My Open, Sexless Marriage

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Photo: Gluekit

I first met Ryan at a Brown Literary Arts Department soiree. In a room full of reedy MFA candidates discussing Derrida’s Writing and Difference like it was an episode of Room Raiders, his sturdy frame, buzzed hair, and citron soccer jersey stuck out. From the moment I heard his almost scarily deep belly laugh and found out that he, too, grew up in the yawning northern suburbs of Atlanta and had a propensity for bar fights and tasteless jokes, we were best friends.   

He finally told me he had feelings for me months after I’d gotten out of a toxic six-year relationship and moved to New York. I was floored because I’d never thought of him as anything other than a friend — and yet I’d never been with someone I truly considered a friend, so I figured, what the hell? Why not take a chance on him, as Abba would say. I was 23, and he was a grizzled-but-sparkly-eyed 30. He’d spent his twenties working as a bookie in Costa Rica and cohabiting with call girls, then moved to Providence at 28, working as a sommelier before stumbling into a poetry masters program.

Sex was more of an afterthought than something that drove our dynamic. When we did it, it was brief and missionary — a brutally efficient task force. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it tremendously. But by the time he moved in with me, he was flummoxed by post-MFA life, how to make it in New York, how to find a job. Chronic anxiety pulverized his sex drive and left him rudderless. By the time we got married in 2008, we were barely having sex at all, and we weren't talking about it.

At 25, I was just beginning to revel in my sexuality, craving sex constantly like a hard pint of ice cream on a 90-degree afternoon. I found myself noticing strangers on the subway, in supermarket aisles, fantasized about pushing them into pyramids of canned palmitas and sucking them off. To make matters worse, it seemed like everyone else I knew in committed relationships had sex all the time and in a stunning array of positions. "Guys are so horny," everyone would say. "All they think about is sex!"

But Ryan, after an animated and promiscuous two decades of raucous escapades at home and abroad, was ready to call it a day. Though there was no shortage of physical contact and repartee in our relationship (I once described our physical interactions as “like puppies wrestling"), our sexlessness began to eat away at me, leaving me bitchy, cagey, and frustrated. Was I hideous? Was I the worst in bed? Should I just shut up about it already? Should I try sending more aggressive sexts? Should we get a divorce? 

Ryan had a boss who was heavily involved in swing culture. But our problem was not that we craved a voyeuristic adventure; I wanted sexual intimacy that Ryan was unable to provide. We then discovered that two very close friends who’d dated for many years had recently opened up their relationship, opting for polyandry. We found ourselves discussing their policy at length and with cautious curiosity.  

We made the official decision to go open during a crippling blizzard that left me stranded in our nation’s capital, where I’d gone to visit a friend. Standing alone beside a birch-bark canoe in the lobby of the Smithsonian’s Native American History Museum, watching masses of white flakes swirl and smash into the ceiling-high windows, I called Ryan. It was nine-thirty in the morning, and the museum was deserted. My galoshes squeaked against the freshly cleaned marble floor. “I love you. I am miserable,” I said. “And I think we should try what our friends are doing, or something like it.” And without any hesitation, he agreed.

Later that night, under the auspices of sloe gin in Adams Morgan, my friend’s very attractive, russet-haired colleague followed me into the (one-person!) ladies room, where we had a super-hot hookup. I took the Chinatown bus back to New York feeling better about my sexual self than I’d felt in years, although I was still apprehensive about how this would all turn out.

Ryan and I continued to have sporadic, once-every-few-months sex while I sought extramarital prospects in bars, through friends, and on the Internet. Dating was never something that I wanted at the forefront of my life, but at the dawn of our openness, I craved experiences, seeing potential fuck buddies in my periphery everywhere I turned. This soon tapered off, and I became more realistic and also more discriminating.

I've discovered that dating other people — though certainly not easy when you’re single — is exponentially more complicated when you’re married. Or maybe it’s just difficult in a different way. Sometimes the hardest parts are small: How do I tell someone who knows I’m married that I’m interested? Should I tell a one-night stand I’m married at all? How long can an extramarital relationship last? It can be difficult to find men willing to put up with a married lady in a complicated situation, and most of my extramarital relationships have been quite short-lived, some not even warranting a second date. I learned early on that a secondary relationship is, for me, too emotionally taxing and time-consuming. But what I didn’t realize is that even flings can be a balancing act, as it’s hard to find someone with needs similar to mine. Each date is a strange experiment, an exercise in self-discovery and a peek into the mysteries of human interactions and boundaries.

I once went home with a guy I met at a birthday party. We watched a series of commercials on his desktop computer, analyzing advertising strategies before he tied me up with twine he had lying around. We had some of the best, most acrobatic sex I’ve ever had, and part of me was envisioning some sort of sex-only long-term side project with this sublimely expert practitioner. Handing me a glass of tap water after the fact, he asked me if I had roommates. “Well, I’m actually married,” I said. “But we’re open.” I couldn’t think of a right time to bring up my relationship before, so I dropped my weirdness on him, plain and simple, smack in the middle of his bed.

“You know,” he said, “I like you, but I just don’t know how far this could go.”  

I left his house knowing I’d probably never see him.  

I’ve also been on benign dates to the Botanical Gardens, discussing the finer points of kittens and 4Loko. There was a time when it seemed like every guy I dated suggested simultaneous sex and TV-watching. (The West Wing is one of my small-screen options.) And I’ve gone through spells where I don’t date at all, which has been the case for the past six months owing to my looming masters thesis and work obligations.

Ryan’s extramarital escapades are not so different than mine, although he sees the same few women, sometimes goes months without contact, and rarely spends the night. Both of us are self-identified straight people, but I did have a lady start making out with me at a bar in the West Village, and I didn’t say no.

There’s definitely social stigma associated with openness. When you tell people, even close friends, that you’re married but also screw other people on the side, you often become relegated to weirdo-creepster status, or people act like somehow your relationship is less real than another married person’s. Perhaps worst of all was my mom’s reaction: I was tempting fate, she said, breaking the promise to my husband I’d made on my wedding day.

But for us, being open has brought active conversation, dynamism, and a new appreciation for our connection. Sex isn’t even remotely the most important part of a relationship, but it helps me feel human, enhances my vitality. Kind of like homemade pasta or reading a Grace Paley anthology or wearing more than one sequined item at a time.

I married my best friend, and after six years of being together, he remains my best friend, and I get to have an incredibly rich existence full of rye-fueled political debates and long walks through unfamiliar parts of Queens, a first reader for every piece of writing, someone with whom I can scope out handmade leather belts on Etsy till three in the morning. Did I mention no one knows more about heritage footwear than Ryan? Truth. These are all things I enjoy as much, or perhaps much more, than his penis in my vagina.