MAKING IT WORK: Open marriage in Ottawa

MAKING IT WORK: Open marriage in Ottawa

This feature appears in Ottawa Magazine’s April 2014 issue. Click here to subscribe to the print or digital versions.

Greg and Holly Harris have been together for 11 years; their relationship has always included seeing other people (Photo: Tony Fouhse)

Greg and Holly Harris navigate the tempting, tumultuous waters of extramarital partners. FATEEMA SAYANI talks to the couple about first kisses, booty calls, and their secret to securing satisfaction

Open Marriage: Can it work work?
Greg and Holly Harris think so, though they don’t know any other way of approaching their relationship. When they met 11 years ago, they started dating casually and agreed to continue seeing other people on the side. As the relationship progressed to cohabitation and then to marriage nine years ago, they re-evaluated their decision at each stage: do we still want an open relationship?

Yes, because having extended relationships outside their marriage allows each of them to have their needs met — and not just that need. For example, Holly, 33, likes to try new restaurants; Greg, 36, prefers to eat in.

Then there’s the first kiss factor — an appeal for both parties. “It’s that opportunity to go out and meet people and have that initial attraction experience over and over again,” Holly says. “It’s never having to worry about one of us getting bored. Strangely enough, having an open marriage gives us an incredible sense of security about our marriage lasting.”

Communication in an open marriage
Key to making it work, they say, is keeping the lines open. They label their form of communication “radical honesty” and talk in an almost nauseating stream of therapy-speak about golden rules, boundaries, and reassurance to negate jealousy. They also have rules about using prophylactics, changing the sheets, and meeting the partners before embarking on an extramarital relationship. (At one time, Greg and Holly were seeing other people who happened to be siblings.) The point is for everyone to know where he or she stands.

“Your significant other’s comfort level with what you’re doing supersedes what you’re doing,” says Greg, a biologist with the federal government. “They need to have veto power, otherwise it’s never going to work.”

The couple prefers not to exercise that veto power, hoping to resolve issues through hyper-honest communication, both with each other and with the other parties they engage on the side. “We never want to intentionally hurt anyone,” Holly says. “We’re not looking to put a notch in our bedposts.”

Open marriage and relationships
The Harrises are clear with outside partners that they are committed to their marriage first and foremost, but rules don’t always compute with the messy reality of relating.

There was a time when Greg thought Holly was spending too much time with another man, so everyone adjusted their schedules to allow for more marital couple time. Now Greg and Holly stick to a twice-weekly date night schedule with each other — and they still have plenty of sex inside the marriage.

Another man was okay with Holly being married but not with her seeing other people in addition to him. That relationship eventually fizzled. Another guy stopped seeing Holly because he felt that he was trespassing on Greg, his friend. Still another guy thought the whole thing was a ruse, to which Holly replied: “I’m happily married. That’s the situation. I don’t need to be rescued.”

Greg thought one man wasn’t very respectful of Holly because they seemed to have sex only in cars — it was a booty call without much companionship, and that dalliance soon faded out. When a woman Greg was seeing didn’t like him receiving texts from Holly when they were together, that initiated a conversation with all parties. The other woman realized she wanted more from a relationship. That is often the case with the extramarital partners — they usually leave the arrangement with Greg or Holly when they meet another more committed or monogamous partner.

Open marriage and third wheels
Andy Reoch, 31, is a person who is okay playing musical chairs. He dates Holly and tends bar at The Rainbow Bistro, where she also serves and performs as Headmistress Holly Sin with her burlesque troupe The Sin Sisters. Greg knows him, too, from playing the venue with his bands Ninety Pounds of Ugly and Lefty McRighty.

Does Reoch feel like a third wheel? “Not really,” he says. “They’ve been living like that for a long time. I’m not the first guy to come around, you know? They seem so comfortable that I got over it pretty quickly as an awkward thing.” Reoch has blended in with the couple’s circle of friends. He comes to their house for dinner, and Greg describes him as “awesome.”

“Andy respects our relationship so much, so Greg respects him in return,” Holly says. It took a while to get to that point. When Holly proposed the relationship, it did force Reoch to reflect on the mono-normative values that many of us hold. While many people could understand the idea of an open marriage, for most it would fail as an experience. “I found myself challenged when I was confronted with this,” Reoch says. “No one involved believed that it would be evil or wrongdoing, so what was holding me back? Cultural subconscious, I guess.”

Open marriage psychology
Clinical psychologist Sue Johnson of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute says monogamy is an accepted notion because it works. She argues the point in her recent book Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. Johnson says open relationships are most often expressions of avoidance strategies. “More avoidant folks are very wary of relying on one person and being vulnerable.”

“I think this lifestyle is very difficult to maintain,” she says, “even just in terms of time and emotional resources. The energy given to other partners is not put into the marriage.”

Greg and Holly don’t see their relationship as truancy from monogamy or from the responsibilities of marriage. “That’s one of the most important parts of our relationship. We have that number one person,” Holly says. “It has nothing to do with monogamy.” Still, Greg wonders if they’ll grow out of it someday. “Will we still do this when we’re 70?”

Both Greg and Holly have seen other couples who have tried to introduce an open arrangement into their marriage, but it often failed because people were going into it with only one side’s interests at heart.

“There is a lot of room for lopsided open relationships,” Greg says. “I’ve seen this where one partner has this need to do the multiple partners thing and the other one goes with it obligingly.”

Happiness in this open marriage
Greg and Holly say an open relationship can be viable when both partners are interested in the option. They say it increases the level of desire when someone else wants your spouse, like an endorsement. “It also trains you to communicate properly,” Greg says. Friends often ask them about their relationship, and they share their experiences openly. “People see us, and they see that we are happy and that it doesn’t have to be this crazy, perverted lifestyle,” Holly says.

Though some people are concerned about appearing that way. When searching for subjects for the sex issue, people in unconventional situations — such as those “living apart together” as the Vanier Institute of the Family calls couples in an intimate relationship who choose to keep separate residences — were unwilling to discuss it openly. Greg and Holly were the only couple who would share the details of their relationship on the record.

“We’re open about it because we’re so happy — and if we weren’t open about it, it wouldn’t be as happy a relationship because there would be that element of deception — not to each other, but to the world,” says Holly. “Neither of us enjoys being deceptive.”