Wives who want an open marriage: can it work?

Can open marriages ever work? Our agony aunt, Mary Fenwick, offers some insightful advice to one reader whose wife wants an open marriage...


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If your spouse has recently hinted that they want an open marriage, it can be tricky to know who to turn to or what the next right move is – after all, everyone wants their wives, husbands or partners to feel happy, free and fulfilled. However, you also need to protect your relationship, and yourself.

What does open marriage mean?

An open marriage is a form of non-monogamy where a married couple consents to each of them engaging in extramarital romantic or sexual encounters with partners outside of their relationship.

While marriage, at its core, is based upon monogamy (where you are exclusively committed to one partner), many married couples find that experimenting with polygamy (where you have multiple partners at a given time) can in fact strengthen their bond with each other.

The key to a successful open marriage is for both consenting partners to be clear about their own desires and their expectations of their spouse.

Many couples will lay down certain ground rules about, for example, who their spouse is allowed to have sexual relations with (e.g. no work colleagues or mutual friends) or whether they can ‘date’ people or only have one-night stands. Both parties must be clear to each other about where their boundaries lie.

Below, we hear from one reader whose wife has expressed a desire for an open marriage. While they want their wife to feel fulfilled, they have some reservations about jumping into an open marriage…

‘My wife wants an open marriage. Can we make it work?’

‘For some years, I have been aware of my wife’s desire to explore her sexuality by having sex with other partners as a one-off or occasional activity. I love her deeply and we have always enjoyed a marvellous sex life together. It’s also worth noting that I have no strong desire for other women.

‘I would, I think, be pleased to see her fulfilled in this way. She, however, fears that I would be hurt and that our long relationship would suffer. I am not sure that I could share her without some anguish, but I believe I could also gain another level of maturity. I believe that, at some point, we may take the plunge and would welcome advice on alleviating the pain.’

Mary’s advice on dealing with wives who want an open marriage:

‘An open relationship puts pressure on everyone to be very clear about their desires. I believe what you want for yourself is not quite clear yet. I talked to psychosexual therapist Krystal Munn, who was interested in your assumptions about an open relationship and maturity. She referred to the wheel of consent by coach Betty Martin, which takes us into layers beyond a simple yes or no.

‘In this way of thinking, there are four possible actions: serve, accept, take and allow. Serving is an act that benefits your partner, but not you. Accepting is when you gain from the action of others (you want to give me a massage? Yes please). In taking, all the benefit is for the taker; and allowing means ‘you can act as you want, even if there is no benefit to me’. Each of these roles also has their dark, or shadow, side.

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The wheel of consent and open marriages:

‘We can apply this wheel of consent to wives who want an open marriage. In your situation, it sounds as if your wife would be in the role of taker, and you want to allow it. Where it gets tricky is if this means tolerating or enduring. Your feelings could change, and there’s the danger of hidden resentment, which you might not want to admit even to yourself. Is this based on a fear that your wife might leave you if you do not do this? What if she falls in love with a new partner?

‘Munn has worked with polyamorous couples, both when it has worked and when it hasn’t. She says: “If your natural orientation is monogamy, then the amount of emotional labour to feel OK about an open relationship could be all-consuming.” There’s a level of awareness and honesty required here that might be painful in itself, and there are no guarantees.

‘I would suggest exploring your own hopes and fears in a safe space – perhaps on your own with neutral support – before introducing another person. What you envisage is possible, but the question is what you want from this relationship, and what you are prepared to put into it.’

Mary Fenwick is a writer, speaker and executive coach; she’s also a mother, divorcee and widow. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line. For more about Mary’s work in leadership and team coaching, her Writing Back to Happiness programme and free resources, go to maryfenwick.com.

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