yet, society would have you believe this to be true. That somehow my marriage is a direct threat to someone else’s marriage. Unfortunately, many couples who are in highly successful open relationships are forced to keep the beneficial model private. John and I have been quite vocal in this particular area.
We find it ludicrous that so many (remember the 1 in 5 statistic) adults are relegated to the shadows because of vile, shameful and outrageous stereotypes. Keeping an entire slice of society pushed to the perimeters is damaging and keeps vital information from being shared. The upside of such pushback is bravery. I’ve always been of the belief that it’s my job to tell you who I am, not yours.
I’m proud of the relationship model I share with my husband and I’ve seen first hand the benefits of our relationship model not just in the open arena but also how our mastery of communication, compersion, and self expression has helped couples in other relationship models. We need diversity and yes that means relationship models too.
So I asked a few of my monogamous friends what a challenge is that they deal with in their marriage and every one of them commented on their sex life, or as one of them put it, BMS (boring married sex). So while a challenge in an open relationship can be the sexual component i.e., sex with others and how to balance those play dates, to me an even more challenging front would be the closed option of only being able to engage in sexual experiences with one other person. This comment is where it gets hairy with so many.
They confuse sex with love or they assume I must not love my partner because I would agree to have sex with someone else. I get that, I used to think the same thing. Before John and I reconnected I too thought people in non monogamous marriages must not love each other or understand the workings of a successful relationship. I actually felt quite sorry for these couples. One of the most poignant lessons I learned was the information I was caring around about those in open relationships was incorrect.
Sure, you’re going to have relationships crash and burn in an open relationship, but you’re going to have relationships crash and burn no matter what model they follow. So, it still rolls back around to the couple and their honesty and intention. For me, it’s not so much about the sex with others as it is the freedom in knowing I can formulate deep friendships with a plethora of people. That we can break down barriers, become vulnerable with each other and truly care for one another. I’ve been encouraged to seek out my own sexual autonomy, my own sexuality, my own self-esteem, my own inner workings and thought patterns about who I am and what makes me tick.
Today I’m much more vocal about what I like, what makes me come alive sexually and how to embrace the beauty of what my body has the capacity to express. For John and I BMS isn’t an issue.
Where do you stop and where does your partner begin? We hear all day long about becoming one when you get married. While this thought appears romantic and gives the impression of a melding of each other into a single unit, I think we fail to indulge a far greater mode of thought by recognizing the benefit of what both individuals bring to the table. How we are able to remain distinct beings while also being empathetic and honoring of what we’ve created together.
The last thing you should be doing is giving up who you are to become one. Part of the reason the two of you are even a couple is a result of the incredible and one of a kind uniqueness you each bring. This is why boundaries can be both a huge benefit and a challenge. If you have a healthy self view, healthy attachment styles and the capacity to be objective you’ll be able to clearly and concisely articulate what you are comfortable engaging in.
If you suffer from insecure attachments, low self esteem, or anxiety about where you sit in the relationship then boundaries will be a much more difficult line for you to uphold. You and your partner need to know where your comfort level extends. You’ve got to be able to be honest, transparent, and trusting in the relationship in order to open up whether physically or emotionally, no matter what relationship model you choose.
The final item on this list of challenges and benefits is really a conglomerate of John’s and my benefit list. Let’s take a look:
- Acceptance of one another
- Honoring of one another
- Self esteem
- Transparent conversations
- Healthy attachments
- More socializing
- Deeper communication
- Increased trust
- More honesty
- Deeper level of love
- Admiration for one another
As you can see, John and I are overflowing with gratitude and acknowledgement of what our relationship model brings to the table. We’ve been conscious of the path and we’ve been a shoulder of strength when one of us needed support. We listen to understand, we don’t go any faster than the slowest person, and we are empathetic to each other. We tackle the challenges like seasoned warriors while celebrating the benefits like the wonderful champions we are.
I hope you too will be more “open” to the benefits and even the growth inspiring challenges a non monogamous relationship can bring.
John and Jackie Melfi are in a consensually non monogamous marriage. They have been featured in ABC News Nightline Special Report “Getting Naughty In N’awlins”, Inside a New Orleans Swingers Convention, and CNN “This Is Life” with Lisa Ling. The Melfis are the force behind the industry famous colette swingers clubs in New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, and Austin. With over 20 years of combined experience, this powerhouse couple coaches thousands of singles and couples through their award winning blog Openlove101.com.