He and Elizabeth might not tell the story of that ring, with all its obvious metaphorical meaning, as readily as they do if Daniel were, in fact, ambivalent about marriage, so resentful of its boundaries that he found its most potent symbol too toxic to bear. But Daniel is a softhearted bear of a man, affectionate and affection-seeking, someone who entered marriage expecting, if not everlasting passion, at least an enduring physical connection.
He was relieved to find, as the years passed, that he still loved his wife — they kissed hello each time they reunited, they made each other laugh and he was someone inclined to appreciate what he had. They had, by all appearances, a happy marriage. But as with any happy marriage, there were frustrations.
She thought hers was the normal response: She was raised by strict Catholics, she would tell Daniel, as if that explained it, and she never saw her own parents hold hands, much less kiss. It was not as if she and Daniel never had sex, but when they did, Daniel often felt lonely in his desire for something more — not necessarily exotic sex but sex in which both partners cared about it, and cared about each other, with one of those interests fueling the other.
Occasionally, when he decided the answer was yes, and he felt some vital part of himself dwindling, Daniel would think about a radical possibility: opening up their marriage to other relationships. It was both an outlandish idea and, to him, a totally rational one. He eventually even wrote about it in for a friend who had a blog about sexuality.
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They had two children, and he pointed out that having the second did not detract from how much they loved the first one. Elizabeth did not resent him for bringing it up, but felt stuck: She was not even sure what, exactly, he wanted from her, or how she could give it. And so they continued on, volunteering at church, celebrating anniversaries, occasionally trying couples therapy and car-pooling their growing son and daughter; and they felt gratitude for those children and fondness for each other alongside bouts of stomach-gnawing dissatisfaction; Elizabeth picked up some work in project management she could do from home, and Daniel commuted, and they quibbled over whether it was time to mow the lawn.
Elizabeth was still youthful, a student of yoga, a former dance-fitness instructor, her hair long and swingy. But there was a current sending a vibration through her left hand, as if her body was both announcing itself and telegraphing a message about its future.
Exercise — which the doctor recommended, to slow the onset — became a mission, an act of defiance and a source of physical pleasure. She joined a hiking group, fighting off fear with new friends, new physicality. One seismic shift in a marriage often drives another. He asked her to tea once, and then a second time.
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They understood something profound about each other but also barely knew each other, which allowed for a lightness between them, pure fun in the face of everything. It did not occur to her to resist. Elizabeth did not announce that the friendship was turning romantic, but she did not deny it either, when Daniel, uneasy with the frequency of her visits with Joseph, confronted her. This was not at all what Daniel had in mind when he proposed opening the marriage. It was like I was choosing to take a stand for my own pleasure and sticking to it.
It was so strong, that feeling. After several months of surveying the situation, which seemed to be deadlocked, the therapist told them in early March that she thought they were most likely heading for divorce. It was the first time the word had been uttered aloud in that room. She told him, that night, that she was ready to give up the relationship with Joseph if Daniel could not make peace with it. This opening of our marriage started to seem less like something that was being done to me, and more like something we were doing together.
For several nights following that therapy session, they talked in their bedroom, with an attention they had not given each other in years, sitting on the strip of rug between the foot of their bed and the wall. The sex, too, was different, more varied, as if reflecting the inventing going on in their marriage.
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Their marriage had already strained to accommodate another person, someone whom Elizabeth would meet while Daniel was at work, whom she texted in the car while her husband drove. But Daniel said he was past the point of fear. But I have no idea what would happen either way. Would you rather be asleep and have things fall apart?
Or rather be alive and have things fall apart? I met Elizabeth and Daniel through Tammy Nelson, a sex and couples therapist in New Haven and an old friend of theirs.
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She was not officially their therapist, although she had a particular interest in open relationships. In , she wrote an article in Psychotherapy Networker, a professional publication, about the frequency with which she was encountering married couples whose ideas about fidelity were more lax than those she encountered at the outset of her career.
The spectrum of those attachments included one-night stands and ongoing relationships; as she understood it, honesty and transparency, rather than fidelity, were the guiding principles underlying the healthiest of these kinds of marriages. The couples did not perceive their desire to see other people as a symptom of dysfunction but rather as a fairly typical human need that they thought they were up to the challenge of navigating. Terms have long existed for arrangements similar to those she was seeing — they could fall under the category of polyamory, which involves more than one loving relationship, or the more all-encompassing term, consensual nonmonogamy, which also includes more casual sex outside of marriage or a relationship.
The use of each term implies full knowledge of all parties. But most of the couples she was seeing did not feel the need to name what they were doing at all. The book, which focused mostly on emotional openness, became a best seller, most likely because of a concept it introduced in three pages toward the end. The married couples Talese portrays are looking for meaning through sexual freedom, wreaking havoc in the wake of their quests. Its title announced that the authors endorsed free love but believed it could be practiced with responsible care. Savage, an internationally syndicated, podcast-hosting and often-quoted voice on sexual ethics, is gay, married, a father and nonmonogamous.
Some gay men believe that it is easier for them to enter those relationships than heterosexuals, because gay men have had no pre-existing model imposed on them. Technology also imports nonmonogamy into mainstream heterosexual dating life, making the concept more visible and transparent. Among toyear-olds who identify themselves as nonmonogamous on OkCupid, 16 percent also announce that they are married, according to the site.
Divorce, or not marrying in the first place, might seem like a more logical response to a desire for openness. But even as marriage rates have declined in this country, the institution has retained a seductive status for Americans.
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Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, argues that Americans, who are more religious than their counterparts in other wealthy, developed nations, are also more infatuated with marriage. Openness in a marriage, for better or for worse, would seem a natural outgrowth of those conflicting cultural values, especially since same-sex marriage, open adoptions, single-parent homes, and ideas about gender fluidity have already redefined what constitutes a family.
And yet open marriages — and to a lesser degree open but nonmarital committed relationships — are still considered so taboo that many of the people I interviewed over the last year resisted giving their names, for fear of social disapprobation and of jeopardizing their jobs.
It is no surprise that most conservatives would perceive the concept as a degradation of marriage, of a key foundation of society. But even among progressives I talked to, the subject typically provoked a curled lip or a slack jaw. The thought bubble, or expressed thought: How?
The subject seemed offensive to many at some primal level, or at least ridiculously self-indulgent, as if those involved — working, married people, people with children — were indecently preoccupied with sexual adventure instead of channeling their energies toward, say, their children, or composting. Married for 14 years, I felt that same visceral resistance, an emotion so strong it made me curious to understand how others were wholly free of it, or managed to move past it.
The divide between those who practiced open relationships and those who found the idea repugnant seemed inexplicably vast, given that members of those two groups often overlap in the same relatively privileged demographic anyone holding down three jobs to keep a family together is not likely to spend excess emotional energy negotiating and acting on a nonmonogamy agreement. The more I spoke to people in open relationships, the more I wanted to know how they crossed a line into territory that seemed so thorny to their peers.
I interviewed more than 50 members of open marriages, some of them a dozen or more times.
I was drawn to the couples who were just starting out: What would the following months bring, what would they learn about themselves? I knew I wanted to follow the arc of their marriages, but I underestimated what, in so doing, I might learn about my own. Tammy Nelson, their therapist friend, had long been telling Daniel he should meet the man Elizabeth was seeing. Riding in the car, Elizabeth fielded nervous texts from Joseph, who arrived before them. When Elizabeth and Daniel arrived at the bar, the men shook hands.
Daniel felt the need to reassure him.
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Daniel, who is tall and dark, has mass to him, and strong features; Joseph has blue eyes and is more compact, a former high-school athlete who still, like Elizabeth, works out with discipline. Daniel had started to think of episodes like this one as part of a new marital order he called Bizarro World. Scene 2: He reaches under his pillow on a night when his wife is with her boyfriend and finds a note she has left, knowing his hand would slide precisely there. He opens it up to see a picture of a heart, with their names written inside, a plus sign between them.
Scene 3: One night, close to bedtime, Daniel and Elizabeth explain the concept of polyamory to their two teenage children and tell them that although their mother is seeing someone, the marriage is still strong. Their son, who is 17, sounds almost proud of them for doing something so alternative. Their daughter, who is 15, takes it in more quietly, uncomfortably.
She is just relieved, she tells them, that they are not fighting anymore. If anything, they were fighting harder for their own relationship, making more of an effort. Daniel finally started accompanying Elizabeth on those hikes; Elizabeth stopped putting up a fight when Daniel wanted to buy pricey concert tickets for them.
And yet Daniel still felt conflicted about how the arrangement had started and all that it asked of him.