Love, honesty, consent and a lot of trust are key to making an open marriage work.

Its not just about sex 3 Indian couples talk about why they chose open marriageImage for representation. Photo by Yas Rekall/Picxy
Delve Sexuality Thursday, August 01, 2019 - 17:24

Rishabh* and Drishti* had known each other for almost a decade before they got married last year. Of the six years that they have been in a relationship, four have been long distance. “First inter-city, and now, inter-continental,” Mumbai-based Drishti tells TNM, referring to Rishabh who is presently studying in the UK.

The long-distance relationship was hard, the lack of physical intimacy that came with it not helping. It was especially tough for Drishti. “I went to a convent school, where the dominant feelings you learn to associate with sex are shame and impurity. I grew up in a conservative joint family, so there was no privacy or space to even masturbate. Later, because of the long distance, I felt like my sexual needs were not being met, and that was leading to frustration and resentment within our otherwise happy and healthy relationship,” Drishti says.

As a result, after some discussion, Drishti and Rishabh decided to give open marriage a shot to have their sexual needs met, just about a year ago.

Search for it online and you will learn that an open marriage is where both partners are in agreement on seeking sex outside marriage as well. However, this definition is somewhat reductionist, especially if you speak to the couples who are in one. And contrary to popular belief, a healthy, consensual open marriage is not simply an easy way to cheat on your partner.

The ground rules that Drishti and Rishabh set were straightforward enough – in theory at least. Keep the emotional attachment to a minimum with the sexual partners – meaning no sleepovers, for instance. Complete honesty with each other about who they were speaking to or considering hooking up with, and if they were having trouble keeping the intimacy apart from the sex. And of course, consent – from each other as well as the partners that they were seeking outside marriage.

And while you may be raising your eyebrow in skepticism, the couple says that opening up the marriage has done plenty good for their relationship. “It has made me a lot more secure – if I can have this kind of honesty, communication and understanding with Rishabh, then we can get through anything. Nothing is off the table,” Drishti says.

Rishabh adds that it’s also taken the pressure off their sex life, noting that the lack of sexual intimacy was because of the distance. “But now that that’s taken care of, it has reduced that strain. In fact, we are still as excited to see each other.”

Like Drishti and Rishabh, an open marriage may indeed be a way to have sexual needs met. For others, it can be a way to seek out other types of connections, and even explore their sexuality.

A means to explore sexuality

Perhaps the idea is hard to digest, especially in a society that teaches us that we must find one heterosexual partner and be with them for the rest of our lives, expecting them to fulfill all our emotional, intellectual and sexual needs. However, that may not always be the case, and not everyone can make peace with that. And so, some people may choose to open up their marriage, recognising, and accepting their partner’s limitations and seeking to find fulfillment in other ways.

When Reena* and Ramesh* - both in their late 30s now – were dating, they confided in each other about the same-sex attraction they felt. While Ramesh had a boyfriend for some time, Reena had never really had the chance to explore her sexuality.

However, a couple of years into their seven-year-old marriage found Ramesh down in the dumps, for he was repressing the attraction he felt towards men. “I wanted to explore my masculine and feminine side both. Being with men helped me complete my feminine side. I felt suffocated without a man’s touch. I was sexually frustrated, unfocused. It was depressing,” Ramesh tells TNM.

It was a mental health practitioner who suggested then that the couple consider an open marriage. And after some convincing, Reena agreed.

By opening up their marriage, the couple has been able to explore the same sex attractions they felt without guilt, without being dishonest, without sacrificing their marriage. They also found out the kinks that they enjoyed, such as exhibitionism, which is why they both generally prefer to have a sexual experience with a partner together. When asked if he gets feelings of insecurity or jealousy, Ramesh cheekily counters, “Jealousy for what? Usually men feel jealous when another guy is with their wife. But if the guy is hot, it’s good for me too!”

It also keeps the excitement alive, Reena says. “Ramesh travels for work for up to 15 days in a month. I usually seek out partners and set up the dates, so it’s something for him to look forward to when he comes back. And since we rarely meet these partners again, the emotional intimacy stays intact with Ramesh, and has only grown stronger.”

A polyamorous open marriage

Seema* and Aakash* decided to open up their marriage because they both realised they were feeling attracted to other people a few years into their relationship. And in Aakash’s case, he was also bi-curious. The couple, who are both in their early 30s, has been together for 13 years and married for five.

A year after their wedding, Seema and Aakash moved to Bengaluru for a while, and it was there that they decided to stop repressing the attraction they felt towards others. While their initial condition for opening up the marriage was only to seek sex, they realised that it wasn’t possible for them to not get more involved. Seema and Aakash’s is a more polyamorous setup, where they can seek relationships with other people also.

When asked how they have managed to maintain their own marriage, and each other as a primary partner, Aakash explains, “I let her know if I am planning something. You give enough time to your primary partner and then plan other things with other people. We have successfully managed to do that.” 

In fact, the couple discuss the dates they have with each other too. This is especially true for Seema, who has found rejections difficult to deal with as she did not date much before meeting Aakash either. “I rely on my husband to console me then, and he does. It reassures me that just because we go on dates, it does not mean our relationship is in danger. We have a strong foundation. This has just reaffirmed that we are not going to crumble easily.”

Challenges to being in an open marriage

It is not as though people who are in open relationships do not deal with feelings of jealousy, possessiveness and conditioning that the heteronormative, monogamous way is the only one.

“To be in an open marriage, you first need to have a conversation with yourself and how you think about your relationship. You’ve to think about questions like, are you okay with your partner being touched by someone else? Harder questions like is your relationship only working because you both don’t have access to anyone else? If that is the case, then an open marriage won’t work for you,” Rishabh adds.

Unlearning may especially be hard for women, given the scrutiny they face, and the perception that women who seek sex and relationships beyond marriage are easy or immoral.

Both Reena and Drishti felt this guilt initially, because they were in otherwise happy marriages. Drishti in fact, got a major anxiety attack when she went to meet someone for the first time. “I had spoken to Rishabh about it, and complied with all the conditions we had laid down. But I still got an anxiety attack,” she narrates. “It’s hard to undo years of conditioning,” she observes.

Drishti, who describes both her and Rishabh as demisexual, meaning they both need to have a strong emotional connection with someone to be sexually attracted to them, discussed with Rishabh how meeting new people each time she wanted to have sex was giving her anxiety. And while there was a concern about Drishti developing emotional attachment if she saw the same partner(s) multiple times, the couple agreed that it was better than risking Drishti having anxiety attacks.

This, Paras Sharma, a Bengaluru-based psychologist and founder of The Alternative Story, says, is an important aspect in an open marriage. “Limits have to be open for revision and discussion too. No one should be made to feel guilty or immoral, especially in a fight or a vulnerable moment. Their actions should not be used to slut shame or moralise.”

Seema, meanwhile, has often found that when potential male partners realise that she is in an open marriage, they don’t treat her with the same care that they would with another woman they were dating.

The couples also said that many of their friends had shown alarm or concern when they found out about their open marriage, thinking that this means that their relationship has become shaky. Some may also tend to ask voyeuristic questions.

It can also be challenging to find partners who are respectful and understanding of what an open marriage is, and do not threaten to out them. The families of all couples TNM spoke to do not know about their open marriage. Couples fear backlash and ostracisation, even violence if they find out.

The key to a healthy open marriage

What becomes clear from the couples’ experiences is that trust, honesty and transparent communication are some crucial things to have in a relationship for a healthy open marriage.

However, the transparency needs to be there with the partners being sought outside marriage as well, says Paras. “It has to be something where all people involved, including partners of both married partners, need to be clear about who is the primary partner.”

Further, a partner’s hard limits should be explicitly understood and respected, Paras says.

And despite what the internet might tell you, an open marriage means different things to different people. “For some people, an open marriage may be where you are allowed to talk to people online only. Or only have casual hookups; be allowed to see the same person multiple times, but not in public. Some couples can even have a ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ policy,” Paras explains.

And despite people thinking that an open marriage is a best of both worlds kind of deal, it’s actually a lot more work. “I see it as a relationship orientation, not just something to spice up your sex life as it is often fetishized to be. The world is not a very inclusive space, and navigating that while being in an open marriage is hard. Even if you only seek sex, the open relationship requires a lot more than that from both married partners,” Paras notes.

What is NOT an open marriage

The basis of an open marriage is consent and trust from both partners. “An open marriage cannot be a consequence of one partner cheating,” Paras says. “Many people say that they didn’t want to be in an open marriage but their partner cheated, said they wanted to continue, and so, told the other married partner that they should seek other partners as well.”

A coercive element may also come in if a partner finds out that the person they are married to is attracted to another or more genders. “Unless explicit and enthusiastic consent is present, it is not an open marriage; especially if both parties did not want it from the outset,” Paras adds.

*Names changed

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