Open Relationships: Could a ‘Sex Pass’ Save Your Marriage?

If infidelity is what tears so many relationships apart, do we need a broader definition of fidelity?

by Carrie Weisman
Originally Published: 
A man and woman talking and smiling at each other in a club

The more time someone spends researching marriage, the more likely they are to land on something about divorce. The topic has become such a pervasive point of interest that even academics are investigating the mystery behind America’s broken vows. Their efforts helped isolate a prime suspect: infidelity. They’ve also helped unearth another unexpected finding. The divorce rate is actually on its way down. That’s not to say the cult of adulterers is struggling for recruits. Anyone remember AshleyMadison, the “life’s short, have an affair” dating destination? Right. So how do we make sense of it all? One answer may involve expanding the parameters of fidelity and exploring either an open marriage or “sex pass.”

A few years ago, the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy published a study claiming that one in five Americans have been involved in an open relationship. According to some experts, the realities of modern life have helped steer some couples in the way of these nontraditional arrangements.Monogamy was easy when most of the population died by the age of 40,” says Dr. David Ezell, therapist and Clinical Director and CEO of Darien Wellness. “Now that people live twice that age, or longer, the idea of being with one person forever is a very high wall.”

Looking to the natural world, we’ll find instances of monogamy are few and far between. The more likely arrangement revolves around multiple mates. And males tend to take the lead on that one. After mating with the same female for some time, males typically experience a decline in sexual desire. At the same time, their interest in landing new mates spikes.

Biologists know this as the “Coolidge Effect.” The term doesn’t typically apply to human relationships, and that makes some sense. Our narratives tend to conclude that a wandering eye does not belong. Of course, sex has a way of muddying those waters. And if we roll with our wild side, we might find that novelty tastes just as good to us as it does our animal brethren.

When investigating the mysteries of reproductive science, two researchers from the College of Wooster uncovered some startling news about male fertility. The team asked 21 heterosexual male volunteers to masturbate to a series of porn flicks over a two-week period. The last of the series just happened to feature a new actress. And that’s the film that inspired participants to ejaculate at a faster rate with higher volumes of semen and higher numbers of motile sperm.

Jumping away from men, we’ll find that some women carry a similar appetite. When OpenMinded, an online dating site for open marriages, conducted a survey of 64,000 users, they found that women were more than twice as likely than men to introduce the idea of opening up the relationship.

So, yes, the force is out there. Many individuals will express an interest in pursuing an open relationship. But that’s not the only answer. There are lots of nontraditional arrangements to explore. Some revolve around ongoing external relationships. Others set a limit on things. Those in committed and stable relationships can often find a way to make it work. But what about those in less stable relationships?

“This is not a relationship fix,” says relationship and sex expert Marina Voron. “I always tell couples that consensual non-monogamy is a cherry on top of their relationship sundae, it is that extra pleasure when everything else is great.”

Ezell claims to have actually saved some marriages by introducing the concept of non-monogamy. Though, he notes, only those willing to commit to the process have succeeded.

“Open marriages have far more rules than conventional monogamy,” he says. “It takes a level of trust and self-esteem that not all couples have, but it can work out if rules are established and followed.”

Emily (not her real name) managed to skip the transition phase altogether. From the start, she and her partner agreed to keep things “monogamish,” a term coined by sex columnist Dan Savage referring to those in predominately monogamous relationships, willing and able to entertain the occasional fling. It’s been six years since she entered into the arrangement, and the two are now married.

“People looking to experiment with non-monogamy need to be able to separate love from sex,” Emily said. “Open communication and trust is key to making it work.” In accordance to the agreement she and her husband have hammered out, they don’t “do dates.” The only places they are permitted to have sex outside their marriage are at swing clubs or play parties. Even then, challenges can arise.

“It can be extremely difficult getting four people to connect,” she explains. “For this reason, we will play separately, but again only at a party or club.”

“It works for us because while we are 100 percent committed to one another, we understand that flirting and sex with other people can be fun,” she adds. “There is no dishonesty or lying to each other. Being monogamish has opened us up to meeting a wide variety of interesting people, from professors and lawyers to police officers and others. It has given us both a self-confidence we didn’t have before that translates into other aspects of our lives.”

Still, there are those who caution against the idea of pursuing sex outside of the relationship. “It seems like a good idea, technically. In reality, it’s the crack in the door that leads to the end of the relationship,” says relationships expert and author April Masini. “Couples have problems when one or both of them can’t let go of the idea of their partner having sex with someone else. That memory doesn’t go away and it can fester and grow into something way bigger.”

That said, the concept of non-monogamy is out there. And the deeper we dive into any pool of ideas, the more likely we are to absorb them. If infidelity alone is what tears so many relationships apart, then giving fidelity a broader definition might just help keep some alive. Of course, there’s also the possibility that it won’t. But, then again, uncertainty is part of all relationships. It’s up to everyone to see what works for them.

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