This story was told to writer E.L. Peck.
“If someone had told me on my wedding day that I’d be sleeping with someone other than Dennis, I would have thought they were crazy.”
That’s what my friend Laurie told me when I asked her to tell her story anonymously. (All names have been changed.)
Laurie and Dennis have been married 22 years and have four kids … two in college, one in high school and a 12-year-old with special needs. They are the busiest, most “on the go” couple I know, both working full time while providing excellent care for their kids and helping their son navigate the world with a disability.
“We never had a chance to stop and assess anything,” Laurie says. “Once we became parents, it was like we jumped on a roller coaster that didn’t slow down until this year, when we were down to just one kid who really needed us on a day-to-day basis. It gave us a moment to look in the mirror and at each other.”
That’s when Laurie and Dennis realized that all the passion had drained out of their marriage … and their sex life.
“We both acknowledged that we loved each other, but our life had become a series of to-do lists and deadlines and our focus was always on making things fun and special for the kids. We never made things fun or special for us.”
They took a friend’s advice and decided to go on vacation, just the two of them. This is no easy feat when you are the parents of a special-needs child, which explains why it had been years since Laurie and Dennis had planned a romantic getaway. But after five days in an exotic location trying to recapture the spark, they both had to acknowledge that the “wow” factor was missing, maybe permanently, and neither one of them particularly craved intimacy or sex with the other. Many couples would have considered separating, but not Laurie and Dennis.
“We had no interest in living apart,” Laurie says. “Dennis is my partner and my best friend and I love him. I just stopped wanting to have sex with him. And as hard as it is to admit, he feels the same way about me.”
That’s when the couple entered counseling, where they were surprised to find a therapist suggesting that they consider an open marriage. “Consensual cheating” is what Dennis called it, initially dismissing the idea. They had never considered infidelity, and to do it openly seemed to go against everything they felt marriage stood for. But after several sessions with the counselor and many more attempts at getting their groove back, Laurie and Dennis could see they had three options: live together and accept that sex and intimacy would no longer be a part of their lives; get divorced; or consider the therapist’s suggestion.
“I wasn’t ready to give up on myself. I’m 51. I should be having a lot more sex before I die!” But Laurie and Dennis had no interest in having sex with each other. And since separating just wasn’t on the table, they decided to try staying together in an open marriage, allowing each other to date other people while remaining married.
“It’s not always easy to navigate,” says Laurie. “We don’t want our kids to know. It would be embarrassing for us and traumatizing for them. And neither one of us is looking to fall in love with someone else, so we need to be up front with the people we date.” Keeping their sexual affairs from becoming affairs of the heart has been the trickiest part of adapting the rules of their marriage, especially since neither Laurie nor Dennis wants anyone to get hurt.
But worrying about hurting each other has become less and less of an issue.
“You’d think we would be jealous of each other’s dates, or that the whole situation would make us want to start sleeping together again, but that hasn’t happened,” Laurie explains. Sex and intimacy are now a part of their lives — just not with each other.
“We’ve sort of got it down to a science,” says Laurie. “I’ll leave for a date and Dennis will say, ‘Have fun!’ The next morning we resume our regularly scheduled programming, as if nothing has changed.”
The couple even created a shared calendar on their phones to track when one of them has plans so that someone is always home at night with their youngest child.
“It’s not for everyone, and sometimes I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” Laurie says. “But for us, this is what it took to save our marriage. After 22 years together, neither one of us wants to give up on our family or each other. We just love each other too much for that.”
Everyone needs a girlfriend!
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