Married Women is a column that explores how women are redefining the rules of matrimony.
Rob and I were together for 12 years before we decided to open our marriage. It happened not that long after we had our last child. For most of our relationship, I’d been very focused on my career and then motherhood, without much time to think about my sex life. Once we were done having kids, my sex drive came roaring back. We loved each other very much but we’d never been a perfect match in terms of sexual compatibility. I told him that I didn’t think our marriage was big enough for my new sexual curiosity. I wanted to explore. Rob was very receptive, but we wanted to take things slowly. We read all the books on non-monogamy, did a lot of talking and negotiating. Both of us were fully onboard.
I think it’s important for me to say that by this time, Rob and I had already been talking about alternative living. I’d always been interested in communes, and we had joined a co-housing group, the kind of place where you have your own house or apartment but where there’s shared responsibility for rearing children, assisting with the aged, addressing ecological concerns. That was a huge investment of time and money, and taught us a lot of things about how to communicate with one another about hard stuff. It taught us how to ask for what we needed without blaming someone for not having given it to us. So that was useful when we became non-monogamous, and none of this was as odd to us as it might be to others.
We were also primed for it by watching Big Love. It’s definitely melodramatic, but we loved the idea of sharing parents, and sitting down at a table with your partners with a calendar and making a schedule for the domestic labor. Scheduling is as much a part of non-monogamy as sex, though sex is what monogamous people tend to focus on when they hear about non-monogamy.
We were very open about what we were doing with everyone, including our kids, who were 4 and 8 at the time. We sat down with them and explained that some people think when you’re married to someone you can only love that one person, but that we didn’t believe that; we thought you could love more than one person at the same time. Our oldest child thought about it for a moment then said, “Well, right, like I love you and I also love Dada.” And I said, right, and that was the end of the conversation. Children are naturally very tolerant about these things. We teach them our intolerance.
Anyway, both of us started dating. Rob began dating a woman pretty seriously, and I was seeing Mike, whom I’d first met in my 20s. We’d had a passionate but brief relationship while living on opposite coasts. We had since fallen out of touch. Now he was living five hours away, and we began a long-distance relationship where I’d see him every month or two for a couple days.
After about two years of long-distance dating and getting to know our whole family, Mike decided to move to our town to be close to us. He was divorced and had no kids and a job he could do from anywhere.
When he first moved, he rented an apartment a few blocks away and the idea was he’d live there for a year or more and we’d see how it went. But it became almost immediately apparent that it just didn’t make sense, because he and I wanted to spend every night together and he was eating all his meals with us. So we all decided he should just move in. Rob and Mike got along well from the start, not like best friends, but they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. If I wasn’t home they’d watch basketball or make dinner together. They wouldn’t turn to each other if they were in crisis. For that they’d turn to me. But they get along well.
Of all the questions people ask me about non-monogamy, the one I get the most is probably about the living arrangement. People want to know why Mike “got to live with us,” while none of the people Rob dated “got to.” That seems like such a silly way to look at it. The reasons you do or don’t choose to live with a partner are complicated. It’s not that Mike “got” to live with us. It’s that it made sense for him to move in. He was getting a divorce. He had no kids. He worked from home.
When Mike first moved in we decided that he would have the small bedroom on the first floor because it was more private — all the way on the opposite side of the house from the kids’ rooms and the master bedroom. The idea was that Rob and I would keep the master bedroom but that I could go downstairs and sleep with Mike when I wanted to. Honestly, Rob has always preferred to sleep alone and was happy to have the bed to himself. The problem was that our kids were still very young and they’d wake a lot in the night and need me. So it really didn’t make sense for me to be all the way downstairs and on the other side of the house, so we all decided that Rob would move into the downstairs guest room and Mike and I would move upstairs.
I also get asked all the time about jealousy. People will say things like, how could any person possibly deal with that — the jealousy of having their wife sleep with another man in their own house! They talk about jealousy as though it’s this unmovable, immutable force, and not simply an emotion that can be worked through like any other. Also, by the time Mike moved in with us, my relationship with Rob was loving, but it was no longer sexual. We both accepted the way our relationship had changed. Rob is also not a fundamentally jealous person. He never viewed me as his property just because we were married, or thought that marriage should give him control over who I have sex with. He was also dating and having sex with other women. And to be honest, I’m a pretty intense person. I can be a lot to deal with, and I think in that way he was happy to share me.
The other issue besides jealousy that I get asked about a lot is parenting. I think people are generally very uncomfortable with the idea of mothers having sex at all, or enjoying sex or being sexual, but particularly with anyone besides their husband. People will say things like, “What about the kids?” as though we are hosting orgies in the dining room before dinner. The reality is that our kids have such a wholesome life: We all sit down to dinner together every day, and they experience a very smoothly running household with three adults around taking care of them.
I was recently telling my son the story of his home birth, and he said, “Where was Mikey?” I had to explain to him that Mike wasn’t around yet. When my kids play pretend games, they talk about how a certain imaginary creature has green magic beams that shoot out of her fingers and she can fly and she’s polyamorous and nonbinary. For them, this is a perfectly normal way of living.
I should also say, though, that our experience of familial harmony may be unusual. Both Mike and Rob are really domestic. I actually don’t remember how to use my own dishwasher because I almost never run it, and I can’t even tell you the last time I did the laundry. They both lived with housemates as young adults and thrived on communal living. They’re happy to do the dishes and the laundry with me acting as the cruise director. Most of my monogamous female friends don’t know how I got so lucky, since their husbands won’t even pick up their own clothes.
That said, I still think I put in the lion’s share of emotional labor in a traditionally gendered way. I’m the one who keeps up with the kids’ doctors appointments, the meetings at their schools. I delegate, but I’m still the planner. I don’t mind, though, because I’m doing a lot less of the other kinds of daily labor. It seems to me that in so many traditional marriages, the woman does almost all the emotional labor, and then she also does more than 50 percent of the housework and child care. At least. Whereas I do closer to a third.
It’s funny … when I talk to people who don’t want to know that there’s an alternative to monogamy, they’ll often say, “Oh, it sounds like so much hard work.” And I’ll say, “Well, is your marriage easy?” And they say, “No, my marriage is hell.” Well, mine never was. It never has been.
Living together worked really well for us for four years. Recently, Rob decided that it was time for him to get his own apartment, mostly because he wants a little more autonomy, even though he lives right nearby and comes over for dinner most nights. So we decided to divorce. People might point to that and say, oh, so I guess non-monogamy didn’t work in the end, or I guess it ruined your marriage. Or they think, poor Rob, poor Rob. But Rob dates. He has a life he fully enjoys and chose. He’s about to turn 50 and he wanted to feel what it was like to steer his own ship for a while, to have a little more space, and that’s what he has.
Mike and I are going to get married soon, and I think people assume that now we’ll be monogamous, since our relationship is so romantic. But nope! We have no interest in a marriage that doesn’t provide us space to express and act on attractions to other people, and to continue to change and grow. In a funny way, and given the statistics around infidelity, I think we’re a lot more committed to non-monogamy than most monogamous people are to monogamy.