Life and Love

Relationships and marriage: Can an open relationship be successful?

Leda & St. Jacques Author: Elle Canada Credits: Leda & St. Jacques

Life and Love

Relationships and marriage: Can an open relationship be successful?

When Bronwyn*, a 32-year-old Toronto dermatologist, hit an indie-music night at a bar last winter, she was immediately taken with one of the singers. Joe* was an Alexander Skarsgård clone who had the eye of every gal in the room. Post-show, she sent him a Facebook message asking if he wanted to go for a drink. “We should go dancing sometime!” replied the 27-year-old. “By the way, I'm in an open relationship — is that cool?”

It’s safe to say that most people would respond with a firm “No.” But Bronwyn’s response was to send out an email to her girlfriends joking about what to wear on a date with a non-monogamous man. (The obvious punchline: “All your clothes at once.”) She met Joe for a few drinks, and they made each other laugh. It was a great first date — even though he already had a long-term girlfriend. None of this was really shocking for Bronwyn. Just a few months before, she had spent a lovely evening in a similar situation — except on that date the girlfriend was also present.

However unconventional Bronwyn’s dating life may seem, the number of couples who are in open relationships — or who have “come out” about being in one — seems to be increasing. One recent University of Utah study claims that 7 percent of straight couples are currently in one, but, beyond that, little research has been done on the subject. “There are no large-scale studies on open relationships that I know of,” says Deborah Anapol, a veteran relationship counsellor and author of P olyamory in the 21st Century. “But my impression is that the numbers are on the rise based on the growing number of people in open relationships who are seeking counselling and the growing number of people buying books about open relationships.”

Once a ’60s and ’70s pop-culture staple — thanks to key parties, freelove swinger clubs and John Updike novels — open relationship lifestyles today come with a new vocabulary. If you have not yet heard the terms “negotiated infidelity,” “non-monogamy,” “polyamory” and “monogamish,” you soon will. Whatever you call them, the modern-day open relationship encompass a wide variety of set-ups, from couples who swing with other people to couples who sleep (or form relationships) with others, separately or together. The only common denominators, generally, are honesty about who's doing what and a no-jealousy-allowed policy.

More on how an open relationship can be successful but what you should be aware of, on the next page...

MLS-06-254-EQ272edit.jpg“Attitudes have really changed over the past 25 years,” says Anapol. “After a retreat into monogamy— and secret affairs—in the late 20th century, more people are trying open relationships now.” And that includes celebrities: Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith are rumoured to be non-monogamous, as is Tilda Swinton. And during a very public breakup, reports swirled that Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher were supposedly living the lifestyle. Oscar winner Mo’Nique and rapper Pitbull have confirmed that they are in long-term open relationships. It has even come up in the U.S. presidential campaign: Marianne Gingrich, the ex-wife of presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, recently revealed that her ex once asked her for an open marriage. TV shows like The Mentalist and Private Practice have recently aired storylines featuring non-monogamous couples, and NFL superstar Chad Ochocinco inspired a million blog posts when he broached the idea of an open relationship on Basketball Wives. In theatres, cinemagoers can watch Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd open up their relationship in Wanderlust, while Hall Pass features Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis receiving permission from their wives for a one-off fling. Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s three-way relationship even earned Penélope Cruz a best-supporting-actress Oscar.

So why have open relationships made their way back into the zeitgeist? Credit the Internet, says Christopher Ryan, co-author of the bestseller Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. “It has made sexuality a lot more in-your-face, so it makes people think that unconventional sex isn’t such a big deal anymore,” he says. Plus, the ever-growing visibility of sexual minorities— including the gay and trans communities—is “indicative of increased tolerance,” he adds. “People are more accepting of non-traditional relationships.”

This is especially true of the under-40 set, according to Robyn Trask, executive director of Loving More, a non-profit polyamory association based in (the somewhat improbably named) Loveland, Colo. Founded in 1985, the association has more than 2,500 members, mainly in North America. “There has been more and more realization that monogamy isn’t for everyone— just look at all the articles, news segments and websites on the topic,” says Trask.

Psychologists weigh in on the modern relationship, on the next page...

MLS-06-254-EQ272edit.jpgStill, monogamish relationships are by no means mainstream, admits Eric Anderson, professor and author of The Monogamy Gap. “Most people still fear open relationships,” he says. “Men worry that if they ask for an open relationship, their partners will not only say no, but they’ll be so offended that they’ll break up with them.”

And for good reason. In an advice column for PsychologyToday.com, Harriet Lerner, a psychologist and author of Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up, warns a woman who is considering experimenting with an open marriage that she and her partner “may start to feel threatened, jealous, angry, anxious, or even a little crazy.” Lerner goes on to write that in her four decades of professional experience, she has only met one couple who claim to have made an open marriage work as partners and parents. “I don’t mean to sound like a big prude or a sex cop making rules for others,” she continues. “[But successful open marriages are] the very rare exception, not the rule. Usually, at least one person becomes an emotional casualty.”

Still, non-monogamy proponents like Ryan point to monogamy’s abysmal track record. In addition to North America’s one-in-two-couples divorce rate, the tabloids are filled with tales of the latest celebrity philanderers, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Duchovny, Jesse James and Tiger Woods. Even more astonishing is that Ashley Madison—the website for married people looking to cheat—went from one million members to 13 million in the past five years. The company’s annual revenue has tripled to $60 million in the past three years.

Anapol suggests that, in the long run, it’s much better to risk rejection by proposing an open relationship than to break a promise to be monogamous. “As more people gain the wisdom and courage to discuss open relationships with prospective partners, people will increasingly recognize open relationships as ethical and viable alternatives,” she says. “And the more people are willing to come out of hiding and let friends and family know that they have an open relationship, the more we will realize that lots of wonderful people, just like us, are choosing open relationships.”

But even for people like Bronwyn who are giving non-monogamous relationships a try, the jealousy factor still looms (as does the decision to go public—Bronwyn is not her real name). “I would be happy to continue seeing people in open relationships, but I’m an extraordinarily jealous person, so I’d have to ensure that I was comfortable enough within the relationship and entirely trusting of my partner,” she says. “But I don’t know that it’s something I could make work for me long-term. As a girlfriend, possibly. As a wife and mother, I’ll probably need to dial it back to monogamy, simply because it feels more secure.”

Read more:
Relationships: Why more couples are choosing to live separately

Dating and relationships: Are women the new commitment-phobes?

Is monogamy out of style?
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Life and Love

Relationships and marriage: Can an open relationship be successful?