The smart way to a responsible open relationship
WHAT WOULD SARAH DO? ANCIENT ADVICE FOR MODERN TIMES.
For many years my husband and I have flirted with the idea of being sexual with other couples. It was mostly pillow talk and fantasy, not anything I took too seriously. But recently, after a party thrown by some friends, we stayed over. Since actually taking the plunge, I am feeling very conflicted. There are parts of me that enjoyed the experience and parts of me that feel guilty, as if my husband and I betrayed our commitment to one another. My husband has expressed some jealousy at the thought of someone else being intimate with me, despite his actions. I am not sure how to make heads or tails of the experience, and I honestly don’t know whether this is something I want in my life. What would Sarah do?
Scandalous in Scarsdale
WHAT WOULD SARAH DO?
For a book that is relied on as the bedrock of modern family values, open relationships were actually quite common in biblical times. In the true patriarchal fashion of The Book, it was common for men to have many wives, while women were not afforded the same opportunity (Genesis 4, 16, 21, 25, 26, 28, 29; Exodus 2, 18; Numbers 12; Judges 8; 1 Samuel 1, 25; 2 Samuel 3, 5; 1 Kings 11).
In the Hebrew Bible adultery was prohibited, but the proscription was only against a man sleeping with another man’s wife; a husband having sex outside his marriage was not considered adultery:
“The extramarital intercourse of a married man is not per se a crime in biblical or later Jewish law. This distinction stems from the economic aspect of Israelite marriage: the wife was the husband’s possession, and adultery constituted a violation of the husband’s exclusive right to her; the wife, as the husband’s possession, had no such right to him.”
Within this structure, many of the early patriarchs had several wives, while the early kings boasted full on harems. And so, in biblical times, women had to learn to share their husbands. As you might imagine, this did not always work out well.
Sarah was the first foremother to share her husband. She offered her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as a second wife when the founding couple was growing old and had failed to have children (Genesis 16:1-3). This early form of surrogacy was common, and increasing the number of children was at the heart of polygamous marriages.
But as soon as Hagar fulfilled her duty and became pregnant, trouble began to brew. Hagar became haughty, and Sarah became jealous. Abraham gave his first wife carte blanche to do with her handmaid as she saw fit, so Sarah treated Hagar harshly and Hagar fled (Genesis 16:4-6). Interpretations vary widely when it comes to both Sarah and Hagar’s behavior during this conflict. Biblical scholar Pamela Tamarkin Reis suggests that Sarah was not jealous over Hagar’s pregnancy, but, rather, that the foremother caught Abraham and Hagar in bed together after Hagar was already pregnant. Since Hagar had only been given to Abraham for procreation, their sex-for-pleasure was outside of what Sarah had condoned when agreeing to share her husband (“Hagar Requited,” JSOT 87 (2000): 77-80), and so she was, understandably, not a happy camper. Nonetheless Hagar returned, only to be cast out again years later (Genesis 21:9-13). This time, Hagar did not return.
Power struggles and jealousy between first and second wife were at the heart of both of Hagar’s expulsions. All in all, this early attempt at an open relationship did not go so well.
Polygamy skipped a generation, and Sarah’s grandson Jacob was the next forefather to take many wives. In this instance, Jacob chose to wed sisters, and all hell broke loose. Jacob favored Rachel, but Rachel was barren while Leah bore Jacob many sons. Genesis 29 is rife with bitter jealousy between them. Rachel is perpetually jealous of her sister’s ability to give Jacob sons, while Leah hopes in vain with each son born to her that this child will finally make Jacob love her like he loves Rachel. For a realistic consideration of how this dynamic played out, I highly recommend Anita Diamant’s fictionalized retelling in The Red Tent.
The list of troubles born of polygamous marriages in the Bible goes on and on. But they all teach us two critical lessons about polyamory:
1) Open relationships can lead to jealousy; and
2) Open relationships work best when first establishing — and then sticking to — established ground rules between the primary partners.
WHAT WOULD SIVAN SAY?
Dear Scandalous in Scarsdale,
While monogamy is the dominant practice in today’s marriages, researchers have estimated that between 1.7% and 7% of married couples are involved in open marriages. While it may not be common, it is perfectly natural to practice polyamory. The guilt you are experiencing can be attributed to the internalization of cultural and societal norms. The very idea of marriage being between one man and one woman, ironically, comes from a book that is itself rife with marriages outside of that definition. So I say you should worry less about what your culture and society tell you are acceptable practices and focus more on what you really want and what’s really right for your marriage.
It seems to me your first foray into an open relationship happened without a plan. While this might have felt freeing, it is a problematic approach to open relationships. It might sound less sexy to have set rules than to go with the moment, but ground rules are the cornerstone of a successful open relationship.
The first thing you need to do is to figure out what you really want. Sex should always be consensual, so before you do anything else, reflect on what feels comfortable to you, and make your decisions armed with this information.
Once you know what you want, the next critical step to a successful open relationship is communication. Be open and honest with your husband. Share your fears and desires, and ask him to share his. Be as forthcoming as possible; lay it all out on the table. This kind of open communication is the groundwork for laying ground rules.
Ground rules are the Holy Bible of open relationships. They can (and should) cover everything from what specific sexual acts are and are not allowed to the importance of using condoms to who is allowed to do what with whom to timing and circumstance and who should and should not be among your pool of eligible partners.
Intimates are not always the best candidates for sex outside of marriage. Think Rachel and Leah: if you wouldn’t want to share your man with your sister, do you really want to become jealous of the mom who takes your kids to soccer practice? Do you want to be thinking about what you did last night with your coworker during your office’s morning meeting? There are plenty of in-person and online communities where you can meet likeminded couples who won’t also be invited to your Fourth of July BBQ.
If you establish ground rules together as a couple, base them on an honest discussion of what the two of you do and do not want, and then give these ground rules the same respect you give your marriage vows, you will be on the road to a happy experiment in polyamory. And don’t forget to check in with one another after each encounter. Over time, your ground rules might change as your and your husband’s needs and preferences change. The good news is, you get to make the rules, and in so doing you and your husband get to embark on this new chapter of your lives together from a place of mutual respect and trust.
With women’s wisdom and women’s words,
A version of this advice column post originally appeared on What Would Sarah Do? Ancient advice for modern times. WWSD is a publicaton of Reviving Herstory. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.