New Zealanders in open marriages have found validation in headlines about celebrities who share their lifestyles. "Sharing" being the operative word.
"OPEN MARRIAGE destroyed Ashton and Demi's relationship!" cried one tabloid. "Did Ashton and Demi have an OPEN MARRIAGE?" spat another. When Hollywood couple Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore split last month amid rumours of having an alternative union, the press had a field day. The astonishment and bewilderment over a couple engaging in such a lifestyle was screamed from the front pages.
We live in a society that is more sexually liberated than ever, yet open relationships - a relationship in which both partners are allowed to have sex with other people - is one of the last remaining taboos.
Actress Tilda Swinton caused similar ripples when she gave a frank interview in 2008 explaining her unusual living arrangements. She and her long-term partner, the artist and playwright John Byrne, have been together for more than a decade and live with their twins in Scotland... along with her 33-year-old lover Sandro Kopp. When pressed, she remarked: "We are all a family. What you must also know is that we are all very happy."
So can open relationships work? Jenny Block, the writer and author of Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage, thinks so. The 41-year-old mother of one is the poster girl for open marriage in the US, describing herself as "the most average-looking, regular soccer-mom type". Having married her husband, Christopher, in 1997, Block embarked on an affair with another woman three years later.
When she finally came clean to her husband, she found his response fascinating.
"It was the trust thing rather than the sex thing that had hurt him, so I began to ask myself which was more important and what was marriage really based on?"
They decided to embark on an open marriage, albeit with certain ground rules: complete honesty and no carrying on with someone else from their neighbourhood. Block has a girlfriend, Jemma, who has her own apartment but is considered part of the family. While Jemma and Christopher don't have a sexual relationship, he is free to date other women. Keeping up?
Her 13-year-old daughter is aware of the situation and the couple have elected to answer any questions as they come. But Block stresses that theirs is not some wild household. "We couldn't be any more mainstream if we tried," she said. "Saturday night is Scrabble and Chinese take-out."
Despite Block extolling all that open marriage has to offer, it shouldn't come without certain warnings; jealousy being the most obvious catalyst for causing cracks. "It really depends on the couple and what their values are but generally it doesn't work because eventually somebody will form an outside attachment and that will cause problems with the primary relationship," Mandy Kloppers, a relationship psychologist and counsellor, said.
"It's common to see one person coerced into it because they want to keep their partner happy and want to keep an eye on them," she said. "If you have an unstable relationship to begin with then you're asking for trouble by doing this type of thing."
Still, in modern, Western society perhaps it is possible that such ways of life can offer happiness for those involved.
It might not be for everyone, but maybe we have to accept that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to love. And for those who find the arrangement emotionally fulfilling, perhaps it's not such a shocking set-up after all.
- Gillian Orr, Independent
* * *
Kiwi triples' say that monogamy is not for all
Steve sleeps with his wife every second night. The other nights he is in the next room, sleeping with his other wife.
The 54-year-old from Christchurch says he has happy and loving relationships with both women, all living together.
Steve says he has always been interested in polyamory relationships and now he has found one that works for all three of them.
He calls both women his wives: "We're not a couple, we're a triple."
He and his legal wife had been together for 10 years and married for six years when they welcomed another woman into their marriage in a "commitment ceremony" surrounded by friends and family.
"We had always been exploring the poly thing. We had considered it with other people but it had never come off as a long-term thing. We have an understanding that the western ideal of monogamy is not for everyone. It is a societal construct."
Steve and his wives believe that it is entirely possible to love more than one person. "Parents love their children equally, so why can't adults love more than one person? It does not destroy a marriage. In many ways it enriches it. We are happy."
He and his wife had met the other woman at a club in Christchurch two years ago. He fell in love with her as their friendship developed. His wife was supportive and also loves her, but they are just friends.
"They are not sexually intimate with each other; they are more like best friends than lovers."
His "second wife" moved into their home in February.
"The green-eyed monster does occasionally rear its head, but if we talk about it, it's fine," he adds.
He and his first wife each have adult children from previous relationships. "Our respective families are aware, we are not hiding anything. Our children are all grown; they are all over 20 and in their own relationships. My son struggles with us. My wife's daughter doesn't like it. It's just weird to her," he says.
- Joanne CarrollBy Joanne Carroll Email Joanne, Gillian Orr