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Before she literally wrote a book on open relationships, Winnipeg sex and relationship therapist Susan Wenzel was in a monogamous marriage with her husband Denys.
That is, until, he came to her wanting to discuss opening their marriage.
"It was a very scary time for me, because I had that idea of monogamy," she recalls. "I remember feeling very dizzy, very confused, very hurt. All that anxiety kicks in." She even kicked him out.
That was eight years ago. Now, Wenzel, 41, and her husband, also 41, are in a consensual non-monogamous open marriage, which means they are free to pursue relationships with other people — and she’s never been happier.
Her book, A Happy Life in an Open Relationship: The Essential Guide to a Healthy and Fulfilling Nonmonogamous Love Life, came out in March via Chronicle Books.
"I wanted something for people who are considering opening their relationship, so they could have a guide," says Wenzel, who has worked with many couples who are either curious about open relationships or are currently in one through her therapy practice. Their struggles and challenges were familiar to her, and she shares her own story in the book.
"(The book) doesn’t advocate, it doesn’t say, ‘non-monogamy is the way to go’ — it just says, ‘if you are in a non-monogamous relationship or you’re considering opening up your relationship, this is a book that will help you maintain and navigate that relationship well.’"
When we think about the love stories we’re told, in fairy tales and rom-coms, monogamy — and, in particular, heterosexual monogamy — tends to be the norm, which is why some people find the idea of non-monogamy threatening.
"It questions all those beliefs we have about relationships, all the myths we have about relationships," Wenzel says. "From the time you’re a little person, you’ve been taught that monogamy is the way to do it: you find your Prince Charming or your princess or whatever, and you live happily ever after. You’re special, you’re the true one person.
"Hearing a different story can really throw people off. People get very triggered when they hear about open relationships because of their own fears."
"People get very triggered when they hear about open relationships because of their own fears.” –Susan Wenzel
Wenzel saw that first-hand when she and her husband came out. The response, she said, was mostly positive, "especially from my friends and people who know us; they do know we’re happy in our relationship," she says.
But there were others who didn’t quite know what to make of it. "Again, it throws them off because it’s like, ‘How come you guys are so happy and you’re living this lifestyle that is not the norm to many people?’ But then they see we haven’t changed, we’re still relatable.
"Sometimes (monogamy) doesn’t work," she says. "It works for some, and that’s great, but for those who are non-monogamous, I think they are worthy of finding happiness they are looking for. The common ground is people want to be happy in their relationships."
And monogamy is not a sure route to happiness for many people, especially when one is expected to be everything to one’s partner.
"You are my confidant, you are my security, you are my lover, you are my friend, you fulfil all my sexual needs, all my emotional needs — you become everything to that person, (and) that’s doomed to fail.
"We also start taking people for granted — not because we don’t love them, but because they are ‘ours.’ There’s something about open relationships where you’re reminded that other people find your partner attractive, too."
At first, Wenzel’s newly opened relationship was fraught, governed by control, fear and jealousy. Wenzel began to look inward in order to answer a question that both scared and excited her: "What would happen if I embraced this?" Through her own personal growth, she was able to pinpoint that a large source of her anxiety related to a childhood-rooted fear of abandonment.
"But that’s a story I tell myself because my partner is there for me in so many ways," she says. "I know he’s reliable and dependable — that doesn’t change because he’s seeing someone else."
Non-monogamy also opened other doors for her, including the freedom to pursue relationships with women — something she says that both her religious background and her belief in monogamy "would not have allowed me to even entertain — they’re those thoughts you have that you push away," she says. "This is an opportunity to live my truth."
“This is an opportunity to live my truth.” –Susan Wenzel
Wenzel and her husband have two kids, a 14-year-old son and a 13-year-old-daughter. The idea of a different family unit wasn’t completely unfamiliar to them: their Kenyan grandfather, Wenzel’s father, has two wives. "My son says, ‘No, that’s not for me’ and my daughter says, "It makes sense, sometimes I like different people,’" Wenzel says.
The couple maintains boundaries with their children: general questions only; their sex lives are not up for discussion.
In order for a non-monogamous relationship to work, trust, communication and consent are paramount. Otherwise, it’s not an open relationship. It’s an affair.
"Consent is vital," Wenzel says. "If you step out and see other people without consent, you’re breaking the agreement that you committed with your partner, because that person thinks they’re in a monogamous relationship with you. And you’re depriving them of an opportunity to be a part of it. Maybe they’ve never brought it up because they thought it wasn’t on the table.
"When it’s consensual, you can create healthy boundaries. You can talk about safe sex. When it’s non-consensual, the other person is not aware of what’s going on."
Which brings us to, as with all matters in 2020, to the pandemic. Wenzel has seen, especially in various Facebook groups, non-monogamous couples grappling with new challenges put in place by COVID-19.
"That is a concern, where one person wants to see their open-relationship partner, and the other person doesn’t," she says.
Her advice is to approach the subject the same way one approaches other family members who aren’t in the same bubble. "Maybe it’s not the time to meet someone you don’t know right now, because you don’t know their history. But if you know someone’s history, you know they haven’t travelled, then that’s just like a family member outside the household. Maybe we’re not hugging, but we can still spend time with them," she says.
"It’s important to hear your partner’s concerns, to validate their concerns if they have a problem — not just go ahead and do it. And then come up with a solution, to say, ‘Can I meet this person for coffee and no contact?’ Or, ‘Can I ask first where they’ve been?’ Making an effort to show your partner you are taking it seriously may help lessen their anxiety."
“One belief system I changed is, ‘My husband is not the source of my happiness. I am the source of my happiness.’" –Susan Wenzel
For Wenzel, non-monogamy ended up strengthening the relationship with her husband.
"One belief system I changed is, ‘My husband is not the source of my happiness. I am the source of my happiness.’ And if I look to him to make me happy, he will fail every time. That happiness comes from within me," she says.
"And also to know that he came into this life to do his life, and for me to do my life — and maybe we can walk alongside each other and do that life together."
Wenzel views her open relationship as a gift that has allowed her to grow in all areas of her life.
"It’s not the open relationship that brought me happiness," she says. "It’s the work around it."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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