The scenario I fear most, which, thank goodness, hasn't happened and I pray never will, is that people will stop letting their children come over to our house to play with our daughter. One of my very closest friends, Alex, ended up taking issue with my lifestyle at one point in our friendship. She was worried that her children might "see something" when they were playing at our house. She felt unnerved by my own comfort with my open relationship, and because she and her husband and I had experimented a bit together at one point, she lashed out at me, rather than talking through her reasons for feeling upset or regretting her choice, or whatever the issue was for her. I respect my partners' privacy just as I expect them to honor mine, but other people can be unpredictable, to be sure, and that is one of the greatest hazards of being in an open relationship. That risk can require significant management, and it cannot always be controlled.
Alex and I ended up having a long talk and working out our problems, though I don't know that we ever quite got to the root of her discomfort. The problem stemmed from her not being able to wrap her head around what had happened. There was no tidy little box into which she could fit our liaison, or me, for that matter. I had no problem with what had happened with Alex and her husband, and I didn't want us or our children to lose out on the friendships that were at stake. But without the box, she questioned her own acceptance of me.
It's sad when we question our own judgment, our own gut instincts, because they don't mirror what everyone else is saying or doing or believing. Making an open marriage effective means being prepared to work through any rough spots with your friends, surrounding yourself with as many enlightened people as you can, and setting an example for people of just how normal and reasonable an open marriage can be. I feel like I'm finally at a pretty good point with most of my close friends, but there's always the potential for missteps with them, and then there are the issues that arise when I meet new people or acknowledge my circumstances to current acquaintances, particularly people I know through Emily's school. It's a calculated risk. But I can think of few things in life worth doing that aren't.
Things are different for me now because Jemma is the only person I see outside of my marriage. Without doing a lot of dating and having various relationships, I have less potential for turmoil, to be sure. But it's still hard to juggle. I want to be with Emily and Jemma and Christopher all the time, yet I can't because Jemma doesn't live with us. And that makes me sad sometimes. When I think about it in the simplest of terms, our arrangement feels like a forced, contrived, and unnecessary separation of people who, outside of social conventions, would likely live together. The idea of living with my family and Jemma has certainly occurred to me, but that's not something any of us want, at least not for now.
This has to do with where I live, my desire to protect my daughter, and the fact that our society cares too much about how people love. And so, despite my comfort and my openness, and despite living alternatively and following my heart in my relationships, I still, in many ways, live under the thumb of others' expectations and ideals. That will likely continue as long as Emily lives at home, because I want to protect her from other people's ignorance and potential wrath.
What an awful commentary: that because I enjoy sex, particularly in a way that too many people find abnormal, I'm automatically deemed mentally ill or unstable or dangerous to my own child. In an incredibly unscientific survey, I gave questionnaires to people in open relationships, and asked them about the hows and whys of their daily lives. One respondent, whom I'll call Sara, expressed fears that were all too familiar to me. "We do not look like the ideal family, so it would be easy for people to take that next step to the idea that there is something wrong with us as parents."
The final stage in figuring out how to be in a successful open marriage is overcoming our own worries and other people's misunderstandings about how we define our relationships. There's nothing unusual about people who choose open marriage, except perhaps that we opt to tell the truth to ourselves and to one another. There wouldn't be any great apocalyptic end to life as we know it if the "accepted" definition of a marriage or a relationship or even a family were to include those of us who don't look like a family straight out of Leave It to Beaver.
Open marriage does not and will not disrupt life as we now know it. It already is life as we know it, even though some people pretend not to understand that. They seem terrified of open marriages, of any alternative lifestyle, for the same reason that they're scared of anything unknown: They don't know what to expect around the corner. This situation is similar, and not surprisingly so, to society's struggle with interracial marriage and its continued wrangling with same-sex marriage. My hope is that others will come clean about their lifestyles, as I have, as we work toward creating a society where people in heterosexual, monogamous marriages are not the only ones who are permitted to live free from harsh and unfounded judgment.
I'm not out to change anyone. I'm interested in changing how we look at everyone. Everyone needs support. No one needs jealousy and no one benefits from it. Open marriage is happening all around us. And no walls are going to come tumbling down because of it. Living openly is about living honestly, loving fully, and being able to embrace that choice freely. This is what I want or myself and others, both those who are already living in open marriages and those who are interested in exploring its possibilities.