Open marriage turned out to be the key to my happily ever after.
I was 17 when my sexual education began.
"You are responsible for your own orgasm," my boyfriend told me. He was the guy I lost my virginity to, the guy I had my first orgasm with, and the guy whose words would one day become my mantra: I am responsible for my own orgasm. I believe that literally and figuratively. In bed, I play an active role in getting what I want. But I also take charge of getting what I want throughout my sexual life.
That’s why, along with a husband I adore, I have lovers. My husband and I have an open marriage. I know it may sound decadent or like a throwback to the "free love" of the '60s. But really, for all the hype, "open marriage" is just one of many ways to negotiate love and sex and marriage. We haven’t been doing it that long, but it now seems so obvious. Like, "Why on earth didn’t we think of this before?"
Sex and love are totally different
I have always liked sex. I mean really, really liked sex. I have been accused, in fact, of "thinking like a man." That is, of seeing sex as something wholly separate from love. When my husband and I first started dating, it was obvious even then that our drives were quite different. As much as he enjoyed sex, he didn’t need or want it as often as I did. But I fell so madly in love with him, I figured it didn’t matter.
I was terribly wrong.
Three years into our marriage, I began to feel itchy. So I had an affair. She was beautiful, an artist I met through a mutual friend. I deliberately chose to have an affair with a woman, rationalizing that it wasn't as bad as sleeping with another man. (Simply by virtue of his gender, my husband never could be for me what she could be.)
She wasn't the first woman I’d been with. When my husband and I began dating, I told him that I was bisexual. "I don't care who you were with before," he told me. "But once it’s just you and me, it's just you and me." And that’s why — as lovely and sweet as my affair with Artist Girl was — it was awful, too. I felt sick about lying to my husband, sick about wanting to be with her, sick for not just calling it off — or avoiding it in the first place.
I thought hard about how I had gotten there. At first, I figured that my being with her really was about my bisexuality, about a part of me that I simply couldn't brush aside. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn’t true: It was about wanting more sex than my husband could offer, and sex different from that which any one person could provide.
My relationship with Artist Girl ended very, very badly. One night while in bed with her husband, she told him about us, foolishly thinking it would "turn him on." It didn't. He was furious and threatened to tell my husband. I knew I had to tell him myself. When I confessed, he was crushed, more because I had lied to him than because I had slept with her. I cried and cried, wondering if I had destroyed my marriage, if he would leave me, but also wondering if I would ever be happy, ever be sexually satisfied, ever find a way to make this work.
I tried to spice things up at home
We didn't talk about it much for several years. He couldn't. I would ask him once in a while if he was "OK," and he would tell me he was fine. Eventually, I believed him. I was keeping my nose clean, and we were bumping along — hitting rough patches, but bumping along. We had an adequate sex life; probably pretty darn good by some standards. Still, there were always things I wanted that I simply couldn’t get from him.
"I want you to talk dirty to me," I told him. "To tie me up. To attack me in the middle of the day on the kitchen floor."
"I can’t, baby," he'd say, drawing me into his arms. "I love you."
And slowly I began to figure it out. For my husband, sex with me was about loving me. And loving me was about caring for and respecting me. Although there are people who can manage that duality (or plurality), my husband simply couldn’t. And I wasn't sure he should have to. But I also wasn't sure that I should have to go without.
One day, on a whim, really, I asked my husband about a longtime friend of mine. She had once been a grad student at the university where I taught. I had helped her get through research papers, exams, and first-time teaching assignments. She spent a lot of long nights and weekend afternoons at our house during those two years, and we became close friends. Even after finishing her degree, she still spent a lot of time at the house.
"Have you ever thought about sleeping with her?" I asked him.
"No," he said. My husband has no poker face. "OK, yes, but ..."
"But what?" I asked.
"Well, first of all, she'd never want to sleep with me. She's 10 years younger than I am. And second, I don't want to be with anyone else."
"Really?" I asked.
"Well," he said, "I mean, I don't need to."
"But do you want to?" I didn’t need him to answer me. It was clear that, in his head, he was already there.
"She's hot," he said.
"I know," I laughed. "So ... ?"
"So, of course I’d like to sleep with her. But what about you?"
"Of course," I replied. "I'd like to sleep with her too, silly."
"That's not what I meant," he said.
"I know. I know. So ... ?"
"So, bring it on," he teased.
"She's dying to sleep with you, you know."
A threesome with my husband
It was true — I knew she was interested. We'd joked about it plenty of times before. "When are you going to let me at that hot husband of yours?" she'd ask me. "Whenever you like," I"d tell her. I started teasing my husband about it every now and then. Sometimes when we'd have sex I'd talk about her being there. It always was about wanting more sex than my husband could offer, and sex different from that which any one person could provide. pushed him over the edge.
Finally, I decided it was time.
"Let's do it," I said to her one night when we were at my house, watching yet another terrible, made-for-TV movie. She knew exactly what I was talking about.
"You sure?" she asked.
"Are you?" I asked back.
"Yeah," she said. "As long as you're positive it won't mess us up."
"I don't think it will," I said. "But you know I can't promise that."
"I know," she said. "But promise me anyway."
"OK," I told her. "I promise."
A few hours later, my husband came home. He slid onto the couch next to me, putting his hand on my right thigh, under the throw blanket. Her hand was already on my left. A few seconds later, I felt their hands accidentally touch, and I saw them look at one another. I'm pretty sure that was the exact moment my husband realized what was going on.
"I'm beat," he said a short while later. "I'm going to bed."
"We'll be up soon," I said. He kissed me, and began to walk away.
"What about me?" she asked. He looked at me, and then kissed her, long and hard. Laughing, he shook his head.
"You girls," he said, as he headed upstairs. When the movie ended, we followed. We slipped into bed with my husband as if we'd done it a hundred times before, one on either side of him.
Everything that followed felt equally natural.
It was amazing to watch them together. It was hot, but it was also very sweet. She was so lost in him and he in her. I was able to see him as a human being, if you know what I mean. Not as my husband or my daughter's father, but as a man, a sexual being, a person who wants to be wanted, who needs to be wanted.
And I know that watching her and me together was an incredible experience for him as well. She even taught him how to give me a G-spot orgasm, a feat that he had never managed. It sounds so deviant, I know. But it was charming, really. He held her long hair in his hands and watched her. He also stole looks at me. "I love you," he mouthed. "I love you, too," I somehow managed. And when I came, I couldn't help but notice the glances the two of them exchanged. "Not bad," his seemed to say. "See, I could teach you a thing or two," hers seemed to imply. It was weird. But it was also, well, normal.
Giving up 'ownership' of your spouse
My husband and I had a six-month affair with my close friend. The three of us had sex. He and she had sex. She and I had sex. And, of course, he and I continued to have sex, just the two of us. The arrangement eventually faded out, and we all slipped back into our previous relationships. But my marriage was forever changed. Our experience with her was the catalyst that led us to explore open marriage.
It's been interesting and hard and wonderful and confusing. It has led to some terribly sad moments and some incredibly joyful ones. The sad ones always stem from some combination of ego, insecurity, and lack of communication.
The wonderful ones result from love and trust and understanding. But really, it's blindingly simple. We give each other what we need, including freedom and space. We respect one another. And we are self-aware enough to know that we're interested in, and capable of, exploring sex, whatever that means for us and despite what it may mean for anyone else. (That is, of course, anyone not sexually involved with us.) It has brought my husband and me closer than I ever imagined possible.
We communicate in ways I never dreamed of, staying up late at night talking about the nature of monogamy, of sexuality, of marriage, and of life in general. I suppose open marriage works for us for precisely that reason: because we talk about it, because it has opened us to one another. The learning curve certainly has been steep. We have absolutely, positively no models for what we’re doing. We’re really just the average couple next door. Really. We’ve just found that "owning" each other sexually doesn’t help our marriage.
It only hurts it.
It is amazing, though, how much trouble people have with open marriage. One person told me how sad he is that I need "conquests" and need others to find me sexually attractive to be satisfied, and that he hopes that one day I'll find enough success elsewhere to overcome that. Another person told me she thinks I'm a lesbian who doesn't want to give up the creature comforts my marriage provides. Still another said she’s scared for me and my relationship if I need such "fireworks." But each of these statements said more about the speaker than about me.
The truth is I'm just like everyone else. I'm just trying to figure out all of this life stuff. It's hard. There's this one plan we're all supposed to follow, this heterosexual, monogamous, child-rearing, one-size-fits-all model that we're all supposed to goose-step into line with. But I can't. In fact, I have a responsibility not to. I am responsible for my own orgasm — and my own happiness. And I don't need other people to like me or to approve, and I don’t need others to live in the same way I do. I just need to do what I need to do, without hurting myself or others. For right now, at least, that means having sexual relationships outside of my marriage.
Communicating ... and doing it right
My husband hasn't pursued anyone since my friend. He says he's too shy to pick up girls, and, really, he doesn't feel the need. I can sometimes tell that the fact that I do hurts him. "Intellectually," he explains, "I totally get it. But sometimes, emotionally, it's hard."
"I know," I tell him. "Do you need me to stop?"
"No," he says. "I'm not that guy. But you have to bear with me. I'm still trying to figure all of this out."
"Hey," I reply. "Me too."
And it's true. Neither of us really knows how we feel or what will or won't work until we test it out. For example, my husband continues to wrestle with how much he does and does not want to know. If I'm with another woman, he wants every gory detail. But when I'm with another man, sometimes he'd prefer not to know it happened at all. Generally, though, he likes to know who and when.
When he asks for specific information, I answer. Sometimes, however, it's hard to read whether he really wants that answer, and I feel sad when I get it wrong. Like when I don't tell him something and it comes up later, making him feel out of the loop, something I try desperately to avoid. It all boils down to effective communication — without it, no marriage, open or otherwise, stands a chance.
Being secretive, lying, or sneaking around — those would be surefire ways to destroy our marriage. But the sex itself is not a threat.
I think of it as the "playpen effect:" You keep a kid locked up in one of those things and all she thinks about is how to get out, how much she'll love what’s in the other room. But let her roam free and check it all out, and odds are she'll end up at your feet, playing with a puzzle.
Is there a chance she'll love another room and stay in there instead? Sure. Just like there’s always a chance one of us will fall in love with someone else and decide to end our marriage. But I don't think that having sex outside our marriage increases that risk. In fact, I believe it decreases it, because it removes all the fantasy. I don't pine. If I want someone (and he wants me), then I have him. So far, no one has come even close to making me want to jump ship. But I’ll tell you the truth: Before we tried out this open marriage thing, I definitely wondered about the quality of the grass in other lawns.
This is in no way a prescription for anyone else. All I know is how I feel, which is loved and cherished and secure—thanks to my husband. I want that. But I don't see anything wrong with wanting more. And, for me, that "more" is longing. Mystery. Sexual tension. Craving—and getting tastes of—things I never wholly possess.
Why am I married, then? Many people have asked me that question. So I'll tell you exactly what I tell them. As hot as it makes me when a new conquest whispers something scandalous in my ear, nothing thrills me like the sound of my husband’s voice when I hear him say, "Hey, baby, I'm home."
Read more by Jenny Block on her blog, Open Up.