Did you know infidelity is a misdemeanor in Virginia and carries a $250 fine? It’s also the most recognized grounds for divorce in Virginia, and in turn, Virginia divorces based on infidelity often bar any spousal support.
And yet, Northern Virginia mirrors the national average of marriages that disintegrate each year because of extramarital affairs. Across the U.S., a couple divorces every 36 seconds, which translates to 876,000 per year.
Would a cultural acceptance of extramarital partners decrease divorce rates? Maybe, so let’s talk about two options because like weight loss and retirement savings, what works for you may not work for your neighbor. Two popular options for forthright affairs are swinging and open relationships. Let’s start with how they vary because swinging and open relationships are as different as chalk and cheese.
Swinging is a fresh-cut bouquet: a source of short-lived pleasure whose name doesn’t matter.
Polyamory is an orchid: something that is cultivated for long-term enjoyment.
Former NoVA residents Rebecca Rose Vassy, 42, and Sean Butler, 45, her partner of 21 years, moved to Maryland last year. They now live five minutes from Lydia, Sean’s other partner of 10 years. Lydia* is a married mother. Lydia’s husband, David*, has an extramarital partner.
Rebecca refers to her network of partners as a polycule (think molecule: a unit made of atoms held together by chemical bonds.) “When you first get into a polyamorous lifestyle, you’re like a kid in a candy shop, but now the benefits are more mundane,” Rebecca laughs. Lydia helps with errands; Rebecca and Sean babysit Lydia and David’s daughter.
Sean and Rebecca are primary partners, meaning they are each other’s relationship nucleus, and they work out issues around their other partners together. “If a person in a monogamous relationship is attracted to another person, they often think ‘there must be something wrong with me,’” says Rebecca, but her relationship with Sean is based on open communication. And Rebecca has dedicated years to understanding herself; if she and Sean were monogamous, “we would have lasted for a while, but I would have been dissatisfied in the long term.”
Leif says about half his patients discuss secretive infidelity because of unmet needs or because they accidentally fell in love with someone else. Although many people express interest in open marriages, it can be a horrendous experience for couples trying to save their marriage. However, if a relationship is in a good place with a robust foundation, there is “such tremendous spiritual and emotional health for the people who do [polyamory] well,” says Leif.
A pattern emerges as you speak to polyamorous couples. Primary partners trust each other not inherently but because of concentrated levels of communication. Each person tends to undergo an independent metamorphosis by examining their feelings: “What happened to make me feel so insecure/scared/lonely with the person I love?”
Fairfax resident Celia Park*, 56 and her husband, Peter, 45 married in 2012. “A poly-lifestyle is transformative as a way to learn more about yourself. As a way to work through your anxieties, it is invaluable,” Celia says. “The qualities of people that make [polyamory] succeed are a high level of emotional intelligence and communication. There are conflicts, but they are addressed by everyone.”
The most common conflict is jealousy. “It is a complicated constellation owning my insecurities,” Florie says. Her introspection changed her perceptions: Leif’s attraction to other women is not a negative message about her. Because they talk about their feelings for other people, “I feel more in the loop, more connected to him; I feel more secure,” she says.
Jealousy can break a polyamorous lifestyle if not handled thoughtfully. Rebecca views jealousy as a knee-jerk reaction that gets easier over time, though she says, “I have seen some people never be able to get over the jealousy.”
Celia reflects the same warning: “Life has a way of dredging up shit all the time. Some people never get over [jealousy], so you need to define what you want and figure out your place in the relationship so you don’t live in a constant state of unhappiness.”
(*not real name)
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