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Are You Open?

Why it feels like everyone you know is curious about non-monogamy.

Originally Published: 
Are You Open?

There is a common misconception that it is mostly men or young people who want to be in open relationships, but almost every couple I know who has explored the idea has done so because of a woman’s desire to be physically intimate with someone other than her longtime partner. When I first started writing about non-monogamy five years ago — both my own and others, in my capacity as a sex columnist — I was met with lots of pushback, pearl-clutching, and public displays of pity for my children. That a concept like this still has the power to shock speaks to how thoroughly we have been conditioned, for generations, to overlook, ignore, and shame middle-aged women into silence when it comes to our desire for sexual adventure and autonomy.

But in the last five years, the dynamic has changed. The same people who came for me with judgment were circling back with questions. Perhaps Covid had something to do with it. There was something of a global reckoning with domestic, sexual, and emotional inequity, not to mention a claustrophobia — literal and figurative — that wasn’t there before. There are also new resources for the polycurious, like the app Feeld. Whatever the reasons, I have experienced firsthand a growing curiosity about non-monogamous relationships that did not exist pre-pandemic, specifically from women and mothers.

If nothing else, the last few years have left us with a heightened awareness that wives — and mothers, particularly — are supposed to take care of everyone before ourselves; to put our own needs, sexual and otherwise, last. And in speaking with different couples, ranging in age from 35 to 55, for this piece, as well as drawing on my own experience with non-monogamy, I was once again reminded that female desire is often grossly misunderstood and deprioritized — not only by men, but by women, too.

I have found that for many women, an appetite for something outside of their domestic duties as wives and mothers has been the driving force behind a desire for intimacy outside of their homes. This is the most common story I hear from women looking to branch out sexually: that in order to please their husbands, their own pleasure often took a back seat. And they’re ready for that to change.

The last few years have left us with a heightened awareness that wives — and mothers, particularly — are supposed to put our own needs last.

My own experiments with ethical non-monogamy (ENM) began five years ago. In the wake of my husband’s death, when many assumed I would burrow deep within my grief like a good widow, I was quietly plotting my escape from heteronormativity and mapping out a future where I could redefine my own boundaries when it came to sex, dating, and desire. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time.

I got married at 23, months after I became pregnant with my first child. At the time, getting married seemed like the “right” thing to do. While I loved my husband, we had only known each other a handful of months before we eloped to Vegas and recited vows that I repeated, not because I meant them, but because that’s just what you do.

I wanted to show everyone that I could be an adult woman in an adult world, which at the time translated to “wife and mother.” That was the only model I had, a model that came from my parents’ generation and not my own because, at the time, I was barely an adult.

“That’s just what you do” became my explanation for everything that happened in my early years of marriage. Knowing that everyone in my family and extended family had “made it work” even when their marriages became tumultuous, I believed that I needed to do the same.

My fear of leaving my marriage permanently was replaced by the power I felt when I left my husband temporarily by way of extramarital affairs. My infidelity, paradoxically, is what kept me married for as long as I was. It wasn’t until the affairs stopped that I faced my marriage head-on and realized how alone it made me feel. How desperate I was to connect with other people and how trapped I felt choosing the same person every day, a person with whom I was unable to communicate openly and fearlessly. A person I had married before I knew who either one of us was.

I do not condone marital affairs but I do understand and empathize with people who have had them. In the aftermath of my marriage, I was certain that if I ever had a relationship again, it would be an open one.

When my friends of 20 years, Sarah and Seth, opened their marriage in 2019, it was Sarah’s idea. For nearly 15 years they had been happily married monogamous co-parents, but shortly after turning 40, Sarah wanted a change.

“I felt like I woke up a teenage boy. I felt like I had an itch I needed to scratch or I would die.”

For Sarah, it had nothing to do with her love for Seth (who joined us in conversation for this piece) or the sex they were having in their marriage and everything to do with hitting middle age, recognizing a hormonal shift, and feeling suddenly sexually voracious and exploratory.

“I felt like I woke up a teenage boy,” says Sarah, who is 45. “I felt like I had an itch I needed to scratch or I would die. It was that extreme a feeling.”

She knew that there would be a time when she wasn’t so sexually hungry and she didn’t want to regret never having had sexual experiences outside of her marriage. Like me, she had married relatively young and now, with teenage children, was finding her way back to herself.

“There was someone I specifically had in mind. Someone I had been flirting with and really wanted to take it a step further,” Sarah explained to me in her living room. “I told Seth that I wanted to act on my feelings and that I wanted to experiment with an open relationship to see how it felt.”

Seth’s immediate response to his wife’s proposal was jealousy and sadness, but over a series of weeks he became open to, and even excited by, the idea. “I didn’t have a person waiting in the wings so I felt jealous that she wanted to have an experience without me,” he says. “But that changed as soon as I started dating other people.”

“I felt like I woke up a teenage boy,” says Sarah, 45. “I felt like I had an itch I needed to scratch or I would die. It was that extreme a feeling.”

I have known both Seth and Sarah for 20 years and yet, but I was surprised and moved by how honest they were about this part of their lives. This window into their relationship feels so generous, so expansive, and I wonder if part of the nature in the opening of one’s relationship is a willingness to be more open with strangers and friends alike — with the whole world, even.

It certainly felt that way for me the first time I entered into a relationship with no constraints. In early 2019, a handful of months after my husband died, after being very clear that I wasn’t looking for a relationship of any kind, let alone a monogamous one, I met someone. He was recently divorced after 20 years and, when I asked how he felt about sleeping with other people, he said he was as excited by the idea as I was.

I was blown away by his reaction, and the conversations that followed, as we continued to fall in love with each other and build a relationship that was open, honest, and sexually expansive in a way I had never experienced. I was able to explore everything I had ever desired sexually, even if it fell outside our relationship. Because neither one of us had ever experienced a consensually non-monogamous relationship before, we were equally amazed by how bonding it was, how turned on we both were when we talked about other people, and how exciting it was when we slept with other people, both apart and together. At the time, I was overwhelmed by my duties as a solo mother of four and would have felt equally overwhelmed in a traditional relationship — knowing I was unable to provide my partner with the time and attention he might have expected from me had we been monogamous.

However, that relationship changed me on a fundamental level. It spoke to the parts of me that had never felt safe in “this is just what you do” and allowed me to delete and rewrite that narrative — as a partner, a sexual being, and a human in the world. I felt like I was part of a shifting narrative.

I also learned that every relationship is different and that what feels right and safe with one partner might not feel right and safe with another. (For example, in the last few years, I’ve had two serious relationships that were monogamous, and I had no desire to seek outside partners in either scenario.)

Because neither one of us had ever experienced a consensually non-monogamous relationship before, we were equally amazed by how bonding it was.

Seth and Sarah similarly had only ever been monogamous, but the first time Sarah had sex with someone other than her husband it felt effortless. “That was a surprise to me. I had expected it to feel strange being with someone else but it felt absolutely right. It felt natural. I didn’t feel guilty. I felt like myself,” she says.

For Seth, it was the opposite. “It felt awful. Performative. Like I was just checking a box. I wasn’t attracted to the woman I slept with intellectually, which I realized was something I needed if I was going to have sex with someone as a man in my 40s.”

As time passed, however, a switch flipped. Sarah continued to have casual sex with men outside of her marriage and Seth’s quest for the same turned into a full-blown relationship with one woman who became his girlfriend, although they have since broken up. “It happened fast. I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late,” he says.

Sarah admits that the situation was difficult but because opening the marriage had been her idea, she felt she had to be supportive. “I wanted him to get everything out of that relationship that he needed so in that way I was happy for him. But I also realized we were looking for two different things outside of our marriage once it was open. For me, I was looking for casual intimacy and human connection. He was looking for an emotional connection. Something deeper. An actual girlfriend.”

After Seth broke up with his girlfriend, Sarah and Seth took a break from dating other people and focused solely on their own relationship for several months before opening it back up again.

When I asked Sarah if she is afraid of what might happen if Seth falls in love again, she thinks and then responds: “There is an understanding between us that this could go horribly wrong and maybe there’s something in that that feels human in a way that excites me.”

Seth agrees. “I think this has made me realize that good sex outside of my marriage means playing with fire a little bit. I want to feel romantic with other people. I do not want to just have sex with them,” he says. I also now know that I am capable of falling in love with people outside my marriage and it doesn’t mean I love my wife any less. I have a capacity to love more than one person that I didn’t know I had. But that capacity doesn’t make me want to leave my marriage, it makes me value that I have the kind of marriage where I can feel unlimited.”

It’s not unusual for people who have been in a heterosexual marriage to open their relationship in order to explore their queerness outside of the marriage.

Valerie, 35, a lesbian who is currently in a relationship with her poly girlfriend, Hannah, makes similar points when describing her evolution as a partner in an open relationship.

Valerie, who was hesitant to date someone polyamorous, explains to me that when she first started dating Hannah, she was surprised by how natural it felt to be with someone who identified as poly, and how easy it felt to deeply connect with her, knowing she was also connecting with others. “I think because it felt authentic to who she was, falling for her meant falling for all of her,” says Valerie. “I was able to separate my needs from hers and recognize that what bonded me to her was going to look different than what bonded her to me.”

Hannah, 37, whom Valerie has been dating for four months, lives with her husband, though they are no longer sexually or romantically involved, and their 6-year-old daughter. Hannah’s husband also has a primary partner, a woman. They remain a family dedicated to raising their daughter under one roof but they are no longer intimate. And while Hannah has a primary partner in Valerie, she also dates outside of that relationship.

Valerie, on the other hand, does not.

When I ask her how she feels about Hannah being with other people, Valerie explains that she’s had to learn how to be more open and comfortable with her girlfriend’s experiences with other women. “The way I process her intimate experiences with other people is that I think of her hanging out with friends. If I think about it, what is the difference between me hanging out with platonic friends and her hanging out with friends she is having sex with? It’s just sex, after all. And just because sex for me feels most meaningful with one person, it doesn’t mean she has to feel the same way. That said, I try not to think about the details when I know she’s with someone else. And the only information I require is more logistical. For example, she can’t cancel plans with me to see someone new. She has to work around our schedule.”

“As a lesbian I have never done relationships by the book. In that way, it has been easier for me to adjust, I think.”

As someone who has known Valerie for almost a decade, I am surprised by how effortlessly she has navigated her relationship with Hannah. Years ago, when I first started dating non-monogamously, she said to me that she could never.

She says she has surprised herself — and while monogamy was what worked for her in the past, this relationship is its own unique experience. “I have always leaned into my fluidity and I think a lot of my resistance to poly relationships came from the fact that in all of my relationships, I was, by default, deviating from the norm. As a lesbian I have never done relationships by the book. In that way, it has been easier for me to adjust, I think.”

It’s not unusual for people who have been in a heterosexual marriage to open their relationship in order to explore their queerness outside of the marriage. I frequently think about the story my friend, who is several decades older than me, told me about her own marriage. She was married to a man whom she adored but who was also a known womanizer. She assumed he was cheating on her their entire marriage. When she reached middle age, after being faithful to him for more than 20 years, she told him she wanted to have a sexual experience with a friend, a woman she had grown attracted to over the course of years, a woman who wanted her back. My friend’s husband was appalled and reprimanded her for even asking to do it, so she agreed not to act on the thing she most desired at that time: sex with a woman.

Years later, on his deathbed, he confessed to sleeping with dozens of women throughout their marriage. She had only ever been with one person her entire life: him.

This story is my Roman Empire — mainly because I know it’s not unique. I know so many women of a different generation who have had to tame themselves while their husbands ran wild. I wonder if my friend had been my age and negotiating marriage in 2024 would have handled her husband’s objections to exploration differently. Perhaps she would have been more empowered to make different choices — to take back the body that never fully belonged to her after she married, and make it hers again.

Generationally, we have come a long way, which is perhaps why my children have never batted an eyelash over my fluidity within my post-marital relationships. We are raising children at a time when gender, sexuality, and the very nature of traditional monogamous relationships mean entirely different things than they once did to us. All around them, our kids are seeing people rejecting old norms faster than we are even allowing ourselves to question them.

“I think people are waking up and recognizing that in the same way some relationships thrive within the monogamous model, others thrive within the freedom open relationships provide,” says Austin, 51.

I have not kept my exploration a secret from anyone — let alone my kids — and while they have certainly asked questions, none of them have been judgmental. Perhaps that’s because I have been honest with them from the beginning of my tenure as a single mom, but it’s also, I think, because I have never been ashamed of myself (or anyone else) for their relationship choices. It helps that I have raised my children in a home and community that demands exploration and imagination and a questioning of all authority, including my own.

It’s easy to roll eyes or make jokes about ENM, but when you are listening to stories of women exploring a freedom that allows them to denounce restrictive expectations in favor of their own autonomy and desire, it suggests a future where we are able to do that not just sexually but culturally as well.

As a parent, I want my children to build their own paradigms when it comes to love and sex.

The ease in which we weaponize monogamy as the safer way to have sex — both physically and emotionally — comes from the assumption that sex is something that belongs behind closed doors in a marriage and cannot function in a happy, healthy way outside of that. For those of us who have spent decades in unhappy marriages — or practiced unethical non-monogamy, aka infidelity — this no longer rings true. “I think people are waking up and recognizing that monogamy is unrealistic for many of us and that in the same way some relationships thrive within the monogamous model, others thrive within the freedom open relationships provide,” says Austin, who is 51 and spent 10 years in a monogamous marriage before getting a divorce five years ago. He is currently in an open relationship with his partner of three years, also a mother of two.

Sarah and Seth agree that ENM has actually brought them closer to one another and that, even with all the complexities of their peripheral relationships, they’ve never been happier in their marriage. They have also never been more fulfilled as individuals. “Most of us had only one kind of relationship model as kids. We were never presented with different paradigms when it came to long-term relationships. Experimenting with new relationship design feels revolutionary both as a couple and as an individual woman who is very much in her sexual prime,” says Sarah.

As a parent, I want my children to build their own paradigms when it comes to love and sex. I want them to feel safe in whatever relationships they choose to have not based on what is expected of them societally but what works for them both personally and within their partnerships. I also believe that knowing I have experimented with different kinds of people and relationships with curiosity as opposed to shame means they can come to me if or when they decide to do the same and know I will support them.

And while ENM isn’t for everyone, monogamy as the default in all relationships shouldn’t be either. “It’s just what you do” should be replaced with what feels right for you. For every couple as well as every autonomous person who desires to be part of one.

Rebecca Woolf writes Romper’s Sex & the Single Mom series. She has worked as a writer for more than two decades and is the author of two books, Rockabye: From Wild to Child and All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire. You can subscribe to her newsletter, The Braid, for more. She lives in Los Angeles with her four children.

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