Every relationship, even if on the outside it looks like everyone else’s, is unique. My own marriage, with two children and a comfortable house in Kent was one that seemed happy, perfect even, from the outside. But, like Joy and Alan in Wanderlust, there were unspoken tensions and issues under the surface that one day exploded outwards.
Having that conversation about wanting to change things, about wanting to explore openness, was partly the result of exploring the frustrations and tensions within a fictional marriage in my novel, Appetite.
To speak the absolute truth about our feelings and needs to the person we care about the most, to the person we have perhaps said “until death do us part” to, is a massive risk. That moment at the kitchen table, saying to Marc “I think I want to see other people…”, was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.
For me, I knew I no longer had an alternative. I had agonised for a few years over what to do about my need for more connection and more people before speaking out. It was reading the Meg John Barker book, Rewriting the Rules, as well as lots of soul searching that helped me see that an open framework was truly what I needed.
I started dating through OKCupid and, after 7 years of marriage, those first few dates were nerve wracking. I still remember the churning stomach! To have butterflies and first date nerves again in my late 30s felt surreal but also exciting. After six months of online dating and lots of very eye opening pictures (please stop sending those unsolicited photos people!) I realised that it would be easier to meet like-minded people through socials or events and that is what I tend to do now. It’s also why Andrea and I started the community we run together now.
That first year of openness brought Marc and I closer than ever but it also put me on a path which meant I was learning new things about myself every day. Increasingly, it became clear that there were not just differences in how we wanted to relate to each other sexually but also that there was a growing gap in the way we saw our lives developing moving forwards. Marc understood my need for openness and saw the benefits to me of having more friends and learning so much (I was happier at home and better able to cope with the children as well as writing more than ever) but he did not want it for himself. This gap became a chasm that, with a lot of sadness, we both agreed we could no longer bridge.
How my story ended up (with Marc and I just as good friends and great co-parents now) was unique to us and, watching Wanderlust, I wondered how those relationships will unfold and perhaps unravel? The idea of an accident causing a reassessment of life was an interesting one but Joy’s shouting as soon as her non-consensual sexual approaches to Alan are rejected and her obvious lack of tact (we are boring in bed!) are not great qualities in someone who is meant to be a trained therapist. I didn’t think enough time was spent on the impact of the difficult feelings that will come after the idea of openness is raised (Andrea’s experience of trying to open up a monogamous relationship was months of regular arguments and upset interspersed with optimism and affection) but the excitement, the “Yes! We can have the time of our lives!” feeling was one I remember. It is also one I smile a bit at now as I know how much difficulty lay ahead for me. There are certainly challenges ahead for Joy and Alan and I am sure people will tune in to find out how their story ends.
I often say that the media put too much emphasis on sex when they are talking about openness (and they do!) but often openness is explored or talked about because of differing libidos, a desire to explore and evolve one’s own sexuality (I had been bisexual in my early 20s and very much felt this was right for me again now) as well as a desire to try new things and feel new sensations. I discovered an enthusiasm for power dynamics and certain forms of bondage and primal sex which Marc was not interested in exploring and these new experiences helped me gain huge amounts of new-found confidence in my day to day life. I finished my novel, Appetite, and found a publisher in the year that I met Andrea and I am sure that part of that new found energy was down to sharing so many new and empowering experiences with him.
Three years on, I could never have imagined the changes that would take place as a result of that first talk around the kitchen table. I am getting divorced and living alone with my children. These are things that would have seemed like the worst possible scenario before then but I can honestly say now that I have never been happier.
I love having my own space and I love the confidence and growth that comes from having more loving, close relationships in my life. I love the freedom that comes with being open and I also enjoy seeing Andrea, my partner, grow in confidence as he explores and enjoys his freedom to meet new people too. We have been together for nearly three years. He has had other girlfriends in that time and I am currently getting to know two other people. Yes, it is hard sometimes. Yes, we both have difficult feelings and there is jealousy and discomfort sometimes. The openness does, compared to my experience of monogamy and counter intuitively, make us even closer, even stronger as a couple.
People have all sorts of reasons for seeking change and openness. It might be that a partner is long term sick and can no longer be physically intimate, it might be that one person’s emotional needs have changed, it might be that there are sexual needs and desire’s that the loved one can not meet. No one should ever feel that they have to try new things just to “keep” someone and the freedom to explore just different sex with another is more than enough for many people as they continue to invest in their primary bond at home. As with monogamous relationship, all open ones are different based on what each person agrees to.
Now that I am used to juggling a few different calendars as well as getting better at hearing as well saying the difficult stuff (“I would like to have a weekend away with this person I have been seeing recently…”, “I really like this person…”, “Is it okay for me to take someone that I just met home with me?”) I feel like this really does work for me.
Openness will never fix a struggling relationship but it can bring new skills, new energy and new life to one that is existing rather than thriving. An open relationship means you don’t take your partner for granted, you see them as others do: with fresh eyes and appreciation every day.
It requires strong communication skills and even stronger listening skills. You need to have, or to first build, a solid foundation of absolute honesty and trust as well as to also make sure that there is genuine enthusiasm (from everyone!) for the change. There must be a real willingness to accept that you will all make mistakes. And there has to be plenty of time and space to share concerns, fears and insecurities. These kinds of changes can bring up a lot of those! I feel like I still make mistakes and have difficult feelings every month but each challenge that Andrea and I overcome only serves to bring us closer.
Life (illness, accident, change and loss) happens to everyone regardless of relationship framework and I believe the communication skills and personal awareness that you can develop when learning to be in an open relationship helps you deal better with all the many, unexpected, things that we all experience. An open relationship to a partner can also be a more open relationship to life.
Author’s Note: A shorter version of this piece appeared in The Sun on September, 8th 2018.