'It Takes a Special Kind of Freak to Make This Work'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The popular reader series on non-monogamy continues—and it takes a few rockier paths. The first:

My wife and I have been together nearly ten years, and a few years back we made the decision to open our marriage sexually. The initial hope was that adding new partners would rekindle our own sexual connection, which was the only aspect of our relationship we didn’t consider fantastic. One year ago we began our explorations in earnest, with a laundry list of rules—no sleepovers, no romantic emotions, etc.

The rules quickly evaporated after my wife developed a strong love with her first partner, and I couldn’t bear to break them apart. I went into a depressive, anxious state, and I quit drinking so I could better understand my feelings.

After a period  of intense emotional tumult and personal growth, I found myself able to accept that I’m not the center of my wife’s existence. I went on to form several powerful relationships of my own.  My closest partner is moving in with us next month, something we never imagined happening when we began. Meanwhile, my wife and I are closer than ever, truly empathizing with each other rather than feeding a codependent cycle.

Polyamory has taught us in an ongoing way that we cannot control anything outside of our own behavior and communication with each other. Sure, there’s crazy sex adventures, and there's incredible emotional connections, but it’s the way polyamory has shaped our approach to life that has been most meaningful.

This reader has had an even tougher go of it:

I have been in an open relationship for going on four years. Not polyamorous though. I don’t have enough time or energy to invest in more than one primary relationship! I could really take it or leave it, but it’s important to my partner, so ...

We are in our 40s, and frankly it's harder for men to find women who are looking for this sort of thing. So as a woman, I am the one who is playing, not him really. We have threesomes. I play alone on occasion. He occasionally gets to fool around a little at some swinger parties we’ve gone too, but no actual sex.

So much of this lifestyle is based on looks, and that is somewhat depressing to me. At times I feel very much like a prop in someone else’s fantasy. It’s a very strange feeling to be “given” to someone as a birthday gift from his wife.

Sometimes it is fun; don’t get me wrong! And my partner often experiences erectile dysfunction, so I think he feels like this is how he satisfies me by proxy. So I try to think of it that way.  

I can’t see this working for the majority of people, or even me in the long term. And many people I know who are also involved in open relationships are struggling with jealousy, insecurity, alcoholism, and depression. Many break up or close their relationships. As my partner says, it takes a special kind of freak to make this work.  

A bunch of similar and endearing freaks are featured in Short Bus, the film by John Cameron Mitchell teased on the trailer seen above. It’s really a must-see for anyone interested in the subject of non-monogamy (and also an amazing love letter to New York).

Update from another reader who’s struggling with her open relationship:

I’ve been with someone who identifies as polyamorous for a year now, and despite no new partners coming onto the scene so far, it has been a challenge. Although I understand the concept in theory, and it was a major condition of dating him that I did understand the theory, in practice it has been a long journey of negotiating jealousy, trust, and insecurity.

I struggle with clinical depression and find it hard to believe that anyone could want to deal with that side of me. This insecurity does not help me relax around my partner. I love him very much, and I know he loves me, and I want him to be happy. If this means letting him explore friendships and new experiences with people who may at some point become his partner as well, I know I’ve made a commitment to understand this.

But I am not polyamorous. I am insecure.

And I have no idea if I will be able to deal with a new person in my partner’s life without slipping into depression and jealousy. So I’m still conflicted about being in a relationship with a polyamorous person. It may be tough and difficult ahead. Until it does happen, however, I have to trust my partner and trust that wanting each other to be happy will be enough to deal with the jealousy in a constructive way.