Non-Monogamy Didn’t Ruin My Marriage

Adam & Eve

No-monogamy

First of all, I want to clear the air about two things:

1) What I have to say about non-monogamy is only my experience with non-monogamy. I am not in any way suggesting that this is a one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy marriage. It’s simply what works for me and my partner.

2) The fact that I even feel the need to include this disclaimer is perhaps a product of my own baggage concerning the stigmas and stereotypes I’ve contended with in my life, but it’s also true that many people are touchy about non-monogamy. So whatever your thoughts on monogamy may be, I mean no disrespect. This is just my story.

So, here goes….

For the past seven years, I have been married to the most wonderful woman. I don’t believe in soulmates, but if I did, Karen would be mine. We met in college, like many people do. She was the last of a long string of relationships — with both men and women. I can’t pinpoint exactly what was different about Karen. All I can say is we clicked. After dating for two years, we decided to get married and had a lovely little ceremony with friends. My family was not in attendance — another story entirely.

Things were going swimmingly at first. I was more in love with Karen as my wife than I had been when we were two college seniors talking for hours on the phone instead of completing our capstones. But then a couple of years into our marriage, I started having feelings. Sexual feelings for other people. Specifically men. Men at the supermarket, men on the bus, men passing me on the street.

This is when many readers might start thinking, “Ah, so she’s not into ladies after all.” But this is not the case. I was just as into Karen as I always was. Ours was a healthy sex life, and I loved spending time with her. The only way I can describe my feelings for the opposite sex is that it was the one experience Karen and I couldn’t share sexually — only approximately — and I couldn’t help yearning for it.

The fact is, as a bisexual woman, I already contend with stigmas concerning my sexuality. As The Huffington Post reports, bisexual individuals are often “branded as greedy or illegitimate or it’s claimed that those who identify this way are merely in flux before settling at one end of the hetero/homo binary.”

These stereotypes have thankfully waned some in recent years, especially with more and more people, including celebrities, coming out as bisexual. Evan Rachel Wood, one of my biggest idols, opened up to Marie Claire about her sexuality, saying, “I can’t say I’m one way or the other because I’ve honestly fallen in love with a man and I’ve honestly fallen in love with a woman. I don’t know how you label that, it’s just how it is.” I was like, hell yes! Maybe mainstream America will finally get it.

Still, the negative stereotypes surrounding bisexuality have always made me feel that the way I conduct my love life is constantly under scrutiny, particularly from my family, who has had a difficult time accepting it. In college, I dated a girl, then a guy, then another girl, and with each new relationship my mother thought I was “in a phase.” Even my most progressive friends in college — both gay and straight — would ask which I liked more, as if there was a percentage I could attribute to either men or women. When I got married to Karen I was afraid people would assume I was finally settling on women. But in some ways, I also welcomed this assumption, because it meant my bisexuality would stop being a talking point.

So, when I started to realize I wanted to sleep with men too, the same old fears of being deemed a greedy sex maniac came back. More than that, I worried that if I told Karen how I felt it would break her heart. For months, I hemmed and hawed about telling her, until I finally did. I’d like to say it was an easy, tear-free conversation, but frankly, it was one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had in my life. But the amazing thing is that Karen decided she was fine with me sleeping with other people — men or women — as long as she didn’t meet the person or know the details. I didn’t know whether to think I’d won the love jackpot or that I’d unintentionally manipulated my wife into an arrangement she didn’t truly want.

And then she told me a secret of her own….

She told me one of her go-to masturbation fantasies was the thought of me sleeping with a stranger. This made me feel a little better, but I still worried that the reality of me seeking sex outside our marriage would be way harder to handle than any hypothetical dalliances. So, after much reassurance on her part, I finally acted on the arrangement we’d settled on. In many ways, I felt liberated and sexually satisfied (sex with Karen also was better than ever once I started exploring other people).

However, a part of me still felt guilty. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was cheating on my wife. Cheating, after all, is a complicated concept. A huge factor in infidelity is that one knowingly deceives their partner for self-gratification. Adam & Eve reports that 74% of men and 68% of women admit they would have an affair if they knew they wouldn’t get caught, while only 33% ever actually admit to cheating. Here, I was carrying on extramarital relations with my wife’s consent, and yet I still felt like a cheater.

It wasn’t until I read Dan Savage’s article about “Manogamish” relationships that I began to really understand our situation and why I was feeling so guilty. I realized that a lot of it had to do with my own preconceived notions about the kinds of people who choose to have open relationships. “If a three-way or an affair was a factor in a divorce or breakup,” Savage explains, “we hear all about it. But we rarely hear from happy couples who aren’t monogamous, because they don’t want to be perceived as dangerous sex maniacs who are destined to divorce.”

It dawned on me that I’d never personally seen non-monogamy work for another couple. In fact, I’d watched one of my best friends go through a brutal divorce because of a ménage a trios gone wrong. So, just as I’d been affected by negative stereotypes associated with bisexuality, I was now contending with stigmas surrounding non-monogamy. Savage goes on to say, “couples who experimented with non-monogamy and wound up divorced won’t shut up; couples who experimented with non-monogamy and are still together won’t speak up,” which has led to the skewed perception of non-monogamy.

Since embarking on a “manogamish” relationship two years ago, I’ve only slept with four people other than Karen. In many ways, just knowing I have the option to sleep with someone else has been good enough for me. Moreover, Karen and I have experienced a deeper level of openness in all parts of our marriage, and I truly believe it stems from the heightened level of trust and communication our arrangement has inspired.

Not long ago, I asked Karen if she had any regrets about our arrangement, and she said she only wished I’d said something sooner. So, I guess what I’m trying to do here is quit being afraid and speak up. For what it’s worth, non-monogamy hasn’t ruined my marriage. It’s only made it better.

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Kimberly Madison

Kimberly Madison is an advertising professional based in Portland, Ore. She is at work on a memoir about her complicated relationship with her mother and the unlikely trip to Amsterdam that brought them closer together.

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One comment

  • Good job Kimberley, this was a very nice post!
    This kind of articles are the way towards accepting/normalizing situations like yours – we need to talk about them openly and maturely, not hide shamefully in the shadows.
    Being happy in a non-conventional, non-hurtful relationship is nothing to be ashamed about. 🙂

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