Open relationship threatened by desperate wife

Hello. I have been looking for somewhere/someone to talk to and get advice/input on my situation.

I’ve been in a relationship for 3 years now; he is married and until now it has been what I consider an affair. He has been torn about leaving the 20-year marriage because of various reasons, mostly the kids. Right from the beginning our relationship was very open and I have never been jealous or bothered by his wife. We had often said it’s too bad she wasn’t open to a poly life. We both continued on and as time progressed, so did our relationship. He had decided that he was done with the marriage and we were going to have a life together; an open poly life. We enjoy sexual partners outside of ours but only together – our agreement that works. We planned on moving in together after he had lived his own a while, giving time for his kids to get to know me.

Last week his wife has out of nowhere offered him a deal of staying together in order to not hurt the kids separating. She has proposed they try an open relationship. I have told him I don’t want this. I can’t see it working as I don’t think she can understand the difference between an open relationship and a poly lifestyle. She is trying to control and give terms that cater more to simple sexual partners outside of the marriage. Example: you are only allowed 2 hours with someone. There are so many more things that factor into it, being that he and I are in a full-on relationship. Am I correct to assume this?

I don’t agree that considering an open relationship is a way to fix a troubled relationship. I feel it will create bigger issues. He has always been secretive with her, always had affairs because he has always desired the poly life and she hasn’t. I am also afraid that she will try to control and manipulate in order to do anything to save the marriage. He and I have been very open about all of this talking and expressing fears feelings and concerns. I am so torn between losing him and risking the chance of all this trying it out blowing up into a nightmare. He is unsure of what he wants to do. He wants us both but I don’t know if he wants her just to keep kids or if he is truly still in love with her. For him to decide, I know. I guess my main question is: can this work? Can a 20-year marriage that’s been troubled and an affair that’s been 3 years even possibly work turning into a poly life?

Ugh, so confused lol. Thank you in advance.

Dear So Confused,

There’s no denying that this is a very complicated and potential volatile situation. You’ve done a great job in explaining the myriad factors and forces at work.

The short answer is that you are right – opening a relationship is almost never a good way to fix a relationship so your fears are not unfounded. However, the option to avoid this route does not take into account your presence in the relationship. The ideal solution for him would be for it to work out with both his wife and you, and the children. The ideal for her is for you to go away and for him to recommit to a monogamous relationship with her.

But the ideal for you is a little murkier. Even if they divorce and you begin an open relationship with him, there will still be the kids to consider, so it’s not likely the ex-wife will be out of your life completely for a while (I don’t know how old the kids are, but with a 20-year marriage they probably aren’t too young). So it behooves you to create a situation where the wife is as much a happily integrated part of everyone’s lives as she can be.

If your partner loves you, it shouldn’t matter if he also loves her (unless he decides he wants to be monogamous). So the reasons for him staying with her are irrelevant. I think the real issue is you need to insist that you have equal say in the rules that are being discussed in the relationship that now includes all three of you. Making rules that affect you without your consent or participation is disrespectful. Just because she has children with him doesn’t automatically make her more important than you – or at least it shouldn’t.

The best solution would be for the three of you to sit down and discuss your wants for agreements and come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. I know – easier said than done. Part of the process is to educate the wife on what being poly and having a poly relationship actually means, since she seems to associate it with swinging. But if this isn’t workable, you may have to insist on rules of your own, ones that respect you as a person and give you at least the minimum of what you want out of the relationship while maintaining your ability to pursue others that satisfy the difference.

Leon, whatcha got for her?

Well, there’s quite a bit to unpack. You’ve got a 20+ year marriage with kids to deal with, a relationship with the oft-cheating husband to maintain, and a potential consensual non-monogamous (CNM) relationship to negotiate with the wife. Sounds like a pretty challenging time for everyone.

The first thing I’m going to say is when I’ve seen this scenario play out, it’s USUALLY the person in the middle being dishonest with both partners. Our society trains people in relationships to always tell our partners what we think they want to hear, skewing reality as needed to present a good story to each. When someone maintains multiple relationships – especially in secret – there’s a huge incentive to tell one partner one thing, and the other something completely different. I mean, this looks exactly like the so-common-it’s-a-cliche scenario of the husband who swears his marriage is over and he’s going to leave his wife – but ultimately he never does and the “other woman” is left in the cold. The two wrinkles here are 1) it’s happening to YOU (which means, of course, that YOUR situation is somehow different), and 2) that CNM is an option going forward.

Regarding #1: while you’re in a relationship you’re subjective, and logical observations usually lose out to emotional convictions. Ever been in this situation? Your friends will tell you someone’s not good for you, and you’ll respond, “Oh, but you don’t know him; our situation might look that way but is really another. He/We/This isn’t at all like you’re saying.” And then down the line you break up, and you realize your friends were right all along! “How could I have been so blind?” Well, that’s subjectivity vs objectivity. And right now, you’re subjective. I imagine if a friend of yours described this scenario to you, you’d likely be less charitable to the husband.

But thanks to #2, all is not lost! Even if I’m right and there’s been a lot of double-dealing going on here, CNM might offer a way out – but only if all parties have a meeting of the minds. You’re correct in suggesting that entering a consensual non-monogamous relationship to save a troubled mono relationship is often a recipe for disaster. This certainly looks like it could be! Especially since his wife is presumably offering an open relationship as a last-ditch effort to keep the marriage intact (whether or not she’s using the kids as an excuse is ultimately irrelevant), and would presumably agree to anything as long as she gets to maintain whatever it is she feels is crucial enough to save. To her, it’s likely a case of using as much leverage as she can, to maintain as much control and relationship as she can.

If this is going to work at all, all three of you will need to get on the same page. If either of you on the ends of the V-shape see the other as a threat (hard not to) then any negotiated agreement would be under duress, and neither fair nor morally enforceable. Perhaps an experienced mediator could help – either a professional or someone you all know and trust as a friend? It’s a longshot idea, but if this is going to work it would likely benefit from someone external to explain how CNM works and help coordinate agreements, to avoid the appearance of you and him ganging up on his wife.

Ultimately, you might be more experienced with and open to CNM, but you’ve also been engaging in a secret affair with a married guy. You’re going to need to take responsibility for that – which takes away any moral advantage you might want to claim for your “full-on relationship.” It sounds to me like you want what you want – which is a happy CNM relationship with him, with his wife gratefully accepting any crumbs you and he feel like leaving her. I have a very strong feeling that’s NOT going to fly with her, which means you’re going to have to make some compromises, even if they’re seemingly unfair to you – like no overnights or shorter time periods or whatever, at least to start, with the expressed plan of expanding them as the wife gets more comfortable with having you around. At least on paper, she’s the only blameless one here.

The best thing you can do is be 100% open and honest with both of them, and do your damndest to make sure both he and his wife are open and honest with each of you. If you and she can get to know each other, then you can understand each other. Once that happens you can try to work together to help identify and protect the others’ most important needs via the relationship with this guy – and only THEN would this situation work well for everyone. There’s a long, long way between here and there, but it’s possible. Good luck.

Agreeable relationship agreements

Hello Friends,
I’m looking for a list of questions that my partner and I can ask ourselves in trying to make an open relationship agreement.
Negotiating Newbie

Hi Newbie! Thanks for addressing what I consider an important but often overlooked part of poly: working together to make all parties happy. Since your question involves just the two of you at this stage, I’ll address both of you with my suggestions, although these should be easily extrapolated for larger groups.

I find that most relationship negotiations are best handled in this order: 1) figure out what you want; 2) figure out what your partner wants; and then 3) figure out the best solution for everyone. If you’re familiar with the concept of game theory – this is it, applied to real life. The idea is to find the path which leads to the most collective happiness and the least collective dissatisfaction.

Find some time you both can set aside uninterrupted, at least an hour (but could easily be more).

For step one, I’d recommend that each of you should on your own (no peeking!) write up a list of things you’d want in your relationship going forward, both long and short term. Include things you feel are mandatory, best-case scenarios, and what you’d be happy ‘settling’ for. Also include any dealbreakers you have which you would NOT consider at this point. Be as detailed or as general as you like, but cover as much ground as you can. Also remember these are ideas and talking points as much as they are ingredients for agreements, and nothing at this point is set in stone. It’s just a list of what you want – all of which your partner should know.

Step two, communicating with your partner, is more than just sharing the lists, although that’s how it starts. The biggest stumbling block in negotiating relationship agreements I’ve found is where people think they’re on the same page but it turns out they’re not. Therefore, be prepared to explain your underlying reasons for each item on your list, even if you think they are obvious. The key here is understanding why your partner wants what they want. I would recommend being as honest as possible about your true desires, even if you think your partner wouldn’t agree to or doesn’t share them, because the better your partner can understand what you want and why, the better chance you have of reaching mutual understanding. Conversely, when your partner is sharing things with you honestly, you may be surprised by some of what you hear. Keep an open mind, and remember that listening openly is part of the exercise. Make sure you each have the chance to speak as much as you want, and don’t move on past any item until you both feel you understand the other. Negative feelings may arise, but if you have a strong underlying primary relationship, and you mutually commit to holding your relationship as special, you will come to appreciate their sharing their desires with you, rather than feeling jealous or uncomfortable. Practice compersion.

Once you feel you have shared what is important to you, and have heard what is important to your partner, it’s time for step three, coming up with the actual agreement. Since you’re both new at this, your ground rules should be mutually agreed upon in writing, with definitions included if needed. (What is ‘sex’? What is ‘overnight’? What is ‘together’?) Try to include a catch-all, a plan of action to take if you’re unsure about what to do in a situation. Each of you should get a copy, and it’s a nice personalized touch to have each of you sign the other’s. Agree to revisit the rules after a set period of time (a week, a month, six months, whatever), or before then if one or both of you have concerns. Also remember that miscommunications happen, even after you’ve spent all this time clarifying them. Sometimes rules seem to conflict or become impractical in practice. In addition, negotiated rules cover the situations you can imagine, but what happens if something you haven’t covered comes up? This is where sharing the underlying rationale for your rules comes in handy; once you truly understand the rationale behind your partner’s desires you can usually extrapolate appropriate behavior for situations you haven’t yet considered. But check in with your partner if you’re not sure about something. I also recommend letting any new partners you may have know about your agreement; you don’t necessarily need to each walk around with your copy at all times in your wallet (although you could!), but definitely make sure new people in your life are aware both of your existing relationship/s and its relevant terms.

As an aside, I’ve found that most negotiated relationship agreements evolve over time, and after time they may simplify or even disappear entirely. The whole point of an agreement is to find ways to reach that mutual “win” that takes each of your wants into consideration, and the more you find you understand each other, the easier it becomes to achieve. Eventually you may reach the point where you each do the things you want, automatically incorporating the things you know make your partner happy, and you’ll find you won’t need that piece of paper after all. Good luck reaching relationship nirvana! Mischa, what’s your take?

Well, I really don’t have much to add to all that! You have definitely laid out the whole process soup-to-nuts….spoken like a real attorney! And if you are an attorney (like Leon is) then I’m sure this all sounds perfectly fine to you.

[Insert lawyer joke of your choice here]

I agree wholeheartedly about getting to the underlying reasons one person wants something from another person. Contrary to popular rumor, poly people aren’t immune to jealousy. But there is always a way to deal with it constructively versus destructively. Remember that jealousy is one partner’s issue; no one “makes” you feel jealous. You control your own feelings based on what you’ve agreed to with your partner(s). If they don’t honor those agreements, then you can feel disappointed and hurt, but put the blame squarely where it belongs and for a specific action without condemning the whole person or the relationship.

So a good relationship agreement lets each partner know where the boundaries are that makes the relationship valuable and sustainable for them. If you follow Leon’s process above and can’t come to an agreement, then maybe the relationship isn’t going to be what you want it to be. It could still be a positive thing in your life, but maybe it’s not sustainable. Or maybe it’s sustainable in a different form but doesn’t have the intimacy you wanted, meaning you have to find that component elsewhere.

The point is that everyone is transparent about what they have, and everyone has the choice to take it or leave it.

While I also agree with Leon that relationship agreements tend to loosen over time, I’m not a big fan of making draconian agreements in the first place. My one little piece of advice is to keep agreements as simple as possible and try to make agreements that you are confident you can keep. Not everybody has the temperament to sit down and go through the whole litany of relationship possibilities at the beginning.

So another option is to tackle one or two big rules first, and work in the rest as time and experience dictates. It’s like, instead of filling up your plate on your first trip to the buffet, just start with a salad and come back for the main course. The key is to create an atmosphere where every partner feels safe in bringing up new situations that might affect the relationship. Regular check-ins can be used to go over what rules are in place and what might need to change over time.

A great example of why this approach might work better is illustrated brilliantly in Franklin Veaux’s blog post titled “If People Approached Monogamy The Way They Approach Polyamory.” In reading this article, it’s easy to see how relationship agreements that sound perfectly reasonable to a couple might make absolutely no sense to a potential new partner.

It’s also a basic courtesy to include all parties that are affected by rules into the rule-making process (remember, we Americans fought a war over power imposed without representation – it’s not something easily tolerated). So especially if you are just a couple for now, maybe you start small and work your way through new rules if and when a new person joins you, incorporating that person’s specific desires and situation organically into your agreement.

And of course, if you get stuck, you might want to think about bringing in a professional, like our Open Love NY co-conspirator Diana Adams, a New York-based attorney who specializes in non-traditional and polyamorous relationship agreements. Her fee might be a small price to pay for a successful and happy relationship with the right person.

Good luck to you and let us know how things go!