Recently my wife became polyamorous. My wife and I have been married for 15 years, raising two kids together for 12. We’ve had the usual challenges with boredom and intimacy over the years, but nothing I would call out of the ordinary. Then, about a year ago, my wife confided that she’d been having an affair. She told me that the affair was over, that she still loved me, that she didn’t want to end our marriage and didn’t think doing so would be in the best interest of our kids. She also told me that she’d realized that she was no longer cut out for monogamy. She wanted to spend the remainder of her forties and the duration of her fifties having new sex. Lots of it. With lots of people. She told me she had realized she was polyamorous.
I have to admit, it stung that my wife became polyamorous. Especially since for most of our marriage I’d been the one who wanted more sex. The obvious explanation seemed to be that she simply didn’t want to have sex with me. I said so, and she assured me this wasn’t the case. She asked if I’d be willing to open our marriage and explore consensual non-monogamy. This was pretty far outside my comfort zone, but I loved her and was willing to give it a try. I read the books. I went to some CNM meet-ups. We talked a lot about ground rules and open communication. Then, before I’d even gone on my first date, she told me she was having an affair with someone else. She says she still loves me and wants to grow old with me, but she also wants total sexual and romantic freedom. Her rationale is that after spending so many years prioritizing the needs of others — my needs, our kids’s needs — she feels like it’s finally time to put herself first. Putting herself first, apparently means cheating on me. I still love her, and I love our family, but I think maybe she’s gone off the deep end and it's time to call it quits. Am I right, or is there something I’m missing?
At the End of my Rope
Dear At the End of My Rope,
You say, "my wife became polyamorous." As is so often the case in issues of marital discord, miscommunication seems to be at the heart of your dilemma. Your wife is telling you that she wants to practice polyamory, and that this desire explains her behavior. But what she’s practicing when she keeps secrets and hides information from you is not polyamory — it’s anti-amory. Marital love can take many forms, both monogamous and non-monogamous, but what all these forms have in common in a healthy relationship is openness, clear communication, and the ability of both individuals to consider the feelings and needs of their partner alongside their own. Sometimes these two sets of needs are incompatible. Sometimes they can be negotiated. But for negotiation to take place, both people must be brave enough to talk honestly about wants and needs before (not after) they act on them. The hallmark of a loving relationship is the willingness to come outside of yourself to meet another person who is willing to do the same. Your wife is showing you that she’s no longer willing to do that: to consider you, your feelings, or needs. It happens. But sadly, it’s not a change that’s going to be fixed by adding more romantic partners into the equation. All that said, I wouldn’t characterize what your wife is experiencing as her “going off the deep end.” Over the years, I’ve known countless wives and mothers who have experienced in middle age the feeling she’s shared with you: a kind of desperate, bottomless hunger to think only of themselves, sometimes for the first time in their lives. While this hunger can do a lot of damage to the families and relationships involved, I don’t think it’s fair to pathologize it. We live in a culture in which wives and mothers are expected to put their needs last, sometimes for decades. It’s not all that surprising that under the weight of relentless giving, some women eventually find themselves where your wife has arrived. This doesn’t mean you should stay with her. It doesn’t even mean that you have to forgive her, or that your anger and disappointment aren’t justified. But characterizing her inability to participate in your marriage in a way that works for you doesn’t make her crazy; it simply makes her human. And sadly, part of being human is the sad, difficult fact of having to say goodbye to people we’ve loved.