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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008

Open Marriages, Secrets and Lies

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My wife and I met when she was 14 and I was 16. For the past 26 years we have had an open marriage-as long as there were no secrets. I just found out (through her unattended e-mail) that she has a secret boyfriend. I know this person, and he knows of our agreement. She said she didn't tell me because it was a one-time fling, and now they just e-mail or talk on the phone. But some of the e-mails (18 months' worth) were very hard for me to stomach. I have demanded she end this relationship. She says she has, but I still have doubts and trust issues. So my question is: How do I find a marriage counselor that deals with open marriages and various fetishes or kinks?

Ah, the now-classic scenario of discovering a partner's dishonesty through incriminating e-mail messages. Although you are only asking for a referral to a counselor who is experienced with open relationships, there are several other issues in your question that I'd like to address for the benefit of readers who might be in similar situations.

First, open relationships take many forms and can, when they function in a healthy manner, prevent this kind of dishonesty or infidelity between partners. Open relationships break away from our society's standard monogamy model, in which two people are sexually and emotionally exclusive. People in open relationships acknowledge and even celebrate the fact that they may be attracted to more than one person, and attraction to a new person does not automatically mean the demise of a relationship with a previous partner. Issues of cheating, lying and discontent that plague monogamous relationships are solved-at least in theory!

Because there's no cultural script or social norm for what an open relationship should look like, it can be both difficult to negotiate and also fantastically rewarding, because you can adapt your relationships to the unique and changing needs of everyone involved. There's a lot to consider-is it OK to have a sexual relationship with another person? How about getting emotionally involved with someone else? Do you tell your partner about others that you're seeing, or would he or she prefer not to know? Do you have one primary partner who is most important in your life and others who are less central (often the case with open marriage), or do you have multiple partners who are equally important? What agreements do you have about safe sex? For those interested in more information about open relationships, I suggest reading Tristan Taormino's excellent new book, Opening Up (available at the Tool Shed), or visiting her companion Web site, www.openingup.net. For folks in Milwaukee, a new monthly discussion group for those involved in or interested in polyamorous relationships will be starting in January at the Tool Shed. The first meeting will be on Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 7 pm. For more details, check out the organizers' Web site, www.comingoutpoly.com, or sign up for the Tool Shed newsletter at www.toolshedtoys.com.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled question-and-answer. From your question, it sounds like you and your wife had an agreement that allowed you both to have relationships with other people, as long as both of you were kept informed about these outside relationships. It appears that your wife violated this agreement (and I see no reason why this agreement wouldn't apply to one-time flings, unless you had specifically negotiated it that way). She also appears to be making a distinction between sexual and emotional relationships-she didn't tell you about it because it was a "one-time fling" (a sexual encounter), but she continues to communicate with the person (an emotional relationship). Emotional relationships are not less important than sexual ones, and sometimes emotional relationships with an outside person can seem even more threatening than sexual ones. Her saying that they "just" talk or e-mail minimizes something that is, in fact, quite important.

So yes, your wife messed up. However, it's also worth noting that you violated her privacy by reading her e-mail without her permission. And it sounds like you read quite a lot of it; I find it hard to imagine that a person could accidentally stumble upon 18 months' worth of messages. It seems that you may have had difficulty trusting her even before you found out about her "secret boyfriend."

It's good that you are acknowledging these trust issues and seeking professional help. Not every counselor is supportive of open marriages or other relationship configurations that are outside the heterosexual, monogamous norm. Lists of supportive professionals are maintained at www.polychromatic.com/pfp/ and by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom at www.ncsfreedom.org (click on the "Resources" tab).

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.