Sunday, November 2, 2014

Wives willing to try an Open Marriage

Just within the last year, I've noticed a pattern among bi- and gay-married men who are in their late 30s and early 40s: many of their wives are willing to give an open marriage a try.

Although I have no hard data to back it up, I believe this is a broad, generational trend.  If you think about it, many of these same women, who graduated from high school in the '90s, have been trailblazers on the whole marriage equality issue. Most of them (like the rest of the country) were opposed to it in the early 2000s, but now, as a generation, they're staunchly in favor of it.  No other generation has had such a big change of heart.  Older people are still more anti-equality and younger people have always been pro-equality.

This accepting attitude, I believe, is leading more young women to seriously consider their husband's request to give an open marriage a try.

Are open marriages in this generation working any better (or worse) than they did in the past?

It's too early to tell.  At this point, all I know is that more young couples are trying it.  It's going to take time to see if it works for them in the long-run.

In the past, most successful open marriages have been couples in their 60s, 70s and 80s.  Older women have been more willing to consider the idea because marital security is more important to them than monogamy; they'd rather have a non-monogamous husband than no husband at all.

Because younger women have many years of married life ahead of them, it's going to be interesting to see if this new trend toward open marriage blossoms or not.  It seems to me that, more than ever, the pressure is on husbands to walk a very fine line.  How do you make your wife feel genuinely loved and appreciated while you're out getting a portion of your needs met with someone else?

There's no easy answer to that question.  It might seem easy, in theory, but in practice it's much more difficult.

Based on my experience as the monogamous spouse in an open marriage, I have some thoughts to share on the subject.  These are some of the issues I faced, as I (reluctantly) supported my wife's struggle to find happiness and fulfillment in our marriage:
Because I never had anything to gain from having an open marriage, the only good outcome in my eyes was for my wife to decide to be monogamous again. 

Although there are couples who do it, I can't imagine raising children in a household where both parents are not monogamous.  There's just too much to juggle.  Kids need stability and constant attention.  If both spouses are dating others, who is going to be the at-home "rock" of the family?

The reality is that, in most open marriages, one spouse is monogamous (the wife) and the other is not (the husband).  This happens not only because women already tend to be the more hands-on parent, but also because they're straight.  It wasn't their idea or preference to have an open marriage in the first place.  The primary reason they're doing it is to keep the good relationship they have with the man they love, not because they have a need for extra-marital fulfillment.

This lopsided dynamic creates a situation where the monogamous spouse is working harder than ever to keep her family together, yet there is no personal pay-off for her.  She merely gets to keep what she already has.

At first, that might seem like enough, and it usually is, for a time.  But for me, as months of my wife's non-monogamy turn into years, the question I kept asking myself was, when is this going to end??  Truly, the only payoff for my patience and understanding was being able to imagine the day when my wife would say, "You're the only one I need."  As that day seemed to grow more and more distant, the more resentful I became.  Why should I put up with all this shit if I'm going to spend the rest of my life being her doormat??

Inevitably, I think, monogamous spouses in open marriages come to want only one outcome: a return to monogamy.  The longer that payoff gets delayed, the more frustrated and resentful the monogamous spouse is likely to become. 

My wife's happiness was a breeding ground for my misery.

Logically and lovingly, I wanted my wife to be happy and I was willing to compromise to make that happen.  Little did I realize that her happiness would twist itself like a knife in my heart whenever I witnessed it.  At first, I was able to brush off the small hurts.  But over time they started to pile up.  Part of the problem was I didn't want to be angry with her.  There was no point to that, really. She didn't CHOOSE to be attracted to another guy, any more than I could choose to be attracted to men.  Instead, I focused a lot of my hurt on myself.  I felt unworthy.  I felt like I was less of a man.  Less of person, really, because her boyfriend was such a loser.  Yet, for as bad as he was, she couldn't wait to spend time with him.  What did that say about me? Nothing good.  Also, I really hated myself for not speaking up for what I wanted.  And, I felt like I was getting what I deserved.  In all ways, it was ugly, and 98% of that ugliness came from within me.  My wife didn't abuse or insult me.  I did that myself.

Although my wife's boyfriend was a despicable asshole, and that amplified my misery, I still believe the "she's happy when she's leaving" dynamic applies to other open marriages.  As I've said, my wife didn't say or do anything that was particularly mean or cruel.  The mere fact that she was happy being with someone else was all I needed to feel bad about myself.  I'm sure some straight wives have enough self-confidence so as to avoid this problem, but I don't think most can, and when they can't, the self-hating misery becomes a cancer within the marriage.  It grows unseen until it's nearly impossible to overcome.

Are we a partnership or not???

The primary reason I agreed to an open marriage was because I loved my wife and I wanted her to be happy.  I also thought that if my wife was happier it would make our partnership stronger.  It didn't.  In fact, the opposite happened.  As she spent more and more time away from the house, I took up more and more responsibilities.  In less than a year I became a defacto single parent of our three kids, ages 8, 10 and 14 at the time.  Of course I was resentful sometimes, but more often I was focused on keeping up appearances for the kids' benefit.  Between regular work, work at home, and the work of pretending everything was just great, I eventually turned into an emotional zombie.  Feeling nothing became the best alternative to feeling anything.  Looking back, I was miserable.

Yes, it was good that I was willing to compromise to try to make my wife happy, but it was worse to paint myself into a resentful, self-hating, and lonely corner.  I know open marriages can work for some people, but mine certainly didn't work for me, despite my initial willingness to go along with it.

Most people, especially those who know my situation, would think they'd do a better job of being in an open marriage than my wife did.  They're probably right.  Even so, they shouldn't be quick to dismiss my experience.  After going through this I've learned that my feelings were not unique.  It turns out that there are very few straight wives in open marriages who don't struggle with resentment, frustration, impatience, self-hate and loneliness.  I've come to the conclusion that those feelings are part and parcel of the open marriage beast.

For those men who are determined to make an open marriage work, I strongly suggest that they expend maximum emotional energy on their wives.  There has to be a payback of some kind for the sacrifices being made, and it has to be perpetual, otherwise resentment will take hold.

All this said, I might sound like I'm anti-open marriage.  I'm not.  I actually applaud the idea for those who are willing to consider it.  The reason is, an open marriage will eventually bring all the hidden issues out and force the partners to deal with them.  Long-term open marriages only work when the marriage works.  If the marriages don't work, opening them up will make that clear, and with the ambiguity gone, both partners will be OK moving forward with a different solution.  Agreeing to open a marriage is, therefore, a path toward growth and out of stalemate.  For that reason alone, it's something that many loving-but-struggling couples should consider.

If you have any thoughts about what makes an open marriage work (or not), please share them below so others might benefit from your experiences.

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