How An Open Marriage Improved Our Relationship When Therapy Couldn't

by Leah Asher
Originally Published: 

Every marriage counselor and relationship “expert” claims that the key to solving any relationship problem is communication. I’m now convinced that while this is true, the ways they tell couples to go about it are designed to land a couple right back in therapy when it all inevitably goes wrong.

My husband and I had done marriage counseling and I had read every relationship article out there. We did the “I feel” statements and the mirroring of what the other person is saying. The result was a lot of letter writing, “I feel” statements, and repeating back what we said while the other person said “that’s not what I said/feel/think” and then it would go around in circles.

All marriage counseling did was give us a place to vent our everyday annoyances, which was helpful, but realistically it wasn’t sustainable financially. Therapy is bloody expensive and that’s without factoring in the cost of the babysitter you have to hire to watch the kids. For us, finding time to go on a date was difficult enough; trying to find time to go to therapy was damn near impossible. We almost gave up, but then something happened that saved our marriage, our sex life, and also gave us the push we needed to really communicate.

About a month ago, I caught my husband on Tinder. I’ve already told that story, but what I’ve since learned is that he was only on there a week before I caught him. He wasn’t technically cheating; we were in separate bedrooms and to borrow an expression from a very popular ’90s sitcom, “we were on a break.” I would be lying if I said it hadn’t occurred to me to get my own account, but I had held off in case we worked things out. Well, we ended up working things out in a rather unexpected and unconventional way.

In that time our relationship has been transformed, and not just in the ways you would think when someone mentions they’re allowed to sleep with other people. The sex alone has become Fifty Shades of Fantastic (my inner goddess is doing salsa moves as we speak), but everything else has started to change too.

It kind of had to; you don’t just say “hey, let’s have a threesome… or foursome” without sitting down and figuring stuff out. We figured out a lot about our sexual fantasies, but we also figured out why the relationship had started to fall apart—and then we fixed those things that had been broken for too long.

We learned we really can’t read each other’s minds.

The longer a relationship lasts, the more you tend to assume you know what your partner is thinking. I certainly thought I had figured him out; up until a month ago I would have believed I could actually predict his every reaction. I would often assume I knew how he felt or what he was thinking; he was right when he said I really “didn’t get it.”

Likewise, he would assume I knew exactly what he wanted or exactly what he was thinking. I had control of our finances because I’m awesome with the spreadsheets and budgeting. I have helped him manage his money for years now, but where I went wrong was assuming he could also figure out just what each nickel and dime was for after all the regular bills were paid up. So I would under-budget, he would get stressed as the only breadwinner, and it led to fights that could have been avoided if we had just talked to each other.

In the context of our sex life, I also realized that what I thought I knew about this man I’ve spent a decade of my life with wasn’t the whole story. I’ve always been the more sexually liberal of the two of us, but whenever I had brought up certain topics he shied away from discussing them further. I seriously considered making him watch the Fifty Shades movies just to get a little taste of what I wanted to try, but wasn’t sure how he would receive that invitation. He didn’t like being filmed at family events, so I assumed that he wouldn’t be into making our own home movies.

We realized that not only had we been assuming a lot about our marriage in general, we had been completely missing each other’s cues on what we would be open to try in the bedroom. And, funnily enough, we were on the same page all along; one of us was just reading the book upside-down and neither of us even noticed.

In an open relationship, or something similar to it, you have to be on the same page. My husband and I aren’t stupid or naïve; we knew that if we were going to do this, we had to figure out the rules. We had to sit down and figure out what we were comfortable with, what we might need to think about, and what was an absolute hard pass. It was through discussion of what we were comfortable doing with each other and what we would be comfortable doing with another girl or a couple together, as well as what we were really intending to do with the singles we were talking to (not much more than flirting was going on after we got back together), that we learned that we had the same ideas on what this would be for us. In fact, since I’m the more adventurous of the two of us, most of what he wants to try I’ve already done or have dog-eared in one of the sex books that was collecting dust on the top of my bookshelf.

We learned how to be honest.

I will admit that my husband and I used to have problems being completely honest with each other. If I was mad at him for something I would freeze him out. If we said something to a friend or family member that the other of us had taken the wrong way, we would just sulk without discussing that hurt. It wasn’t that we were intentionally trying to hurt each other or embarrass each other, but people all have things they’re insecure about. Sometimes we don’t even open up about those things to our spouse; I had a lot of triggers based on my own insecurities.

I guess you could say I had some confidence, but around certain people I would shrink into the girl with self esteem issues who just wanted people to love and accept her as she was. So my husband asking me “what did you do today?” had me thinking “you’re a stay at home mom. The house is a mess, you ordered pizza for dinner, and you haven’t even bothered to change out of your bathrobe. Meanwhile he worked a double shift last night and he’s come home exhausted and all because you can’t go out and get a job because you can’t afford daycare. You had one job and you can’t even do that right.”

Instead of telling him that the kids and I played “Mommy Zombie/Ghost” and that our son made a fort out of the couch cushions and that I managed to get some writing done during naptime, I would respond as if I was defending myself for the state of the house. I would complain how the kids were making a mess all day and I was just done with their screaming and that I needed a break. He would tell me I was getting upset over nothing because he only asked a question, I would get even more defensive and soon we would be arguing. This would be a recurring theme for us — him asking simple questions and me taking offense. He had his triggers too, and I would try not to set them off, but to avoid those fights we stopped bringing up anything that was bothering us.

All those little things that could have been solved with a quick discussion would build up into a huge argument whenever we were tired, stressed, or overwhelmed; and we weren’t working as a team anymore so we were always tired, stressed and overwhelmed.

My husband and I found ourselves in a situation a week after our new arrangement that tested our ability to be upfront and honest about our wishes and intentions. We were on a date with each other, but we hadn’t established the ground rules for that date. I was operating under the assumption that we were out looking for people to play with because earlier we had decided that we might flirt or find a girl or couple, and he had assumed that those things were “extra” but that ultimately he was on a date with ME.

But since I had been given the green light to notice the men who were noticing me, I jumped without first checking in with my husband. In my mind, I was just doing what he had done; in the past, before we opened our marriage, he used to get the attention of the sales girls, waitresses, and bartenders whenever we were out. He wasn’t always aware of it any more than I was aware that men were checking me out, but sometimes I caught him noticing.

When you are with someone long enough you can tell they’re smiling while staring at the back of their head. A younger guy across the bar was checking me out, and for the first time I actually noticed the attention. I smiled, I looked back at him, I winked, and I put my arm around my husband and gave him a deep kiss. I wanted to make it clear that I knew I was hot and could have any man in the bar, and I was with him, but my husband took it a different way than I had intended.

Instead of sulking or freezing me out and telling me “you should just know why I’m upset” as he did in the past on less complicated issues, he turned to me and said “I’m not here to flirt with anyone else, I’m here with you. I would like your full attention.”

I told him that it hadn’t been my intention to make him jealous, and I promised not to look at any more guys for the rest of the night. We left the bar two hours later happy and still very eager to play with each other at home. When our relationship was failing, our date nights had often ended early with both of us very angry and cold to each other, and it was over stupid things like simply not acknowledging that our actions really were that hurtful.

My husband and I used to roll our eyes and think “he/she is making a big deal over nothing,” but if we had just listened to each other and said “you’re right; I didn’t realize how that feels for you. That wasn’t my intention. I’m sorry. How can I make it better?,” we probably could have fixed our issues a lot sooner. How much would it have really cost us had we just sat down and said, “Hey, the sex is getting routine and it’s not working anymore. Can we sit down and consider what fantasies we might not be sharing that we could try?”

My husband recently told me that he hadn’t been as open to experimentation before we had kids. He told me that for him to want to do that stuff he had to build up a relationship of trust, honesty, and communication. He told me, “If I’m going to play, I want to play with you.” I wish he had told me that he was interested in spicing up our sex life and trying that threesome when he first started thinking about it two years ago. I would have probably still been really tired, but being tired because I’m sexually satisfied is way better than just being tired because I’m a mom of young kids.

Ultimately, people get it wrong when they think that this lifestyle is a Band-Aid for our marriage. We aren’t stupid; we know that we have to actually do the hard work involved in keeping a marriage together. The sex isn’t to fix the marriage; we could probably do all this without the lifestyle. We know what we did wrong, we know how to fix it, but we’re young, we still want to play, and there are some things that you just can’t do with only two people or someone of the opposite sex.

Sometimes, in order to fully explore together, you have to play by a different set of rules.

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