This article was originally published by AskMen UK.
Who in a long-term relationship hasn’t come off a particularly uninspiring bedroom romp or met someone else on a night out and thought “If only…” When it comes to the daily grind of commitment, it’s easy to romanticise the idea of open relationships – of having your cake and eating it too.
But is it really all it’s built up to be? It’s somewhat rudimental to judge from the outside; to see an open relationship as alien from your own monogamous one, to conclude that people who have sex with more than one person have it better or worse than you.
We spoke to Kate, 36, a business analyst from London, who has been in two open relationships: one with her first husband of 8 years, and again with her current husband, to find out if it’s really all orgies of entangled limbs and endless orgasms.
When and where did you meet your first open relationship partner?
I worked with him at an after school job between the age of 14 and 18. He was four years older than me. We started dating when I was 17, and we got married when I was 19. When we got married we both realised we both had a lot of potential; he was very intelligent. I didn’t quite know my potential at that point, I was still quite young. That was in Australia, we moved [to the UK] in my early 20s. Prior to us moving to the UK, around the time we got married, there was interest in others. Because I’d been with him at such an early age we were both curious, I guess, both finding our confidence. We did a lot of reading and a lot of soul searching. Looking back, on reflection, it wasn't enough, but I felt like I was being really open and clear with my thoughts, I was being progressive. We were married for eight years before it all changed track.
How far into your relationship did having an open relationship come up?
I can’t remember who brought it up. It was a joint thing, and we were both benefiting. It was pretty soon after our marriage. But we weren’t having individual relationships with other people, we were having fun as a group, swinging. It was always with people we knew and were comfortable with. We grew up in a small town in Australia where everybody knew everyone, and then we moved to Sydney where I knew no one.
We were together for three years at this point and I had never really considered anyone else – I only had eyes for him. I don't think I brought it up but I guess my curiosity helped inspire it. There was no progressive conversation in particular, it was just like “I find this person attractive, I find that person attractive,” and then you’re drunk and playing spin the bottle and then off you go. It moved to a regular occurrence with this one couple, a boy and a girl. It was cool, we both enjoyed it and got a lot out of it.
Did you ever feel jealous?
Sometimes but I find that it's balanced out with compersion [where you feel love and happiness for your partner enjoying themselves with someone else]. It’s a thing and you do feel it. It was a comfortable, lovely feeling of “we’re both having an enjoyable time.” There was certainly no judgement; there was never any fallout from it. It made us more motivated to be together and it brought us closer. It was a shared experience, and it was very enjoyable.
What's your open relationship like now?
I feel like I’m executing what I want in life in my current relationship and particularly what I couldn’t articulate with my ex-husband well at the time was. Marriage for me is about a contributing team who enable the best possible life for each individual. It doesn’t mean that sex is the only thing that keeps you in your relationship.
For me, sex is merely something that I do for fun; it’s enjoyable. Being in lust with someone, having that someone who sweeps me off my feet and makes my heart go boom isn’t going to pay my bills, it’s not going to pay my retirement fund, it’s not going to take me to dinner on my anniversary. Those are the things that I value dearly, and in my current relationship we have that team attitude: we plan projects, we manage our money. That’s my life in my current marriage. [The sex] is amazing, but it’s not the focus.
What are the rules? How do you differentiate what’s part of your relationship and what’s cheating?
I don't like the labels of monogamous or poly because that makes it seem black and white. Everyone has their own rules and boundaries. If you promise your body to someone in a monogamous relationship, I fully appreciate that. If you’ve promised someone something, and you’re in a relationship and you snog someone else in a pub, that is the flat out worst thing you could do, and I will judge you heavily for it.
For me in my current relationship, my husband pushes me out the door and says “If you’re going to deviate from the plan, always be safe, see you later.” In both my previous marriage and this one there were rules. In the previous, it was very rule-driven; in the new version, it’s focused a lot less on rules, but more on scope and boundaries. [In my first marriage] it wasn’t just things like use protection; it was no butt sex, it was the mechanics [of the sex], but sometimes you would get lost in the moment.
What rules did you adapt for an open relationship to work this time around?
In my current marriage, communication is involved in a very different way because we’ve both been married before. We've gotten to where we are as a team. It doesn’t feel like there are any rules other than protection.
I really think I did the rules wrong the first time, but that’s learning. There were too many confines in the heat of the moment, so you would just break them, and it ultimately ends in hurt because you have to come out and say “I fucked that one up.”
I didn’t resent [my first husband] – we both made an informal charter in terms of our relationship, but you couldn’t live to them. [The rules] were security blankets. Now I don’t think there is a security blanket. My current husband is much more relaxed. We now operate on a basis of do what pleases you, but contribute. We have a contribution matrix where we both get what we need out of this relationship. As long as that’s still happening we can do whatever makes us happy.
Is that something that comes with age?
Yes. Looking back I don’t think I did anything wrong in the first relationship. We got to a place where his temptation overtook and it was irreconcilable, but it wasn’t because we were poly. It was because it just didn’t fit anymore… because of his temperament, his personality, the way our relationship was structured. I don’t regret any of the things I did, it certainly made me who I am and gave me the confidence that I have.
How did your relationship end?
Sometimes [my ex-husband and I] would be independent from each other, and that’s when the compersion would come out, because we would tell each other the stories. Up until we separated my understanding was that everything was pretty good. I never thought anything was wrong – we were doing things as legitimately as possible. We were open and talking about it and everything seemed okay. There was never a fight. But he had held feelings for a friend from Australia for a very long time.
We had a house party and she came. It didn’t bother me that he was interested in someone else – she was our friend. When the party ended he said he was going to her house. It was odd. Why would you go anywhere? You could just have sex in our lounge, like I’ve done in the past. That’s when the crack appeared – two weeks later we were done. And I don’t put this down to being poly, I put this down to the fact that he wanted something else. Whether we were poly or not he would have done it. I was pretty cross with him that night because that was out of our rule set. Everything seemed okay for the next two weeks; we tidied up our act, we communicated more. Then he said he was taking her to lunch to apologise. I went too. We had a nice lunch, but when I came back from the toilet they were holding hands across the table and he said “I’m not coming home with you again.” But that wasn’t a poly failing, he made a life choice. He had just changed the goal posts and I got left behind. I don't have any ill feelings towards him. I have never put that down to our poly relationship bit – I think we did that bit right. I’ve learnt a lot of lessons and refined how I manage that aspect of my life, and I still like it!
Do you think to some couples, an open relationship will just be a phase?
I think if you’re kidding yourself and not looking at the core issues it could be a phase. If you’re switching it on for a phase, I would ask what you’re covering up. Even when I was in new relationships with people who wouldn’t consider poly a thing, I was still poly. It’s in me. I don’t like being closed down and focused on only one person.
Do your friends know?
Some do, some don’t. I pick and choose. Some people are cool with it, some people don’t get it. Some people I think hold me in high regard for how my relationship is but they probably look at my previous relationship as a failure because of the fact that I’m poly. It didn’t fail because I was poly, it failed because he wanted someone else. It’s a very different thing.
But I know people look at me and think it’s because I made this lifestyle choice and that lifestyle is wrong. I don’t care what people think but I care about people’s sensitivities, and I want to make sure if I have a friendship that I am getting the right thing out of that friendship. I assess their ability to process that kind of stuff.
What did you learn?
I truly think knowing yourself [is important] and I think my ex did not know himself enough. He appeared to be too scared to ask for what he wanted. He just needed someone, found me, felt I was suitable. [My break up] helped me look at other people and ask, “What qualities am I looking for?” I have only just realised that the contribution thing is the biggest part of marriage. It’s not about just sex, it’s about the whole team. We are not husband and wife, we are a team. It’s not just the fun times; that is fleeting. It’s buying a house, investing in a future. And I did have that in the first relationship, just with a different language, and a different knowledge of one’s self.