Can Open Relationships Cure Jealousy?

We’ve always said that if you want to be in an open relationship, it helps if you’re the kind of advanced human being who is missing the jealousy gene. (Neither of us comes even remotely close, for the record.) It just seems like, if you’re going to be cool with your one-and-only kissing someone else or going down on someone else, then the Green-Eyed Monster is an unwelcome guest at the sex party.

So we were surprised to read a personal essay in the New York Times last weekend by a woman who claims that her open-ish relationship helps her husband handle his fears that she will cheat on him or leave him.

It may seem eccentric that my husband has translated the common fear of being cheated on into enthusiasm for the idea, but he’s not alone. Type “cuckold” into a pornography search engine and you’ll be greeted with countless scenes in which people play out that exact fantasy.

The writer, Ada Calhoun, explains how, of the two of them, she was the sexual adventurer before they met, the one who’d had more sexual encounters, more fleeting encounters, more casual sex.

Because of this, my husband has at times fretted that I might leave him. What should he do with that anxiety? Maybe eroticizing it isn’t the worst strategy, especially if it gets us talking about what turns us on and keeps us in the loop about each other’s lives. Surely it’s better than the more mainstream reactions to jealousy: becoming paranoid or controlling.

In theory, it sounds kind of awesome. It’s not entirely clear — even to the author herself — how far she is permitted to go. The only real rule they have, it seems, is that she always be completely honest. In other words, her husband never has to worry about what she’s really thinking or what she really desires to do, because he’s given her permission to explore her desires and she has promised to tell him everything. It’s the rubber band vs. ball-and-chain theory of marriage.

And yet.  We still can’t imagine how this works in practice, when the husband in question is already jealous and insecure. Sure,  this approach could cure his jealousy, kind of like shock treatment — but could it also lead to years of pent-up jealousy and resentment?

Also, it’s not entirely clear whether he’s allowed to kiss and tell too. Which seems odd until you get to this, more than halfway through the article:

Years ago, my husband told me he had fallen in love with someone else. He was deeply confused and scared by it. I didn’t even know who he was talking about; that’s how much of a secret he had kept his growing feelings. When he told me who it was, a co-worker, I felt as if I had been shot. I broke things. I threw him out. He ended the affair. Since then, I’ve forgiven him, and we’ve worked hard to figure out why it happened and what it meant.

Um, WHAT??!! Talk about burying the lede! Is this why she gets to kiss other people, because he once cheated? Is he afraid she’ll leave because he is a cheater? Did he feel like he owed her something after this? Suddenly the open-ish relationship seems a whole lot messier and unresolved. An affair seems like a pretty shaky foundation to build this kind of modern, break-the-rules relationship on (unless the affair came after the agreement to be open and monogamish, which is even worse). And yet, we can kind of get the explanation:

The main thing that helped me get over the affair was realizing that attraction to other people isn’t necessarily a sign your marriage is bankrupt. In the course of being together forever, especially if you’re out in the world meeting new people, it happens. One of the challenges in a marriage, in addition to deciding whose job it is to do the dishes and how to balance the budget, is to figure out how to deal with lust or love for other people.

YES. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. We couldn’t agree more! We wish more people understood that attraction to people besides your spouse is normal and usually fleeting and nothing to fret about at all. If you can understand that — whether or not you want to pursue those attractions — your marriage will be so much more robust.

In the meantime, though, it sounds like this particular open relationship could use a few more rules and guidelines. That’s the problem with open relationships: When you bust out of society’s expectations of monogamy — and believe us, we applaud the couples who do — and forge new ground, you can’t rely on tradition or precedent to tell you how to behave. You need to work to get on the same pages as a couple, and we don’t care if doing so involves a dorky list of rules*. Or maybe a Google doc that you can edit and share — there’s a nice metaphor for your relationship! Your marriage, however you define it, is worth it.

* Then again, we suppose that publishing an article about your vague open relationship in a national newspaper that will be read by your parents and your in-laws and your co-workers and your childhood friends and pretty much everyone you know is another good way to figure things out!



  1. I know why it works.
    When you are committed to one person, everyone else becomes ‘unattainable’ or maybe ‘unloveable’ in a way. Then theres the typical wanting what you can’t have which will breed jealously. If you are open, you can have big trust, because you know if they didn’t want to be by your side, they wouldn’t be. And you also allow them to pursue and focus on their own happiness. In this game, honesty and communication is key. Its like an investment and a beautiful gamble all in one.

  2. I don’t think that an open relationship is a good idea for everyone, but for the some people that it does work for it’s because of a mutual need and a respect for that. This sounds a little one-sided and therefore exceedingly unhealthy…
    Great article 🙂

  3. cuckoldry is blatant sexism against men…yeah i guess its a way for women to bash and get back at men…the same with the CFNM trash porn.The equivalent would be filming mock rape scenes of women.

  4. Open relationships aren’t a cure for jealousy – that’s putting the cart before the horse. Acknowledging that jealousy is a real emotion, with some basis in your genes, but that you don’t need it to have a good relationship: that’s the start of having an open relationship. Communication is what keeps any relationship a relationship, including open ones.

  5. @sexylittleideas –

    I think all relationships are messy and unresolved, people in open relationships just acknowledge the pink elephant.

    How many times do people get married and start deleting Facebook friends, cutting people out of their lives, not mentioning that ex that makes their partner angry?

    In my experience open relationships require you to acknowledge all the mess, instead of pretending it’s not there. I.e. saying I do means you no longer fantasize about time with your ex that was special, or wonder or feel hurt about one who got away.

    Even if monogamy is easy for you and your partner, fact remains that there are other attractions lingering in your heart, you just don’t want to act on them.

    Thing is most people do at some level wish or wonder, hence the rampant infidelity in marriages.

  6. I’m in my first serious open relationship, and it’s just so easy.

    I’m not a jealous person but I’ve always dated women who were either a little jealous or a LOT jealous. Now I’m in an open relationship and at first it felt weird, did she mean it when she said she didn’t believe in monogamy or when she encouraged me to sleep with other women, was she testing me, secretly jealous?


    It feels like the most natural thing in the world, because we’re honest.

    We love each other dearly, but other people can mean something too and that’s okay. We don’t have to feel guilty about other attractions, we’re not trying to be everything to each other, we’re just enjoying our lives together.

    I think the desire for monogamy is often a desire to be everything to someone out of fear that if you’re not then you’ll lose them, so we try to enforce it with monogamy. Then we get jealous.

    Thing is, I often go for months without sleeping with other women because I have no interest. The temptations aren’t as interesting when I know I can have them.

    We don’t have jealousy, we don’t have drama, it feels right, more than anything else. I don’t think I can ever go back.

  7. I am in an open relationship with my boyfriend of 3 years. It’s a very stable, and he is my closest confidant. 🙂 We’ve just discovered that we both are attracted to other people as well. (And we currently live 4 hours away from each other in college…) So far everything has worked out wonderfully for us. We keep each other informed, and check in to make sure that we’re both comfortable with the path that our relationship is headed. I never in a thousand years thought that I would be alright with an open relationship, and now I can’t imagine our life without it!

  8. That’s kind of the whole point of open relationships though – they’re messier and unresolved.

    I think that despite all the messiness and shakiness, as long as a few basic main principles are kept in mind – that nothing is really the end of the world and that couple-specific guidelines are a huge help – things will turn out just fine.

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