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Nicole is an on-screen relationship and mental health expert as well as a psychological consultant for TV shows.

Open marriages are a lot more functional than you think

June 11 2017

By Arti Patel

Couples may still not be comfortable to talk about their open marriages, but experts say the more we make them less of a secret, the less “dirty” the concept becomes.

“They need to be normalized just like monogamy has been,”Ottawa-based matchmaker with Friend of a Friend Matchmaking, Ceilidhe Wynn, tells Global News. “When monogamous people start to realize that open marriages and polyamorous relationships are often just the same as monogamous ones — just with more people — acceptance can happen.”

And while there are no hard statistics on how many couples are in open marriages in Canada, experts say it can range from both young people in their 20s, as well as people in their 40s. The older crowd often feels like they’ve missed out on exploring themselves sexually when they were younger, says relationship expert and couples’ therapist Nicole McCance.

But there’s a reason there are still negative connotations attached to this option of marriage, and typically, it has to do with monogamy.

“We’re told that monogamy is the ‘right’ way to do relationships and anything outside of that is seen as ‘cheating.’ But relationships and love aren’t so black and white,” Wynn explains.

How they work

Dr. Tammy Nelson, a sex and relationship expert and author of The New Monogamy, says an open marriage was once defined as swinging, especially in the ’70s, and in popular movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and the book Open Marriages by George and Nena O’Neill.

“For some couples, an open marriage means that you have a committed, intimate relationship with your partner, but sometimes you share a sexual experience, like going to sex clubs or on swingers vacations,” she tells Global News. “Each partner will have implicit assumptions about what opening a marriage might mean.”

Nelson says in order for an open marriage to work, both parties need to have a discussion on the monogamy agreement, including establishing the rules, negotiations, and what counts as “open.”

 “Everything should be a ‘talk-about-able’ thing,” she says. “Sometimes your vision of an open relationship might be different than your partner’s. The real takeaway regarding open marriage is that it means you need open communication.”

But it also can have downfalls

McCance says in her line of work with clients, typically, most people hold onto the idea of a traditional marriage and monogamy.

“In many ways, it is ingrained in us [that] we want our partners to pick us,” she tells Global News. “Our self-worth can be impacted, because at the end, [open marriages] are initially one person’s idea.”

And if one partner isn’t into the idea of their spouse sleeping or dating someone else, they can feel hurt and insecure.

“They will feel a sense of, ‘why am I not enough?’ and often go ahead with it,” she continues. “But I don’t see this working out long-term… I see people falling in love with other people.”

And Nelson adds open marriages aren’t excuses to just cheat, either.

“If you are currently [married], end it first and find new partners for your open experiment. Integrity is at the core of an open marriage,” she says. “Be honest and be clear about your boundaries.”

McCance said that in some scenarios, people just use the term, “open marriage” to justify cheating if they are away on a trip, for example. Often, the other partner doesn’t even know their spouse is having an affair.

How to make an open marriage last

But McCance says when there is a mutual understanding, these marriages can work. Of course, being open with your partner is one thing, but for others, an open marriage may just be the better option.

Often, if married couples have fallen out of love, they may agree on an open marriage for the sake of children or finances or both.

“You’re no longer in love, but you function well as a family,” she says.

Nelson adds when you’re in an open marriage, there are some particular conversations that may be difficult to talk about.

“Ask yourself if you are the kind of person who can discuss sex, jealousy and show appreciation,” she explains. “If you feel comfortable with all of these things, you might be the type of couple who can open a marriage with ease.”

But at the end of the day, Wynn says we should treat open marriages just like regular marriages.

“I think you make open marriages last the same way you make monogamous marriages last: through communication, love, and mutual respect. Maybe participants in an open marriage have to be more intentional about their communication but these are the bases of all relationships, romantic or otherwise.”

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