Do Open Marriages Work?

Feb 05, 2022
giggling couple in autumn femme presenting person getting a piggyback ride from a masculine presenting person

Just give it to me, Joli, do open marriages work…really?

Well, No. 

And, also….yes. To understand if opening your marriage can work, we need to dig deeper.


What was on your mind when you typed this question into your browser for the first time? For me, it was after I’d already fallen head-over-heels for someone who was not my husband. In that case, the answer was a great big *holy crap NO* open marriage can’t work. That marriage did end. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty. 


But the reason it didn’t work wasn’t that I’d fallen for someone new or that I had strayed outside our monogamy agreement (I hadn’t- these were feelings, not actions.) 


The reason it didn’t work was that neither of us was willing to take the necessary steps to upgrade our relationship skills. We had habits of codependence, avoidance, and over-functioning… the foundation of our marriage was a hot mess. We were hot messes. When the question of opening our marriage came up it exposed the house of cards we had built since we were high-school sweethearts. 


That didn’t mean we were doomed though. We chose that outcome (totally unconsciously!)


Every day I work with people who want to open their marriage without blowing it up. It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to accomplish. There are skills to learn, new habits to practice, agreements to hash out, and most importantly, a lot of patience with each other to be found. 


But when people ask me if open relationships work, I always ask back, “I don’t know, what do you mean by work?” 


Defining What Makes an Open Marriage Work


This question requires that we get clear on what a healthy, functional relationship looks like. There is no single standard way for things to be in a marriage. Only the people in it can decide what their definition of ‘working’ is. 


Most of us never defined what a good relationship meant when we were getting serious with our partner. When I think back, there were far more conversations about what color to paint the walls of our new place than there were about what *exactly* constituted a marriage. We tend to cover a few bases, like do you want to have kids, do you want to live here or there, do you want to do holidays with your family or mine or both? But when it comes to the fidelity agreements we are signing up for, more often than not both of us made a lot of assumptions. 


That’s normal. We grow up in a society and learn the rules mostly by following along with what our parents and community model for us. There aren’t as many frank discussions about what exactly goes into the agreements of a marriage. We watch movies and read stories, but there are only extremely rare examples of the real negotiations that it takes to make a marriage work.


Want to open your relationship? First, let’s talk about what the current rules of your particular marriage are. I’ve had thousands of conversations with couples who are years into their mostly-happy-marriages and they almost never know explicitly what their agreements are.


Opening your relationship isn’t something to take lightly. Do it poorly and you risk immense pain and turmoil for your whole family. Not to mention the toll it can take on your business or career.


But… do it well, with intention, effort, and guidance? You can successfully experience a marriage that WORKS because it is built to work. A marriage designed to meet the shared goals you both have and support you each in being individuals as well. You can make a life that feels secure and adventurous. It is possible, it’s just not the story we see modeled around us. 


The success stories are usually living quiet, contented lives without making a splash. They may be non-monogamous, polyamorous, or creatively custom-designing their monogamy. These open marriages thrive because the people in them decided to do what it takes to reimagine what marriage is and what it could be. That’s a marriage that works in my books.

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