My wife and I have been happily married for more than a decade, but recently she approached me wanting to discuss the possibility of turning our monogamous marriage into an open marriage. I've struggled through almost every emotion imaginable: hurt, anger, heartbreak, betrayal, fear, jealousy, and even a bit of excitement. I've spent a lot of time doing some serious soul searching, and while I feel that hypothetically I'm actually all right with the idea of an open marriage, things start to get messy when I begin thinking of specifics. The thought of my wife doing specific things with a specific person makes me very uncomfortable. As I've tried to figure out what feelings are at the root of this discomfort, I've come back time and again to the feelings of jealousy or envy. I've leaned more towards using the word envy because it feels less negative to me. It's not that I want to stop my wife from experiencing these things, I just keep wishing that I could be the person she was experiencing them with. Do you have any advice about how I can approach dealing with these strong feelings of envy?
– An Envious Husband
Almost twenty years ago, back in the days when we still had a land-line phone with an actual cord, my husband got a call from a mystery woman. She said she'd seen him around and had looked up his number because she thought he was cute. Then she asked if he was married. He said he was. “But are you happily married?” she pressed. He said he was. They talked for a few minutes longer, and then the conversation ended.
A couple of days later, my husband was still thinking about that phone call. We were sitting on the lawn underneath the old walnut tree in our back yard, and he was speculating about his mystery caller's identity. He thought she might be the new undergraduate assistant in the genetics lab where he worked. I asked if she was pretty. He said she was. Then he said, “I wonder sometimes what it would be like to touch someone else the way I touch you.” He paused. “Like this,” he added, tenderly tucking a strand of hair behind my right ear.
Something in the pit of my stomach plummeted.
A moment earlier, I had been strolling down the sunny sidewalk of my pedestrian life, and now, suddenly, I felt like I was teetering on the brink of a dark chasm.
I quickly regained my composure, but I can still remember that feeling of emotional vertigo. It was caused by imagining my husband making an intimate gesture – a very specific gesture, one I could picture only too clearly – toward a specific woman, one who wasn't me.
My visceral reaction surprised me. After all, my husband and I had agreed to an open marriage before we tied the knot. Or, at any rate, we had agreed that infidelity wasn't going to be a deal-breaker, so long as we were honest about it. This seemed rational, given that we were only nineteen when we married each other. I mean, what were the chances neither of us was ever going to want to experience sexual intimacy with someone else?
However, it's one thing to have a theoretically open marriage, and quite another to actually open it. Theory is tidy, and keeps certain inconvenient details at a distance. Reality is messy, in-your-face, and fraught with emotional peril.
Although nothing ever came of that mystery phone call, my husband and I did end up actually opening our marriage a couple of years later. The first time I fell in love with someone else, my husband went through the kind of turmoil you describe in your letter. Then, when my husband fell in love with someone else, it was my turn to experience jealousy – which, I quickly realized, is a confusing melange of anxiety, anger, and grief, alternately heated by arousal and chilled by exhaustion, topped with a big dollop of self-loathing.
In a word: YUCK.
You are not alone, Envious. A lot of other people have gone through the yuck-fest you are going through right now. Having experienced it myself, I can promise you this: if you want to get over your negative feelings, and you are willing to work hard and wait patiently, you will get over them.
Here's the crucial question you need to answer for yourself: Do you, in fact, want to get over your strong feelings of envy? Do you want to get over them badly enough to go all the way into them? Because I can also promise you this: it's going to get worse before it gets better.
I'm sure you realize that your envy may very well be the only thing stopping your wife from engaging in those scary specifics. If feeling terrible is the only form of control you have left, in a situation that seems like it could so easily spin out of control, what incentive do you have to feel better?
I can't answer this question for you. Your wife can't answer this question for you. No one can answer this question but YOU.
I'm not going to lie to you: if you choose this path, you'll be headed straight into the fire swamp. That's why it's really, really important for you to do the choosing. If you can take responsibility for your choice, then you can take responsibility for your feelings – and that, right there, is the shortest route out of the swamp. On the other hand, if you approach this passively, allowing yourself to be dragged along but never actively choosing your way, you're going to be tempted to blame your wife for every bad feeling you experience – and the two of you will probably walk in circles, getting more and more bogged down with every step.
Since you could probably use a bit of encouragement right about now, let me tell you what's on the other side of the swamp: freedom from fear.
It's a place worth getting to. Absolutely.
Although I can't tell you which path to choose, here's some advice you can take along, wherever you decide to go:
Get Centered. Get Educated. Get Connected.
Getting centered means taking charge of your own emotions. Yes, emotions often arise in response to external stimuli. The truth is, we often have very little control over the way we feel. Someone says something that “pushes a button,” or a sad song comes on the radio, or the sound of rain on the roof calls up a memory from childhood. We can, however, choose how we experience our emotions. So, when you are feeling bad, just allow yourself to feel bad. Don't judge the feeling. Let it be – and then, when you're ready, let it go.
Getting educated means approaching each experience as an opportunity to grow. Learn everything you can – about yourself, your wife, your relationship, and relationships in general. Who are you, and who do you want to be? Who is she, and who does she want to be? What kind of relationship do you have, and what kind of relationship do you want to build together? How have other people answered these kinds of questions?
Getting connected means putting the pieces together, whether the “pieces” are ideas or things or people. Right now, the pieces are in disarray, and your life feels chaotic. However, sometimes a major shake-up can be a good thing: it gives you a chance to re-evaluate and re-arrange. Take stock of what you have, and be grateful you have so much to work with.
Bouquets and Sobriquets,
P.S. If you do end up deciding you want to see what's on the other side of jealousy badly enough to go slogging all the way through, you can find some practical tips for navigating the swamp here.