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What to do when one partner wants an open marriage

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a clinical therapist, and the author of three books, among them, Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and The Complete Marriage Counsler. She gives love advice on programs including Today and HuffPost Live, conduct...

An open marriage guide for when your spouse tells you they want to experiment

The argument goes: It's not infidelity if no one is going behind the other's back. But non-monogamy, even when both partners are equally willing, can be a slippery slope. So when one partner is reluctant or dead set against an open marriage "arrangement," the relationship can be at risk.

On the other hand, not being able to at least have serious conversations about one another's sexual desires can be just as damaging to the relationship.

That's why following these dictums is essential:

1. Don't personalize your partner's sexual restlessness

For Sheila, after 10 years of marriage, hearing her husband Dave express interest in sexual experimentation initially sent her into a morass of depression and self-doubt. "I thought he wasn't attracted to me anymore, I wasn't enough for him, he really wanted our marriage to be over… I was a wreck for a week after he first mentioned the idea of opening our sex life."

During their second try at having "the talk," Sheila heard what Dave was actually saying: "I love you and lust after you and the last thing I want to do is make you feel inadequate. That is so not true! I just feel that it would spice things up to make some changes."

The two ultimately decided to broaden the scope of what they did sexually as a couple. Sheila giggles, "We introduced sex toys, porn, tantric sex into what was admittedly a boring routine. Sex is fun again for both of us and I realize it's essential to never take it for granted." For now, at least, the idea of an open marriage is off the table.

2. Set clear boundaries

When Sam brought up the idea of sexual non-exclusivity, Tara's instinctual response was "no way." Gradually she became attracted to the idea of the couple attending a swinging party. However she insisted the two decide beforehand exactly what was and wasn't acceptable: For example, each would need to seek out the other's permission before sleeping with someone else. Safe sex was non-negotiable. There was a 30-minute time limit on a dalliance. And most importantly, the experiment could not be repeated if both partners did not agree.

Tara says, "Each of us slept with one person at the party. Coming home afterward we shared details and did a lot of laughing. But the next morning I woke up and told Sam, 'The main reason I can see possibly doing this again is because neither of us violated our rules. But you can't ask me about going to another party. If and when I'm ready I will tell you.'" She added, "'I may never be ready.'"

While Sam would have preferred to try another swinging party sooner versus later, he valued his marriage too much to disobey the rules they set. He told his wife, "The only way we can get through this is to know we can trust in the other's word."

3. Be completely honest with your partner

The need for transparency is batted around but rarely adhered to in the political realm. Couples cannot obfuscate with one another about open marriage. For instance, hiding your deepest feelings and thoughts about why you are or are not into sanctioned straying will inevitably lead to marital strife at some point.

Beth recalls, "I was the one who wanted to have sex with other people and I initially said it was due exclusively to curiosity since Joe and I had been together since high school. The truth: I was flirting hot and heavy with a co-worker and as soon as I had marital 'permission' to go on a date with another man, I launched full scale into a torrid affair that inevitably wrecked the marriage."

4. Seek a compromise if possible

If you consider monogamy an either/or issue, it's possible neither partner will be satisfied. Is there a way to satisfy sexual curiosity without straying, as with Sheila and Dave's solution? Tara and Sam went to one swinging party. Some partners enter into long-term sexual alliances with other couples. Other couples agree to flirt outside the marriage, and then bring the sexual energy home to roost. Other twosomes agree to explore kink together, or have occasional agreed-upon periods of sexual play with others, followed by a return to monogamy. Sometimes visiting a sex counselor together can open up new pathways to explore and allow a safe place to discuss old wounds and ongoing hang ups.

No one should ever feel coerced into doing something that radically goes against his or her values. However, even if there is no way you will ever open your marriage, having an open mind and listening to what is in your partner's heart is an essential ingredient of a loving marriage.

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