What Open Marriage Taught One Man About Feminism

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Photo: Photography by Bobi/Getty Images

As I write this, my children are asleep in their room, Loretta Lynn is on the stereo, and my wife is out on a date with a man named Paulo. It’s her second date this week; her fourth this month so far. If it goes like the others, she’ll come home in the middle of the night, crawl into bed beside me, and tell me all about how she and Paulo had sex. I won’t explode with anger or seethe with resentment. I’ll tell her it’s a hot story and I’m glad she had fun. It’s hot because she’s excited, and I’m glad because I’m a feminist.

Before my wife started sleeping with other men, I certainly considered myself a feminist, but I really only understood it in the abstract. When I quit working to stay at home with the kids, I began to understand it on a whole new level. I am an economically dependent househusband coping with the withering drudgery of child-rearing. Now that I understand the reality of that situation, I don’t blame women for demanding more for themselves than the life of the housewife. 

Still, as a man, I could, if I wanted to, portray what I’m doing as “work,” and thus claim for myself the prestige men traditionally derive from “work.” Whenever I tell someone I stay home with the kids, they invariably say, “Hardest work in the world.” They say this because the only way to account for a man at home with the kids is to say what he’s doing is hard work. But there’s a subtext in the compliment that makes it backhanded: We both know no one ever says it to a woman. Mothers care; fathers provide care. The difference is crucial. Despite my total withdrawal from the economy and the traditional sources of masculine identity, I can still argue I am a provider. I provide care.  

In this way, my masculine self-image was stretched but not broken. Diaper bag notwithstanding, I was still a Man. It wasn’t until my wife mentioned one evening that she’d kissed another man and liked it and wanted to do more than kiss next time that I realized how my status as a Man depended on a single fact: that my wife fucked only me. 

***

When people ask how it started, I say this: We married young. She’d had sex before me, but only with a handful of people a handful of times. She never had a boyfriend, never had a lover. I was the first man she ever had the chance to get to know intimately. By her mid-30s, having already had our children and entering her sexual prime, she felt keenly her lack of sexual experience. Happily for me, she was willing to talk about it, willing to ask if I’d be open to exploring other options. We opened a bottle of wine and started talking, and talking, and talking.

She didn’t present it as an issue of feminism to me, but after much soul-searching about why the idea of my wife having sex with other men bothered me I came to a few conclusions: Monogamy meant I controlled her sexual expression, and, not to get all women’s-studies major about it, patriarchal oppression essentially boils down to a man’s fear that a woman with sexual agency is a woman he can’t control. We aren’t afraid of their intellect or their spirit or their ability to bear children. We are afraid that when it comes time for sex, they won’t choose us. This petty fear has led us as a culture to place judgments on the entire spectrum of female sexual expression: If a woman likes sex, she’s a whore and a slut; if she only likes sex with her husband or boyfriend, she’s boring and lame; if she doesn’t like sex at all, she’s frigid and unfeeling. Every option is a trap. 

Feminism always comes back to sex, even when we’re talking about everything else. The point isn’t that all women should be sexual adventurers. Celibacy is as valid an expression of sexuality as profligacy. The point is that it should be women who choose, not men — even the men they’re married to. For my wife, the choice between honoring our vows and fulfilling her desires was a false choice, another trap. She knew how deep our love was, and knew that her wanting a variety of sexual experiences as we traveled through life together would not diminish or disrupt that love. It took me about six months — many long, intense conversations, and an ocean of red wine — before I knew it, too.

When my wife told me she wanted to open our marriage and take other lovers, she wasn’t rejecting me, she was embracing herself. When I understood that, I finally became a feminist. 

***

That was two years ago, and today we’ve never been happier, more in tune, closer, tighter, stronger. Whatever power I surrendered, I don’t miss. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but I tell everyone it works for us. 

How does it work? We take turns going out. Because we have small children (ages 6 and 3), one of us stays home. (We don’t like to use babysitters because it gives us a curfew; we’d rather go out unfettered than worry about turning into a pumpkin at midnight.) Going out alone to hooking up with others was an easy transition. It does work both ways and, yes, I too enjoy sexual carte blanche. I just don’t use mine as much as my wife uses hers. What’s important is equality of opportunity, not outcome.

How does it feel? It feels great ... mostly. Most of the time, it feels like a mature, responsible way to address our needs and desires within our loving, mutually supportive marriage. It feels very adult, especially because it depends on open, honest communication. We take great pride in all the talking we do. I meet a lot of people who say they’ll never get married because they don’t want to get divorced, and hearing it always makes me sad, because they are cutting themselves off from the possibility of the magic that happens when two people share their lives. People don’t divorce because they can’t stand sharing anymore; they divorce because they feel like they can’t share enough. I never forget that my wife is a whole person unto herself, a complete and dynamic individual, and though we are together, we’re not one. Too often people get trapped in the roles of husband and wife, and a gulf opens between what they think they should be and who they really are. Opening our marriage has allowed us to close that gap so that the person I call “wife” is the same person my wife sees in the mirror. Lying to each other begins with lying to yourself, and now we don’t have to lie to anyone. 

There are of course moments of jealousy, resentment, and insecurity. Recently, my wife went on a date and fell asleep at his apartment. I hadn’t heard from her since 10 p.m., she still wasn’t home at 6 a.m. My texts went unanswered and my calls went to voicemail. A tight knot of dread lodged in my stomach as I imagined all kinds of dire scenarios and realized that I not only didn’t know where she was, I had no idea whom she was with. I pictured myself going to the police saying, “I think she’s in Red Hook with a guy named Ryan. I don’t know his last name, but I think he’s a graphic designer?” I’m not sure there’s actually a word for the unique blend of acute terror and unforgivable shame I felt that morning imagining that I’d lost my wife to Ryan, the maybe graphic designer. When she finally texted me at 7:30 a.m., relief coursed through me like morphine. She wrote, “fuckfuckfuckfuck Im soooooo sorry. Fell asleep.” I replied, “Just glad you’re ok, but next time, no radio silence. Remember: you’re not alone.”

What surprises most people is when I tell them it’s not the sex-with-other-men that bothers me. The sex is the easy part, the fun part. It’s what the sex connects to, stands for, reveals that can be difficult. I don’t want her to fall in love with anyone else, and every time she goes on a date, I confront the possibility that she might. It happened at the beginning: The first person she dated after we opened up fell hard in love with her, and my wife, overwhelmed by his ardor, tried to love him back. Watching it happen, I was confused, angry, and terrified that she wanted to leave me. She assured me she didn’t, and whatever feelings she had for him didn’t lessen what she felt for me. Believing her then was the ultimate trust exercise. We survived because eventually I did believe her, and also because I learned to trust myself.

This has been the great challenge of my open marriage: to draw strength from vulnerability. Doing so requires supreme self-confidence. You must first really, truly love yourself; it is the foundation upon which all the other love is built. From everywhere comes the message that what I’m doing is for weaklings, losers, failures, pussies; that if I had money and status, I could keep my wife “in line”; that her self-discovery comes at the expense of my self-esteem. My open marriage has made heavy demands on my ability to silence the voice of doubt in my head, that gnawing feeling of worthlessness. But I find I can meet those demands, and that I am able to build my self-confidence out of nothing more than the basic dignity we all possess. I’m grateful to my wife for pushing us to take this leap, and whatever happens to us in the future I would do it all again. And when she comes home tonight and crawls into bed beside me with a hot story about her date with Paulo, she’ll do it all again, too.