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Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?

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image Zaeli Kane and Joe Spurr. Credit Holly Andres

What the experiences of nonmonogamous couples can tell us about jealousy, love, desire and trust.

When Daniel and Elizabeth married in 1993, they found it was easy enough to choose a ring for her, but there were far fewer choices for him. Daniel, then a 27-year-old who worked in information technology, decided to design one himself, requesting that tiny stones be placed in a gold band, like planets orbiting in a solar system. He was happy with the ring, and what it represented, until it became obvious after the wedding that he was allergic to the nickel that was mixed in with the gold in the band. As if in revolt, his finger grew red and raw, beneath the circle of metal. He started to think of the ring as if it were radioactive, an object burning holes in his flesh. A month into the marriage, he took it off and never got around to replacing it.

He and Elizabeth might not tell the story of that ring, with all its obvious metaphorical meaning, as readily as they do if Daniel were, in fact, ambivalent about marriage, so resentful of its boundaries that he found its most potent symbol too toxic to bear. But Daniel is a softhearted bear of a man, affectionate and affection-seeking, someone who entered marriage expecting, if not everlasting passion, at least an enduring physical connection. He was relieved to find, as the years passed, that he still loved his wife — they kissed hello each time they reunited, they made each other laugh and he was someone inclined to appreciate what he had. They had, by all appearances, a happy marriage.

But as with any happy marriage, there were frustrations. Daniel liked sex, and not long after they were married, it became clear that Elizabeth’s interest in it had cooled. She thought hers was the normal response: She was raised by strict Catholics, she would tell Daniel, as if that explained it, and she never saw her own parents hold hands, much less kiss. It was not as if she and Daniel never had sex, but when they did, Daniel often felt lonely in his desire for something more — not necessarily exotic sex but sex in which both partners cared about it, and cared about each other, with one of those interests fueling the other.

Elizabeth, baffled by Daniel’s disappointment, wondered: How great does sex have to be for a person to be happy? Daniel wondered: Don’t I have the right to care this much about sex, about intimacy? Occasionally, when he decided the answer was yes, and he felt some vital part of himself dwindling, Daniel would think about a radical possibility: opening up their marriage to other relationships. He would poke around on the internet and read about other couples’ arrangements. It was both an outlandish idea and, to him, a totally rational one. He eventually even wrote about it in 2009 for a friend who had a blog about sexuality. “As our culture becomes more accepting of choices outside the norm, nonmonogamy will expand as an acceptable choice, and the world will have to change as a result,” he predicted.

He was in his late 30s when he decided to broach the subject with Elizabeth gingerly: Do you ever miss that energy you feel when you’re in love with someone for the first time? They had two children, and he pointed out that having the second did not detract from how much they loved the first one. “Love is additive,” he told her. “It is not finite.” He was not surprised when Elizabeth rejected the idea; he had mostly raised it as a way of communicating the urgency of his needs. Elizabeth did not resent him for bringing it up, but felt stuck: She was not even sure what, exactly, he wanted from her, or how she could give it.

Photo

Antoinette Patterson, Kevin Patterson
Met: 2002
Opened Relationship: 2002
Married: 2007

Kevin: “I don’t have many jealousy triggers. But I don’t like it when someone my wife is seeing takes the parking spot in front of my house.”
Credit Holly Andres for The New York Times

 

And so they continued on, volunteering at church, celebrating anniversaries, occasionally trying couples therapy and car-pooling their growing son and daughter; and they felt gratitude for those children and fondness for each other alongside bouts of stomach-gnawing dissatisfaction; Elizabeth picked up some work in project management she could do from home, and Daniel commuted, and they quibbled over whether it was time to mow the lawn. And then, one day in August 2013, when she was 44 and Daniel was 47, Elizabeth learned she had Parkinson’s disease.

Elizabeth was still youthful, a student of yoga, a former dance-fitness instructor, her hair long and swingy. But there was a current sending a vibration through her left hand, as if her body was both announcing itself and telegraphing a message about its future. Exercise — which the doctor recommended, to slow the onset — became a mission, an act of defiance and a source of physical pleasure. She joined a hiking group, fighting off fear with new friends, new physicality. She wanted “to do life,” as she put it, and she wanted Daniel to do life with her. But after long weeks of work, Daniel was tired on weekends, maybe even more than usual, as he tried to come to terms with his wife’s diagnosis.

One seismic shift in a marriage often drives another. In the fall of 2015, Elizabeth met a man at a Parkinson’s fund-raiser. Joseph had symptoms similar to Elizabeth’s and also felt he was in his prime. (Daniel, Elizabeth and Joseph requested that their middle names be used and did not want to be photographed to protect their and their children’s privacy.) He asked her to tea once, and then a second time. They understood something profound about each other but also barely knew each other, which allowed for a lightness between them, pure fun in the face of everything. They met once more, and that afternoon, in the parking lot, he kissed her beside his car, someone else’s mouth on hers for the first time in 24 years. It did not occur to her to resist. Hadn’t Daniel wanted an open marriage?

Elizabeth did not announce that the friendship was turning romantic, but she did not deny it either, when Daniel, uneasy with the frequency of her visits with Joseph, confronted her. That she intended to keep seeing Joseph despite Daniel’s obvious distress shamed him: He was suddenly an outsider in his own marriage, scrambling for scraps of information and a sense of control. This was not at all what Daniel had in mind when he proposed opening the marriage. They had not agreed on anything ahead of time; they had not, as a couple, talked about their commitment to each other, about how they would manage and tend to each other’s feelings.

“It wasn’t like we had a conversation about it,” Daniel said the first time I met him, in April 2016, when they were just starting to put that painful period of their relationship behind them. “It was more like: This is what I’m doing — deal with it.” We were at a restaurant near Elizabeth and Daniel’s suburban home in New England, a place where I met them several times over the course of a year, sometimes together and sometimes apart. Usually they sat close to each other, Daniel in a dress shirt he’d worn to the office, Elizabeth dressed like someone on vacation — a beaded bracelet, a sleeveless tank. Elizabeth has a Zen way about her, and as Daniel’s food grew cold while he relayed his past grievance, she looked untroubled. “It caused a lot of pain, so I’m still not even sure why I fought for it the way I did,” she finally said. “I really just felt like it was right, like it was important to my growth. It was like I was choosing to take a stand for my own pleasure and sticking to it. It was so strong, that feeling.”

Elizabeth’s intransigence, and Daniel’s pain, had brought them back into couples therapy. After several months of surveying the situation, which seemed to be deadlocked, the therapist told them in early March 2016 that she thought they were most likely heading for divorce. It was the first time the word had been uttered aloud in that room.

“It was like a fever broke,” Daniel said about Elizabeth’s reaction. She told him, that night, that she was ready to give up the relationship with Joseph if Daniel could not make peace with it. “She was suddenly able to talk about it calmly, and kindly,” Daniel said. “Suddenly my needs mattered again.” As soon as he felt that she cared about his well-being, he was able to consider what she wanted. “When I had no say in the matter, I was miserable,” Daniel said. “When I could say no, suddenly it was — O.K. This opening of our marriage started to seem less like something that was being done to me, and more like something we were doing together.”

For several nights following that therapy session, they talked in their bedroom, with an attention they had not given each other in years, sitting on the strip of rug between the foot of their bed and the wall. The sex, too, was different, more varied, as if reflecting the inventing going on in their marriage. Elizabeth was still someone’s wife, still her children’s mother, but now she was also somebody’s girlfriend, desired and desiring; now her own marriage was also new to her.

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