Monthly Archives: November 2011

Open marriages: a mainstream reality check

Let me confess right now that I am not a celebrity watcher. Sure I keep up with the basics of the gossip, but i don’t let the temperamental and tumultuous relationships of celebrities define anything for the reality of my life.  Personally I believe any marriage exposed to such a magnifying glass is already starting out with more pressure than it can withstand.  But when I read that some gossipers are blaming an open relationship for the failure of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, I think people are too quick to assign blame to the “new” concept of an open marriage instead of looking at the qualities and characteristics of the people involved.  And let’s be clear…none of us know Demi and none of us know Ashton.  So unless you are in the relationship itself, can you really assign blame to an open marriage or any other signular scapegoat?

In this article on HuffPo “Open Marriage: A Celebrity Solution or a Contradiction in Terms?” people continue to speculate on the disadvantages of an open relationship. What bothers me about the article is that it pretends to have an equal point of view where it intends to treat open marriages as an option, except it doesn’t really delve into the good realities of an open marriage.  It treats open marriage as if it is biohazard material which can only be observed at a distance or with heavy protection against its dangers.

Open marriage may seem sane to some as it allows for forgiveness on both sides if and when both partners give into the inevitable temptations and stray. The thinking is, “If we’re going to cheat, let’s at least be honest about it.” But it is not a real solution. I don’t have the statistics to prove it, and with today’s divorce rate, traditional marriages aren’t exactly stellar in the numbers department, but from a purely practical perspective, we can’t have it both ways.

I don’t think my marriage could stand up to this kind of pressure and I’m not sure that any healthy marriage could. I believe it prudent to intentionally keep things that are potentially damaging to your marriage away from your marriage whenever and wherever possible.

First, let’s agree that there are a few problematic terms here such as “stray”, “cheat”, “not a real solution” and “potentially damaging”.   The article is already stacking the deck against us. Open marriages for the most part don’t view outside influences or people as dangers that should be guarded against.  And frankly if someone decides to open their marriage with this perspective in mind, they might not have the right mindset to even start an open marriage much less sustain one.

Most open marriage start with the premise the honesty is mandatory.  No subject is off the table, no encounter is not worth sharing.  So, if cheating, straying or stepping out becomes an issue, it’s usually because a partner has a compulsion to deceive in a relationship, which I view as far more damaging in an open relationship because the fear of being honest, confessing an attraction to another person or god forbid flirting with another person has been managed and ideally eliminated.  Generally speaking, if someone cheats in an open relationship, they are a special kind of douchebag, often blaming the other partner for their lack of integrity and honesty instead of owning up to their compulsions and impulse control issues.  But in a traditional marriage, this might not come to light and would be blamed instead on that partner’s inability to be monogamous.

But to say that it is prudent to keep “potentially damaging” influences, people and situations away from your marriage is problematic.  If that were the case, let’s make sure we don’t open up marriages to children.  After all, the birth of a child could be potentially damaging to your union, causing among other things financial instability, mental break-down and a lack of sex drive.  Let’s also make sure no married couple takes on a risky business venture or has to travel for work.  Include too potentially erratic and damaging in-laws or friends.  Pets. Home remodeling.  Disability. Death of a family member.  Or anything that might cause stress. And most definitely let’s eliminate any threat of mental illness or chronic disease.

Do you see how utterly stupid that is?

Instead, why don’t we teach our married brothers and sisters how to deal effectively with a partner when facing these “threats” to their united bliss?  How do we deal with conflict?  How do we deal with disappointment and deception?  How are we playing out the tired and unsuccessful patterns of relating that we’ve learned from society and family in our married lives today?

But comparing an obsession with work and material success to the enrichment and fulfillment available when connecting with more than one human being is insulting.  That’s not to say that I haven’t seen marriages torn apart by the distractedness and self-centeredness of one of the partners.  For example, I knew of a couple that broke up because the wife spent most of her time scrapbooking or playing games online than watching her kids, leaving the husband to work 60+ hour weeks, risking his and the kids’ health.  But whenever the focus of a partner is rooted in the outside world, connection starts to wither away.  Focusing on bringing home the joys and rewards of those outside influences and allowing it to help replenish the couple so it becomes something they can share in together, equally and reinforce the connection.  But it’s easier when you’re bringing home the joy and bliss of a new connection.  Seeing your partner light up with pride and love at a fulfilling evening and having them share that positive energy with you is not at all the same as waiting up all night for your partner to come home from a long business trip only to have them barely kiss you or share the details of their trip with you.

Open marriages are just an invitation for sexy, exciting, thrilling and potentially lethal distractions. It’s inviting disaster, just like working crazy hours at the expense of yourself or your loved ones; playing golf more than you know you should to get away from your family; hanging out with friends more than hanging in, or out, with your spouse; and the list goes on.

Lethal distractions?  Really? Only if someone can’t control their jealousy.  But then again, I’ve seen people murdered for less.  And I would absolutely LOVE to divorce someone for playing golf (because I find golf to be an insipid, tedious and needlessly elitist “sport”—that is pretty much a deal-breaker to me). My husband’s distraction is video games.  The benefit he gains from it helps me too.  He is more relaxed, more able to talk about his day, more focused on my needs instead of just his.  And I have my distractions too.  I love kink. I talk about it, write about it and even study it in my spare time. (and belly dancing is a close 2nd) It has benefits for my husband in much the same ways his distractions benefit me.  So, I wouldn’t say that distractions are per se bad, but that it breaks down to the cost-benefit analysis of it all.  Does the benefit to the marriage outweigh the cost to it?

Additionally, is someone is seeking distraction to avoid the real dysfunction of the relationship or is it something that is enriching to their character and growth?  It’s only at the end of the article that the author even suggests that there might be reasons why someone is seeking distraction in their marriage.  And frankly, I don’t know a couple that doesn’t seek it to some extent.  So the question is why?  And frankly, we tend to knee-jerk quite a bit about this subject.  Could it be that this “distraction” is contributing positively to someone’s growth and journey?  If so, I’m all for it.

So until you know these couples and what their individual and joint journeys are…it’s probably a better idea to look at yourself and ask what is so delicate about your marriage that you must avoid “danger” at all costs instead of allowing it to test your mettle and commitment, allowing it to alter your perspective and perhaps even enhance your life.   Through good times and in bad, right?

“Love is the ability and willingness to allow those you care for to be what they choose for themselves, without any insistence that they satisfy you.”

– Dr. Wayne Dyer

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A Note on Empathy

Original Post:

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

So when I posted this, I got a question on twitter from someone who snarkily wanted to know what this had to do with sex.  Frankly, it has everything to do with relationships and therefore in my mind has more than plenty to do with sex.  This is about simple relating.  Replace the word “enemies” with “neighbors” or “lovers” or a form of human relationship and it still fits.

I’ve been somewhat preachy lately in my personal and professional life about the needless competitions we get into, usually around “my pain is worse than your pain” sorts of scenarios.  You know the ones.  You’re pouring your heart out about the latest drama or dilemma you have encountered in your life.  Your friend seems like they are paying attention until suddenly they say, “Oh that’s nothing.  Listen to what happened to me the other day”.    Your heart is still bleeding and you’re still looking for some amount of comfort for the ass-hattery that has hit your life while your friend drones on and on about their latest problem.  It hurts and it sucks.

I’ve done it.  I completely admit it.  I’ve even interrupted people while they were crying to do this.  I’ve upped the ante on the emotional pain on the table so much that by the time we’re done, we both feel like the biggest losers in the world and are even worse off than before.  No one was heard, no one has been comforted and we both feel resentful to our “narcissistic” friend who stole our pitiful squeak of thunder. I have been this shitty friend, been called self-absorbed, self-centered, narcissistic and desperate before and it really sucks.  (and for the record, I believe “narcissistic” is tossed around a little too liberally, usually by the very people are exhibiting the exact same behavior and whining about others’ narcissism for not paying attention to their pain and suffering).

But you’ve done it too.  It’s okay to admit it.  It’s okay to say that you’ve been a giant ass about someone else’s pain and played the “no, look at how much more my life sucks” game.  I could go into the psychological reasons why we do this to each other, but that would miss the point of what I’m aiming for here.

Being a good lover depends quite a bit on emotional intelligence.  And a cornerstone of emotional intelligence is empathy.  Empathy is described as “the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being.”.  But in order to do that we have to know a bit about that person’s story.  We have to understand a bit more about their journey…and we have to be interested enough to care to listen to it.  And most of the time, I think we are.  I think we do care.  But in an effort and perhaps even an impatience to connect with that person, we interrupt or supersede with our own story and our own journey.  We want acknowledgment too.  We want recognition for our pain and suffering too.

The fact is, we’ve all suffered.  We’ve all experienced pain.  I may not have lost a sibling or parent, but I’ve been hurt.  I know what those experiences did to me and how I am different because of them.  And with a partner or a lover, my pain, particularly those I’ve experienced with former partners and lover (particularly D/s relationships) is kind of relevant.  Knowing where I’ve come from is an important part of understanding me.  It influences how I connect with others physically, emotionally, sexually, and what of myself I choose to reveal to them as time progresses.  It is a major reason why I don’t really consider NSA (no-strings-attached) sex to be truly without connection, feeling or bonds.  But that is another topic for another day.

Sharing ourselves with our partners is essential I believe, at least if you don’t want to surprise them with landmines and booby traps.  It creates empathy and awareness for our personal journey.  It also allows them to see more of us and therefore create a better bond that can shine all the brighter.  It helps to melt away some of our own insecurities and overcome minor resentments before they become giant issues.

The problem is when we allow these personal narratives of our past to overtake and drown out the present.  The person we are sharing with typically is not the person that caused us this harm and/or trauma in our lives.  We’re sharing it as a warning sometimes.  Other times are simply trying to get the acknowledgment and yes, sometimes pity that we didn’t originally get.

And that’s not to discourage that sharing at all, just be aware that in giving that story that we are not shifting the burden of our care and healing onto them.  It still our story.  That person didn’t create that trauma and no matter what level of their sympathy and empathy, they cannot fix it for us.  We are still responsible for our own selves and our own lives and ultimately our own healing.  My hope is that in sharing your story with others that the burden becomes easier and we open ourselves up the therapeutic magic that is possible and therefore we bring about our own healing by letting go of the pain and allowing ourselves to see a better life.  And if everything goes well, we do the same for others.  We listen, we empathize, we allow them the safety to share of themselves fully…

and sharing is quite sexy.

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