People sometimes assume that couples in an open, or polyamorous, marriage, met at an eccentric arts festival or through a swingers’ social network. But Nicholas and I were just two ordinary government employees in Washington, D.C. who happened to audition for the same community play in 2003.
As luck would have it, we were both cast—but sparks didn’t fly immediately. He was a divorced dad of two in his 30s, and I was in my 20s, so I kind of wrote him off. But everything changed the night when I saw him pick up a guitar. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a talented musician. Suddenly I found myself incredibly drawn to him, and our friendship quickly escalated to romance. We got married in 2009.
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Before I met Nicholas, I’d been in several monogamous relationships but had never been able to remain faithful in any of them. With him, it was easy—not just because I was so sexually attracted to him, but because I loved him so much. Now and then, we’d have the typical “oh, a threesome would be fun someday” conversation, but we never really dug any deeper.
Everything changed in 2011, when someone in our family experienced a life-threatening accident.That kind of changed our perspective about life and the need to live every single day to its fullest.
Meanwhile, I’d started craving a little sexual excitement into our lives, and the idea of an open relationship intrigued me. But I had no idea how to even approach the idea with Nicholas, or how it would actually play out in reality. At that time, our social circle didn’t include anyone else who had an open marriage, so I wasn’t sure where to start. That’s when I sought counsel from some friends on the West Coast who were involved in such relationships.
A short time later, in the middle of a citywide power outage, Nicholas and I found ourselves stuck in the dark at home with a bottle of wine. Armed with a little liquid courage, I flat-out asked Nicholas, “have you ever wanted to pursue anything like an open relationship?” To my surprise—after he felt confident that it wasn’t a trick question—he confessed he was more than open to the idea.
Navigating new territory
Nicholas and I were both so excited to start exploring sexual experiences outside our marriage, yet neither of us was sure how to go about it. I wasn’t confident that I could handle knowing things—like what he was doing, and with whom, when he left our home. But he wanted full transparency.
We were also unsure whether we wanted to “play,” or engage in sexual experiences with other people, together or as separate individuals. And we equally had a fear of meeting the other person’s play partner. So I proposed we have a “get out of jail free” card: for a whole year, we would do what we want, when we wanted, and then reevaluate how it made us feel at the end of the year.
Unfortunately, we found out that having a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy did not serve us very well. It brought up a lot of trust issues because I was always wondering what Nicholas was really doing when he said he was going out. It ended up creating a lot more hurt feelings and drama than the positive experience we were seeking for our marriage. This is when we realized that communication is absolutely essential in this kind of relationship.
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Creating an open marriage rulebook
Going into our second year in what I like to call a “flexible marriage,” we sat down and created a document together that lists the rules we abide by, which we each keep on our desktop computers. Rule number one is “our marriage comes first.” Other rules include one that states we can only “play with people who get tested for STDs,” mandatory condom use, and that we won’t get pulled into anyone else’s personal drama.
Creating a guide has made things much smoother, and we still abide by it while tweaking things now and then. We try to balance rules with some allowances for freedom when the situation calls for it. For example, if I go on a business trip, find someone attractive, and want to play with that person—but don’t know the person’s STD status—Nicholas trusts me to use my best judgment and practice safe sex.
We’re also more open to having spontaneous experiences with other couples. Just last year an unexpected opportunity to hook up with another couple presented itself. It caught us completely off guard, but we only needed a few seconds before we decided to go for it. Spontaneity is one of the aspects of this lifestyle that makes it so fun and enjoyable. We talked about that experience for weeks, and we frequently referred to it for our own excitement in the bedroom.
How we play today
We can definitely say that our choice to engage in non-monogamous sexual experiences has enhanced our marriage in new and amazing ways. Of course, it isn’t always easy. I think what’s hardest is when you play with a couple once and decide you aren’t really interested in pursuing anything further—but they are. It can be challenging to decline future invitations without hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s a little like dating.
There’s also the potential for awkwardness when we end up inadvertently meeting the other person’s play partner. We frequently encounter the people we’ve hooked up with since we’ve opened ourselves to being involved with the folks in our local community. Some of them are good friends, in fact. Our relationship hasn’t changed a bit except that we now share an exciting (wink, wink) secret. We are all about being sex positive. We talk openly about it.
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More and more, my husband likes the idea of us being with other couples, or me having other partners. He says, “I like it when you’re naughty! It really turns me on.” For me, the feeling is mutual: It’s sexy to see the other person getting pleasure with someone else. And for the record, he only has sex with other women, while I am open to intimate experiences with both men and women.
We’ve now become kind of a go-to couple that other couples come to when trying to navigate these waters. We’re still trying to figure this out ourselves, so we don’t have all the answers. But we share some of the mistakes we’ve made—like trying to keep things hush-hush—in the hopes that others will consider them as they structure their own arrangement. We’re always open to learning new things from others in flexible relationships as well.
(As told to Marisa Torrieri)
This article originally appeared in Health.com