Tuesday marks the end of another Bachelor season, the ABC reality series that features one of America’s most public open relationships — at least until the lead picks one person in the end.
But IRL, open relationships in Charlotte aren’t nearly as, well, open.
“I’m not sure (Charlotte is) even aware of them,” says “Bill,” a 53-year-old man in an open marriage. “There’s a stigma against them, to be sure, and my own experience is that if you bring it up in conversation, the other conversant always (always!) assumes it’s an invitation.”
In a survey last month, more than 1,500 Agenda subscribers answered questions about their love life, including whether or not they had ever been in an open relationship.
Sixty-nine — yes, 69 — respondents said “yes.” They shared details about common misconceptions, swingers nights, and advice for a successful open relationship. (Note: In order to protect respondents’ privacy, we’re using pseudonyms when necessary. Responses may be lightly edited for clarity.)
Nationally, open relationships are more common than you might realize. According to a study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, one-fifth of the U.S. population has engaged in “consensual non-monogamy” at some point in their lives.
“Swinging” is on the rise, too. According to the owner of a local swingers club, Carolina Friends, between 400 and 600 couples attend Charlotte-area events.
Every open relationship is a little bit different, but an open relationship can be summarized as a consensual agreement between committed partners that allows one another to have physical relations with other people. Sometimes an open couple will also develop emotional relationships with others, which could also be called “polyamory,” a term that literally means “many love.”
A healthy open relationship comes down to communication, many respondents say.
“Anna” is a divorced woman in her 30s who was in a polyamorous relationship for two years, “It was refreshing to be in a relationship with such open communication to build the relationship that works for everyone involved,” she says.
Respondents all had different reasons for being in an open relationship currently or in the past. It wasn’t just about the physical perks.
Anna says that most people think it’s all about sex, one-night stands, or threesomes. “I abhor one night stands … and want actual relationships,” she says. “Monogamy just isn’t something I need in a relationship.”
Other respondents note that being open can be ideal for long-distance relationships or during the years before you’re ready to settle down. Others are just looking for the experience: “I’m open to trying new things in life,” says a single woman in her 30s.
Of course, for many, sex plays a role in the decision to enter an open relationship.
“We’re specifically and intentionally committed to each other,” Bill says, “but we have room to have sex with or even love others.”
Bill says he finds joy from knowing his wife is happy. “She likes sex — who doesn’t?! — so it genuinely makes me happy, for example, to know that she’s out on a date and that it’s likely to end with them in bed.”
For some open couples, talking about one another’s sex lives is off limits. “That’s always sounded like questionably sanctioned cheating to us,” Bill says. He and his wife try to be honest about everything and set boundaries.
“I can fall in love with and have a genuine girlfriend, for example, but not at the expense of my marriage and relationship with my wife. Same for her.”
For Anna, most of her boundaries surround safe sex. “I would consider having sex with someone else without protection, after we’ve been tested and agree to not use condoms anymore, cheating,” she says. “(The) rules people create for their relationships vary so much, but I would consider anything against those rules crossing the line.”
There’s overlap between couples in open relationships and Charlotte’s swinger community, according to Bill, but one doesn’t imply the other.
Carolina Friends is a group of North Carolina couples who participate in “swing” parties where individuals or couples have consensual non-monogamous relations.
Eight Charlotte couples started the members-only club in 1991, according to its website. Now, Carolina Friends has as many as 600 couples at each event. The next Charlotte event is on May 16 at a not-yet-disclosed mansion. Tickets start at $65 for a solo female and $90 for a couple on the early bird rate; tickets aren’t available for single men for this event.
“It is bringing likeminded people together and joining a community to enjoy each others’ fellowship,” an owner of Carolina Friends tells me. “Across the world and in different regions of the United States, it’s just growing. I think that it’s just becoming more accepted in different areas … so more couples are opening up.”
Bill says he’s attended two events with his wife. “Just not our scene,” he says. “Those folks were all about partner swapping, which is fine, but we pretty quickly discovered that she didn’t like the husbands of the wives I liked, and I wasn’t much interested in the wives of the husbands she liked.”
A few respondents who tried an open relationship in the past say it wasn’t sustainable or mutually beneficial.
“Would not recommend,” says a single woman in her 20s, “but looking back on it, we were living in different cities, and it was what we both needed at the time. Something easy and fun that allowed us to not feel tied down.”
“Her idea, and it was a disaster!” says a single man in his 40s.
A 20-something woman in a relationship says both parties have to want an open relationship equally. An ex of hers “had a history of being unfaithful,” she says. “I wanted to give him permission versus having him sleep with someone else anyways. To be clear, I no longer feel this way.”
Many of the 1,500 respondents say they’re uneasy about the idea of an open relationship altogether.
These respondents largely fall into two camps: 1) an open relationship would go against their beliefs or 2) an open relationship would cause jealousy.
“To me, marriage is a commitment between two people … not four,” says a married woman in her 40s. “Why be in a relationship if you are going to be with other people?! Just stay single and not locked down. Why do we complicate things with ‘open relationships’? I’m way too damn jealous and emotional to even consider that.”
Jealousy is one of the challenges of an open relationship, Bill says.
“Different couples and people handle it differently. For my part, I think I’d enjoy watching what she’s doing with another partner. For her part, she doesn’t want to know enough that she can actually picture the scene.
“When I know her toes are curling, I’m happy whether I’m the cause or not.”