Mark fell into an open relationship back in college. It didn’t work out. He moved on. He got married. Sadly, that didn’t work out either. After falling back into singlehood, he started exploring swinging. He got more familiar with the polyamorous movement. He even started giving lectures on tantra. That’s where he met Patricia.
Mark and Patricia have an open marriage. They both pushed for that dynamic once things started getting romantic. They tried a monogamous stint about six months into the relationship, but that fizzled out pretty quickly. Today, they remain primary partners, but they are also allowed and encouraged to explore erotic interactions with individuals outside of the relationship.
It may sound like a pretty radical agreement, but relationships like the one Mark and Patricia have carved out aren’t exactly as unique as we may assume. According to a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, one in five Americans has been in an open relationship, defined as “any relationship in which all partners agree that each may have romantic and/or sexual relationships with other partners.”
“We make our connection a priority, and the other people in our lives enrich our love for each other rather than taking away from it.”
Mark and Patricia have what they call a “designer relationship.” The term was initially introduced by Dr. Ken Haslam, the founder of the Kinsey Institute’s Polyamory Archive. For them, the phrase means tailoring the boundaries of a relationship to fit the specific needs of the individuals involved. “What’s most important about designer relationships as a concept is the embrace of fluidity and change,” Mark says. “If you can design it, you can redesign it. This implies an ongoing process of engagement and discussion about both the relationship itself and its sexual aspects.”
According to Mark and Patricia, the conversations this kind of arrangement demands helps strengthen one of the most pivotal cornerstones of any healthy relationship: communication. “We’ve purposefully built our relationship to be one where no topic is taboo,” says Patricia. “This is very refreshing and goes a long way toward building goodwill and trust. While we do have private aspects of our separate lives, we don’t keep secrets from each other.”
“With trust came the ability to be more adventurous,” Mark explains. “We’ve been exposed to a wide variety of alternative sexual and relationship communities have done our share of sexual exploration. There are lots of ways to have an open relationship, but for us, it’s been helpful to be sure the people we interact with know about and respect our primary bond.”
“Love isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game,” he says. “For us, at least as I see it, we make our connection a priority, and the other people in our lives enrich our love for each other rather than taking away from it.”
Eventually, the duo decided to pool their insights into the form of a book. In 2014, they came out with Partners in Passion: A guide to Great Sex, Emotional Intimacy and Long-term Love. A year after, they came out with Designer Relationships: A Guide To Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory And Optimistic Open Relationships. They’ve also written a few others on the topic of tantric sex.
“We’ve never viewed the open aspects of our relationship as a problem. In fact, our sexual and other adventures have deepened our intimacy and connection.”
Of course, open marriage isn’t for everyone. But operating under the assumption of monogamy without entertaining a conversation that clearly communicates your expectations and desires might not work out, either. “Major problems can arise when people fall into unconscious monogamy as a default,” Mark cautions.
Maintaining an open relationship has largely allowed Mark and Patricia to skirt problems revolving around infidelity. Although, it has presented some unique challenges. Landing new partners is a time-consuming process. It also takes a certain amount of energy that’s hard to sustain throughout the years. According to a survey of 1,000 American adults, 17 percent of individuals aged 17-44 have engaged in some sort of open arrangement. Just 9 percent of those aged 45-64 report similar experiences.
Sure, Mark and Patricia faced some other hurdles throughout the course of their relationship, but most are pretty similar to those faced by individuals in traditionally monogamous relationships. Opening things up may take cheating off the menu, but financial stress, hectic schedules, and other everyday annoyances exist just the same.
“We’ve never viewed the open aspects of our relationship as a problem,” says Mark. “In fact, our sexual and other adventures have deepened our intimacy and connection.” If longevity, productivity, and contentedness are indicators of a successful relationship, it seems as though Mark and Patricia have hit that mark, no matter the number people they’ve slept with along the way.