When Stella*, 37, realised that her husband David* was never going to stop cheating on her, she decided to enter into an ‘open marriage’. Here, she shares her fascinating story…
David and I met on a dating site in 2008 and our romance was a whirlwind from day one. I was 23 and working in marketing and he was 26 and had a job in IT. We both loved rugby, music and going out to bars. It sounds strange but we got on so well, I felt as if I’d known him in a previous life.
I wanted to be with him forever and he said he felt the same. We moved in together after only three weeks and wanted a whole ‘rugby team’ of children. I’d suffered from polycystic ovary syndrome so we thought it might take a while. But I was pregnant within five months and we had our daughter Charlotte* in the January of the following year.
Relationship red flags
It should have been the happiest time but the warning signs about my relationship were already there. During my pregnancy, I suspected David was being unfaithful and confided in a close friend. She reassured me that nothing was wrong, but my instincts said otherwise.
It was only later, after I’d had my daughter that I discovered some flirty messages on his phone from that same friend. I felt completely betrayed by both of them. Tearfully, I confronted David who denied anything sexual had happened.
I was heartbroken but after a lot of consideration, I decided to forgive him. I chalked up the experience to all the changes we had gone through as a new couple in such a short space of time.
We moved to Bristol with our new daughter to have a fresh start and for a while, things between us were great again.
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I got pregnant two years later with our son Felix and we decided to get married. David had always called me ‘the wifey’ and we’d always planned to marry but life got in the way. He brought up the subject again one night as I put our daughter to bed, saying ‘We should get married for Lottie’s sake’. It wasn’t the most romantic proposal, but I agreed that it was probably a good idea.
But six weeks before our wedding – while I was five months’ pregnant – I found out that David had been going onto ‘hook-up sites’ to meet other women. I was devastated and in a moment of anger, I asked him to leave.
He begged for forgiveness and at the forefront of my mind was our children and our upcoming wedding. My dad had paid for everything. I couldn’t just back out.
Wedding day doubts
But in the weeks leading up to the wedding I was so anxious about whether I should go through with it. Even on the morning of the Big Day, I was looking for ways to get out of it. When I saw my best friend walking over to me on the day itself, I wanted him to say to me, ‘You’re an idiot, you’re making a big mistake, don’t do this.’ But he didn’t.
Saying our vows, I felt detached from the moment. People might think it’s a decision I regret and although I felt pressured on the day, I’m not sorry that I married him. My parents had been through a very bitter divorce when I was a child and perhaps that influenced my decision? But I wanted to make my marriage work and when we were happy, we were very happy.
To my surprise, David was emotional at our wedding and I did wonder if that was a turning point. But I was also a realist. I knew that once he had a ring on his finger, he was unlikely to change his ways when it came to other women.
So, one night, a few weeks after our son was born, I made a decision. We’d discovered recently that some mutual friends had started ‘swinging’ – having casual sex with other partners. I knew that wasn’t for me. Unlike David, I need some kind of emotional investment in a relationship if I’m to feel any kind of sexual attraction.
I decided that an ‘open marriage’ – where we could both pursue other relationships – would be the answer. It meant that David could have affairs and sleep with other people, but I would be allowed to do the same.
He was very shocked and initially wary when I first suggested the idea but it was the only way I could think to save the marriage. I wasn’t particularly excited about the prospect of being with other men – or women (I’m bisexual) – but remember saying to him at the kitchen table, ‘I don’t want to be paranoid, I don’t want secrets between us so if we’re going to do it, let’s do it openly and honestly.’ He agreed.
We joined a few Facebook groups for people in open marriages and at first, although I was wary, they made us feel very welcome. They would organise big events like family picnics where the children would all play with each other. But of course, the adults knew there was an ulterior motive to our gatherings – we were there to meet people who wanted affairs.
Rules of engagement
There were certain rules, of course. Couples were not allowed to encourage single women to join them. I can understand why. It means there’s a natural imbalance and it was very much frowned upon. You were also expected to have safe sex and be honest with your partner about anyone you were having unprotected sex with – they called it ‘fluid bonding’ – because naturally, it might affect their health as well.
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I didn’t feel particularly confident about my body after giving birth twice in three years. I felt anxious about being touched by someone other than David. But as people began to pay me compliments and show their interest in me, my confidence grew. I began to feel appreciated and embarked on an affair with one man in the group. The first time I had sex with him, it was very exciting.
It may sound shocking to some people but we were very open with our children, telling them the new people in our lives were ‘friends’ or ‘partners’. We’d had enough secrets in our marriage and they were young enough to simply take it in their stride. They didn’t question it at all.
But when it came to the logistics of an open marriage, David and I had to divide our time carefully. I often chose long-distance relationships so I could go off for a long weekend with a lover, leaving David and the children at home.
Meanwhile David would have flings closer to home. While he would want to hear all the details of my sexual encounters – I think he was turned on by it – I really didn’t want to know he’d been up to with other women. As long as I knew who she was and where he’d been, I preferred to remain ignorant about what they’d been doing together.
Over the next eight years or so, I had around six affairs with both men and women, some of them lasting several months. One of my favourite relationships was with a woman which lasted about eight months. She was really kind, genuine and lovely with the children. I did fall in love with her – and my other partners – but it didn’t take away any of the love I still had for my husband. I just had more love to give to others.
But being in the community changed my marriage forever. Although David was happy for me to be with other lovers, he’d only be comfortable if he was also seeing someone else at the same time. If he wasn’t, he’d get jealous and agitated that I was having an affair while he was on his own. I was made to feel guilty and it didn’t seem fair.
We’d been in our open marriage for eight years when I began to suspect David was seeing a woman he hadn’t told me about. I logged onto his emails and saw that he’d been going onto hook-up sites again. I’ve since discovered he has a porn addiction, which explains so much, but sadly he refuses to seek help.
Clearly, the secrecy and dishonesty of an affair were all part of the thrill for David, but I couldn’t stand the lying and the betrayal anymore. At the beginning of this year, I said I’d had enough of the open marriage and being in the community and asked for a divorce, which I’ve now been granted.
It has exhausted me mentally and emotionally and I’m still struggling to sleep. I often feel anxious about life and what the future holds but I’m glad to be out of the situation.
David confessed that his affairs were all about the ‘dopamine-chasing’, not the women themselves but this last betrayal broke me. I had wanted ‘openness and honesty’ within our marriage and he couldn’t even stick to that.
We are still living together due to financial reasons and we try to keep things amicable for the children. We still sleep in the same bed as there is no spare bedroom and although I build a wall of pillows between us, it feels very awkward.
Lost all trust
I’m still so sad that my attempts to rescue our marriage ended in disaster but with hindsight it doesn’t surprise me. The majority of relationships I knew in the 'open marriage' community have now broken down. Most of the time it’s the wife ‘going along with it’ for the sake of their husbands and bitterness and jealousy can still creep in.
I’ve tried dating other people since we broke up but it hasn’t worked out and now I wonder if I’ll be alone in the future. I thought I was doing the right thing to save my marriage and for a while, we both enjoyed ourselves. But it prolonged the inevitable. Now, I don’t trust anyone anymore and feel like I can never let someone else into my life because I will end up hurt.
*All names have been changed