While most women feel monogamy is nonnegotiable in marriage, a number of couples are pushing the boundaries of what we expect for wedded bliss. Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique has been vocal in the past about how having additional sexual partners would not break up her union with her best friend and husband, Sidney Hicks.
“When you’re best friends, you can have open and honest conversations,” she said in an interview with trueexclusives.com. “[Another person] may give [him] something that I’m simply not willing to do. And if that’s the case, how can I be mad? We’ve been conditioned to believe that if you sleep with somebody [other than your spouse], that’s adultery.
The push back on social media was swift on Mo’Nique’s perspective, with many wondering why the actress decided to say “I do” in the first place. She credits her and her husband’s extreme honesty with keeping their decade-long marriage strong. Still, her viewpoint flies in the face of what we’ve been taught about the importance of monogamy.
It also raises the question of whether staying faithful to one person is really the only path to happily ever after.
Gynecologist Draion “Dr. Drai” Burch says desiring sexual partners other than your spouse is natural, though acting on those feelings is optional. “People want something new and fresh and hot,” he says. “What happens between two consenting adults is their business. If you do consider additional partners, make sure you protect yourself and have boundaries set from the beginning.”
James and Sheila Martin* have been acting on Dr. Drai’s prescription. The Martins, who live outside of Atlanta, have had an open relationship for 13 of their 15 years of marriage. Sheila, 39, says the idea to date others didn’t come up until after the Martins watched an episode of the HBO series Real Sex.
“At first it felt like a setup,” James, 38, says of his wife’s attempt to gauge his interest in pursuing sexual relationships with others. “But it came up again, and I felt safe to answer honestly.”
After the Martins realized they were both down to explore this lifestyle, the pair decided to check out a swingers’ club for married couples and single women who swap partners. “It was the most God-awful experience of my life,” James recalls. “The club was seedy, and so were the people.”
Undaunted, the Martins kept researching. When James found a polyamorous speed-dating event on meetup.com, they gave it a try. “We ended up going and met some really nice people whom we’re still friends with today,” he says.
These days, James and Sheila live a fully polyamorous lifestyle, with both dating other people. Many would question their choice, but the Martins say consensual nonmonogamy has strengthened their bond.
“It actually adds value to our lives to be in a relationship with other people,” Sheila explains. “I’ve seen positive outcomes from my husband being with someone who makes him happy. For me it’s a win-win.”
Shannon T. Boodram, a clinical sexologist and the author of Laid: Young People’s Experiences With Sex in an Easy-Access Culture (Seal Press), believes the Martins are just one example of how our ideals on marriage have changed.
“The traditional model of marriage has really started to fail,” she says. According to Boodram, part of the problem is that most people expect their spouse to fulfill their every need, from financial to sexual: “We’re looking for such contrasting things from one person, versus choosing a life partner and allowing other experiences to balance them out.”
Boodram says the visibility of couples willing to engage in nonmonogamous relationships is merely a natural progression of our shifting views of love and commitment.
“Looking for everything from one person might have been a model that worked in the past, but open marriages are kind of an evolved way of looking at marriages going forward,” she says. But can these arrangements succeed?
Hall Pass Horror
Reality TV star Toya Wright appeared on Bravo’s Untying the Knot and admitted she gave her husband, Mickey “Memphitz” Wright, an “eight-day hall pass” from their marriage to have outside sexual encounters. Commenters on ESSENCE’s Facebook page called her decision everything from “dumb” and “weak” to proof that Toya lacked self-esteem. The move seemed doomed to fail, especially since Toya wasn’t granted a pass to do the same.
The imbalance of power and the potential to damage a relationship irrevocably is exactly why Atlanta-based clinical psychologist Alduan Tartt cautions couples against seeking sexual fulfillment outside their relationship.
“An open marriage is an oxymoron,” he says. “When it comes to monogamy and fidelity, it’s really hard for an open marriage to work.”
According to Tartt, the problems arise when couples dive headfirst into sleeping with other people without thinking through the consequences.
“What people don’t realize is the chance of it working out is very slim,” he says. “A lot of people try it and realize that it doesn’t work for them.”
That’s what happened to Maya North*, 42, and her then husband, Kareem*. After a decade of marriage, the pair wanted to spice things up by swinging, only to see their relationship fall apart.
After researching open marriages, North and her husband decided to swing with another couple that was also new to the lifestyle. Even worse, the Norths quickly became attached and continued “playing” with the other couple even when they found out their friends had a volatile relationship. When the other couple split months later, North and her husband continued seeing Olivia*, the wife.
“That’s when it became apparent to me that I was more into women than men,” North explains.
Soon, both North and her husband developed strong feelings for Olivia, even coordinating so they could have separate date nights with her. The trio maintained a polyamorous relationship—until one day things drastically changed.
“She chose him, and he chose her,” North says of her former lover and her now ex. North says she never saw it coming and quickly moved out of the couple’s home. “It went downhill in a matter of two months,” she explains.
Although the Norths’ made-for-TV split was extremely traumatic, North thinks it was for the best. “The good thing is that if we hadn’t tried an open marriage, we’d probably still be married, and I’d still be in the closet,” she says. North’s now happily remarried to a woman.
The exact number of people who practice consensual nonmonogamy is hard to pin down. A 2015 YouGov survey found that 25 percent of Americans consider engaging in an open relationship morally acceptable.
Though open marriages are more normalized in some countries, they are still taboo in the African-American community. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.
“What people do and what they say are not the same,” explains Mary Pender Greene, a couples therapist in New York City. “I do think there are more Black people who have open relationships than you might imagine. The vast majority of people don’t share it because there’s a stigma.”
Austin, Texas, couple Faith and Tony Scott* are among the married couples with nonmonogamous arrangements practiced in private. The two have been in an open relationship from the start of their 16-year marriage.
“It’s always been a part of who we are,” Faith, 47, says. “I’ve been in two poly relationships, and Tony was involved with swinging. So we were always pretty open.”
Though some would question the Scotts’ decision to jump the broom, given their desire to see other people outside of their union, Tony, 44, says the reason they married is simple. “I fell in love with her ten days after we met online, sight unseen,” he says. “She was a Black woman who was into Star Trek and computers just like me, and we just clicked.”
Yet meeting the love of his life didn’t mean Tony wouldn’t date other women. The couple always have a say in each other’s potential lovers. “If I meet someone I think could be my girlfriend, I’ll bring her home and introduce her to my wife, and they’ll get to know each other. And the same thing with her,” Tony says. “I know her boyfriend. We go out and get beers and play pool. It’s just a really interesting dynamic. I’m not worried, because we know who the other is sleeping with.”
According to Faith, the arrangement also allows them to be their best selves. “We’re crafting lives we love, and we love living them together,” she explains. “You can’t do that if you’re locking somebody down or stopping their freedom to express themselves and be who they want to be.”
Tartt says couples like the Scotts who successfully maintain open relationships are the exception, not the rule. “There are some healthy couples out there that are polyamorous, but they are few and far between,” he says. “A marriage is supposed to be closed. Sharing emotional intimacy with a third party takes away from your partner.”
When it comes to a happy marriage, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but if you’re thinking of opening your union to others, Tartt has this to say: “Try it if you want, but there’s a strong chance you may kill your relationship.”
*Names changed to protect subjects’ privacy.
This story originally appears in the March 2016 issue of ESSENCE.