Ask Wendy

Should My Marriage Be Open Or Closed?

Friday, February 23, 2018
upset couple on the beach
Hey Wendy,

I've been married to my wife for nearly 20 years. About five years ago we made the decision to open the marriage, and while I think the decision has been great, lately we've run into some complications.

What underlies our arrangement is that she has been losing interest in sex in general. She's going through menopause and is on antidepressants (which doesn't help). With the open marriage I got the sexual connections I craved while she was alleviated the burden of being the sole source of my sexual attention. It worked well for both of us.

The challenge is that my wife is now having second thoughts. She's thinking she might not be as amenable to the open marriage as she originally thought. She tells me she did it because she feels I'm a good guy and I should have what I want. But she's no longer sure it's what she wants.

In fact, it's starting to cause marital trouble. Which leads me to my question.

I'd prefer to keep the marriage intact if possible. We're best friends and good co-parents, and I'd like to grow old and die with her. On the other hand, the past five years have made me realize how much I value an open relationship. I treasure the wonderful web of delicious and close connections I've made and don't want to give them up for the world.

But she's not sure she can live with it anymore. I could keep the marriage together if I agree to close it again. Or risk losing it if I dig in my heels and insist on keeping it open. Hence my conundrum.

While I have my own opinion of what I should do, I would love to hear what you advise.


Kevin T. Belvedere, California

Hey Kevin,

Conundrum. Yup, that’s what you’ve got there. What a tough spot! Being trapped between your love for her and the need for the wonderful web of connections you’ve cultivated through your open marriage isn’t an easy place to be. I sure wish I could tell you how to keep your marriage open and have her be fine with it in 140 characters or less, but sadly, I can’t.

Here’s what I will say, though: I’m pulling for you two to figure out a creative solution that works for both of you—a solution in which everyone gets “enough” of what they need. For the two of you to be in a healthy, happy marriage that will continue to last, you each need to do your part in sorting this out.

Your first step is to do some serious soul-searching to learn the answer to a tough question: Will it be enough for you to be with only your wife if she could provide your minimum amount of sexual contact, connection, and sensual energy? You need to wrap your head all the way around the possibility of being monogamous again and give it some serious thought. Can you do it? Can you rack up the last five years as a series of amazing adventures that are now behind you as your life takes a different direction? And if you do choose monogamy again, what exactly would “enough” sexual connection look like?  You need to be able to articulate and negotiate the conditions for a closed marriage ahead of time so that you don’t end up resenting her for this relationship change if it does happen.

I think opening up the marriage so she wasn’t the sole source of your sexual attention was smart. Sometimes it’s good to, ah, contract out the workload if you can’t get all of it done yourself. And I’m guessing that’s how it felt to her. But one thing’s for sure: If we lose interest in sex and our partner doesn’t, it’s not fair to expect our partner to suddenly be okay with a sexless relationship.

Listen, I get it—not feeling sexual around menopause is for reals. When I hit 50, my body was like, “meh” to sex.  But your wife is going to have to do what I and millions of other women have done, and that’s own the responsibility to nurture sexual health. Just like it’s our job to eat well and exercise as best we can, nurturing a sexual partnership takes dedication, reinvention, and, yes, sometimes a little self-sacrifice. We owe it to ourselves and to our partner to not let that part of our life go. Ebbs and flows? Sure. But it’s unfair for a spouse to say, “I don’t want sex anymore, and I still expect sexual exclusivity from you even though we’re not having sex.” In other words, “You can’t have sex with me, but you can’t have sex with anyone else, either.” This is not okay. So, if you stay, this piece needs to get resolved, and that resolution might be quite a journey for her.

For your part in this, you need to stay open, honest, and—most importantly—understanding of her position in this conversation. She’s got some work to do. She could start by getting her mind, body, and spirit back into gear. I don’t mean taking one for the team (“Lie back and think of England” and all that), but instead figuring out a way to tap back into her sexuality in an authentic way that works for her. Again, not an easy feat when medication and age are throwing obstacle after obstacle in her path, but it’s totally possible.

Here’s a hot tip: It’s not medical advice, and she should consult with a doctor first, but since you’re in California, I suggest Foria. It’s an all-natural, plant-based medicinal weed lube. Yep, you read that right. Ain’t this modern life a thing? She applies it 30 minutes prior to sex, and she won’t get high, but her vagina will. (If she uses it for anal, though, she will get high, so heads up on that one.)

Women of a certain age swear by Foria and are reporting feeling twenty years (or so) younger, with warmth and depth of sensation they forgot they could feel. It’s known to awaken arousal and heighten sensation, making orgasms more intense, fuller, and/or easier to access. It can help with natural lubrication, and it reduces pain and tension for a more comfortable, sensual experience.

Speaking of talking to a doc, I’d also suggest that she speak with her OBGYN or psychologist about switching up her depression meds. Antidepressants are the goldilocks of medication: it can take a while to find one that’s juuuust right. One might kill her sex drive stone dead, where another might affect it much less severely. Worth a conversation, right? On the more clothes-on side of things, there’s a wealth of classes, workshops, and therapy options out there for this sort of thing if that’s something you two think might work out for you.

This is where I think you two could start. And I hope you work it out, I really do. But if you can’t work it out, I’m here from the other side to tell you it’s going to be hard. Harder than you ever realized. I left a decade-plus marriage over sexual incompatibility. It was that oh-so-common sexless-marriage pitfall that can easily happen to anyone when two people become more like brother and sister than lovers. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. It was literally easier for me to cure myself of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which I did, BTW. The pain of hurting a good person—of breaking their heart and breaking your promise—is devastating. It’s been sixteen years since I left, and I’m still not completely over it. I never will be. But as painful as it was, it was the right thing to do for both of us. Let me say that again: It was the right thing to do. I love my life post-divorce, and I also still love my ex-husband very much. The difference is now we both have partners who can give us what we need.

I don’t believe a lifelong marriage automatically equals success. I know waayyy too many unhappily married people who stay because they said they would, and they torture each other every moment of every day because of it.

If you two can work together in partnership to create solutions that work for you, well done! And if you can’t, I hope you don’t see this as a failure, but as a great success, that stands for what you need in your lives now. You can bask in your success at being able to support and love each other through the transition, (and throughout the rest of your lives if you want to) as great friends who live two houses down from each other (that’s an option, you know). Stay together or don’t—either way, if you both want it, you can set your mind to being best friends, good co-parents, and even to growing old and dying together. Divorce doesn’t mean you have to disconnect. What it does mean is that you’re both free to get what you need out of life without disenfranchising each other. You don’t need to lose the love.

Good luck!

p.s. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that you being a “good guy” and letting you “have what you want” as a reason for opening the marriage reads patronizing to me. Many women believe (and our culture widely promotes this mindset) that wanting sex is like wanting a cookie. “If you’re a good boy, you get a cookie.” Ugh. 4-1-1: Sex is not a whim for most men, it’s a need. Wanting a sweet treat and needing sex are not the same thing. Sex lives more in the “need air” camp than it does in the “need-chocolate-chips-now” camp for most guys, and denying this will ultimately make you the bad guy in this storyline. When you pit your biological, sexual needs up against your love and integrity, guess which one wins almost every time? Don’t let this be your story.

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