Opening up a relationship is a lot like opening a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — a lot of people assume there’s no way to close until it’s done. But for couples who have unsuccessfully dabbled non-monogamy, there’s much more and stake than a stomach ache. They don’t want to end their marriages, they just want to close them back up. But the question is: can they?
“Couples in open relationships are either happy and remain idealistic about their future, or one or both partners express a chronic disappointment in their situation and in each other,” Tammy Nelson, a couples therapist and author of When You’re The One Who Cheats, told Fatherly.
Surprisingly, there’s evidence that men are more likely to be in the latter group. When the New York Times interviewed 25 couples in non-monogamous marriages, a majority of women initiated the arrangement and all of them were more successful at attracting other partners. Behavioral economists suspect men in open relationships overestimate their value in the mating market after being off of it for so long and are often let down. Other research shows that men are more sexually satisfied with long-term monogamous relationships compared to women.
Still, there are many reasons why men both men and in open marriages may want to return to monogamy. Fortunately, per Nelson, there is a three-step process for doing just that. Here’s what it entails.
Talk About Jealousy and Other Difficult Emotions
One reason why women may appear to be more successful at non-monogamy is that they’re better at communicating about their emotions and open relationships require this. However, this level of transparency is also necessary for returning to monogamy. That means men might have to talk about how it felt for other men to date (and have sex with) their partners, and these can be difficult emotions to express. Men are socialized to bottle these up or convert emotions like sadness into manlier ones, like pride, anger, or aggression. So for guys feeling any of the above after an open relationship, it might be a good indicator that jealousy and fear are at the core of it. No matter how uncomfortable it is to talk about, they need to do that as much as their partners need to end the secondary relationships that stirred up these emotions.
“If they have been able to connect as a couple by communicating about their open relationship, they will be more likely to disengage well and return to a traditionally monogamous relationship,” Nelson says.
Get Out of the House More
Talking about trust and jealousy can be difficult, but it creates space for more spontaneity and novelty in a marriage, which couples returning monogamy are going to need. And this extends far beyond the bedroom. “Ending any outside partnerships and refocusing on each other means creating new adventures and a new sex life for just the two of you, and that takes focus and patience,” Nelson explains. Multiple partners and dates can be very socially stimulating and the transition out of that can feel like a let-down, but couples can have fun picking up that slack. Find new activities to try, new places to visit, and new experiences to have together. You might be married, but if you’re going to find your way back to monogamy you also have to date.
Find a New Approach to Monogamy
By ending secondary relationships, talking about jealousy, and becoming more social, couples are increasing both their quality and quantity time together. During this time, it’s crucial for them to collaborate on a new, improved approach to a monogamous marriage because the old way is what lead to opening it up in the first place. Couples might be able to do this by improving communication and being more honest with themselves and each other, but they might benefit from the help of a therapist as well. Regardless, the goal is not to simply survive the attempt at non-monogamy as a couple, but to grow from it together.
“You can’t go back to how things were before you opened your relationship and you certainly can’t create a marriage or partnership that feels stifling,” Nelson warns.“Talk about what you want and decide together how to make it exciting and fulfilling for both of you.”