Modern Love Podcast: When Two Open Marriages Collide


This week’s essay really broke open for me the idea of what a marriage can contain and how traditional boundaries don’t necessarily have to apply.

And how actually expanding those boundaries can help your marriage and strengthen your bond with your spouse.

“I want to see the body,” said my 12-year-old son, Miles. He and I were sitting in our minivan outside of the hospital. “Miles, it’s not ‘the body,’” I said. “You only say ‘the body’ when a person is dead. Eric’s still Eric. He just had a terrible accident.” I texted my wife again: “We’re waiting in the parking lot. Will you come down? Your burrito is getting cold.”

We weren’t supposed to go inside. This was intended as a quick favor, bringing my wife dinner so she wouldn’t have to eat more institutional food. I texted my wife again: “Honey, please!”

“I want to see him,” Miles said. “Can’t we go inside, just for a few minutes?”

“It’s private,” I said.

“Well, mom is there.”

“Mom and Eric have a special relationship,” I said. “Eric is in an intensive care unit. They’re cramped spaces full of sensitive equipment. We don’t want the room to be too crowded.”

“I think it’s just mom there and Eric,” Miles said. “Maybe Shelley.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. Shelley is Eric’s wife. My wife (and Miles’s mother) is Eric’s girlfriend. We all have open marriages and respect each other’s privacy. But this accident propelled us into a new reality. I stared at my phone, hoping for the gray bubbles of a pending response.

One of my wife’s sweetest qualities is her focus in real time on the people she loves. I imagined her at Eric’s bedside, holding his hand, talking, even though he was not responding. It had only been three days since a semi-truck cut off his motorcycle and sent him spinning, landing so forcefully that his helmet split.

Her phone was probably buzzing in her purse, even though she knew we were coming and that I didn’t want to come inside.

“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing the bag with the burrito from her favorite food cart and opening the car door.

“Excellent,” Miles said, as if we were going on a macabre amusement ride.

Even though I’m not good at mathematics, I found myself ruminating on the cruel geometry of the accident — the driver of the long semi-truck swinging out at a wide angle that unexpectedly narrows, blinding him to Eric’s presence. The rear of the truck breaking the trajectory of the motorcycle’s path. There were two impact points: the middle of the truck (his head) then the asphalt 30 feet away (the left side of his body). A hypotenuse of flight, smashed ribs, traumatic brain injury, a compound fracture of his left leg, a shattered left arm. I didn’t want to see him broken.

“Which way to the acute care unit?” I asked the front desk attendant. We followed signs along a circuitous route as my stomach roiled with dread. It seemed wrong to visit at such a vulnerable time. His survival is still uncertain. It should just be family, which we weren’t exactly. I didn’t know what my relationship to Eric was. Like other couples we know in open arrangements, my wife and I compartmentalized, keeping our dating relationships mostly off each other’s radar, a buffer against jealousy and insecurity.

To most people, we look like a conventional family — two parents who met in college, three children each spaced two years apart, a pretty four-bedroom brick house. Close friends and family know the deeper story. But otherwise, we keep it to ourselves. I’m careful about how I move in the world because people judge, or they’re uncomfortable, or they avoid.

This situation, entering the hospital room of my wife’s lover, risked exposing our oddness in a way that unnerved me. “Elevator 6 over there,” Miles said. “Step it up, dad. The burrito will get cold.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s already cold, buddy.”

My wife and I have what psychologists call a “mixed orientation marriage.” I’m bisexual and always have been. When she and I fell in love, we both wanted to think we could work as a monogamous conventional couple. We married, bought a house, had children and made a go of it. But ultimately, our relationship didn’t fit that particular script. After a lot of talk and therapy, and even a few moments of nearly splitting up, we arrived at this creative arrangement: “Will and Grace” with children, cats and a mortgage.

When we first settled into this platonic agreement — a shared life with permission to see other people romantically — Miles was five. Unlike his two older siblings, he didn’t understand open marriage, despite our attempts to explain it in a way that, we hoped, would make sense without overwhelming him. It didn’t matter.

Miles has always known his parents living under the same roof, each other’s dearest mooring in the world. As the youngest, he’s been the most comfortable with our unconventional arrangement because he never knew anything different. He doesn’t know the distance my wife and I have long struggled with, having married according to a traditional template before creating this new one.

“This is it, dad,” Miles said. “Level 1 Trauma Center. Wow, man.” I wasn’t clear if we were allowed to be here. “We’re here to see Eric,” I said to a nurse. “I’m bringing his friend some dinner. Can we stop in briefly?” “She’s the girlfriend?” the nurse said. Eric’s wife had confirmed with hospital staff that his girlfriend would alternate sitting vigil with her.

My wife was sitting in a green chair beside a bed, her hair rumpled from a night of uncomfortable sleep, her face drawn with worry and hunger. She’d been there all day. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the formless heap beside her. “Here’s your burrito,” I said.

When she rose, I gave her an everyday kiss, before gathering her in a hug. She held on longer than usual and started to cry quietly. “Thank you for coming,” she said.

“Why isn’t Eric awake?” Miles said. “I want to hear about the accident.”

She sighed. “He has to remain in a coma for a while. He wouldn’t be able to tolerate the pain of so many broken bones.”

After my wife had been seeing Eric for six months, I arranged to meet him for coffee, a marital courtesy. I didn’t think we would be friends, but it seemed right not to be strangers. Trim and athletic, gray-brown hair that was thinning on top, he was the same age as me. He had one child to my three. We were both in healthcare — me a psychotherapist, he an audiologist.

We talked about the challenges of running a practice. He offered to connect me to the woman who handled his billing. I knew we liked the same music and poetry, because my wife accompanied him to concerts and readings that I wished I could attend, too. Sometimes it seemed that she had simply found a more heterosexual version of me.

“And just so you know,” Eric said as we were parting, “I respect your marriage. I don’t want her seeing me to pose any threat.” His words surprised and reassured me, even if that’s what he was supposed to say. He and his wife had been in an open marriage for longer than us. He knew the map of this strange terrain. I thought he was a mensch, and we were lucky she had found him.

Still avoiding looking at Eric’s bed, I stepped over to the window. Miles’s voice had a new solemnity, as if this was something other than an interesting adventure story he wanted to hear. “Dad,” he said. “This should never have happened.”

“You’re right, buddy,” I said. Sometimes a child’s innocence supplies the soundest etiquette in an uncertain situation.

“Dad,” Myles said. “You need to look.”

So I turned my gaze to Eric, though I was ashamed to, as if looking at him while he was comatose was a violation of something tender. As if the compartments of our lives, our everyday, still applied in this sanitized room that didn’t belong to anyone. A chorus of machines surrounded his body, beeping and blinking yellow, green, blue.

Eric’s face was puffy and unrecognizable — purple, red, swollen, stubbled.

Gauze bandages covered his head and neck. His left arm and leg were enshrouded in casts. It seemed as if every piece of him had been bandaged and stapled and pushed into place. If the bend of cruel geometry that landed Eric here — comatose and broken — came from not being seen, we now needed to give him our attention, generously, unflinchingly.

Months later, Eric would come through all of this, ambulatory and healed, if altered. But that evening, looking at him, I felt a fluttering in my gut, a stir of mortal awareness, as if holding him in our gaze was the only thing tethering him to the Earth.

After the break, a conversation with the writer, Wayne Scott, and his wife, Betse Thielman.

So Betsy, I want to start with you and just take you back to that time of the accident. I imagine that was such a jolt to your relationship and your marriage. What happened after that?

Well, Eric was in intensive care for quite a while. And he went into a rehabilitation facility. And then he was eventually able to go home. And I continued to be with him, hang out with his family, while he recuperated. And it was hard on so many levels, seeing somebody that one loves, who’s so hurt, and not really knowing what one’s place is.

And I just have to give a call out to Shelley because she could have easily said, close the ranks, this is for family only. And what she did instead was to open up the door and say, you know, it’s all hands on deck. The more love, the better. Bring it. And happily, he’s now totally ambulatory. He’s even driving again.

Yeah, he’s made a really profound significant recovery.

Well, let me turn to Wayne. How did all of this affect your marriage to Betsy?

I think, if anything, it underscored what was really important. Our marriage had been open for a while at that point. And so we had kind of figured out our routine. We put a lot of energy into being careful about our reputations, being careful about who knew, sometimes worrying about if people would find out at work and things like that.

But then this thing happens. This tragic thing happens. And my hesitation to go into the hospital and be seen as the husband of the girlfriend, it suddenly seemed puny and small of me. Right? And Eric, up to that point, had been actually a tremendous resource to us as a couple. He and Shelley had been going down this path for longer than we had. And I don’t know that we would have been successful if they hadn’t shared some of their ideas and wisdom, things they learned because they’ve just been doing it longer.

And in that way, it strengthened your marriage?

Absolutely. I think that Eric’s involvement with Betsy strengthened the two of us together. His involvement with me strengthened the two of us together. Because he and I also would meet and meet his friends, just so I get to know him, and he’s not just this mysterious person who waits out in the car when she goes out of the — you know.

Right, and Betsy, what do you think about that? Is what Wayne was saying about how it’s sort of mentorship in a way, does that ring true for you, too?

Absolutely. I think that they have a very brave and honest relationship. And what Wayne was saying about our kind of compartmentalizing our relationship for safety purposes, Eric and Shelley didn’t do that. And because our family is a system and part of that protection that I think Wayne and I were practicing was to keep the kids out of what we consider to be something that didn’t necessarily concern them.

But our youngest son, Miles, was very curious about Eric before the accident. And there would be times when Eric would come to the house. He wouldn’t come in because he was honoring our desire to keep the kids separated from all of that. But Miles would find excuses to come out, just to ask me one more question before I left. And Eric was delightful with him, and would just talk to him about pets or whatever it was that was interesting to Miles or that he was asking me about.

And it just made it normal in a way that I don’t think Wayne and I had necessarily anticipated. I think we thought that the kids were going to have a big emotional reaction. And they didn’t at all. So that was another way I think in which Eric and Shelley modeled norming it for kids — this idea that there can be a lot of loving adults in their parents’ lives, and it doesn’t have to be a threat.

Right, and were there other ways that Eric and Shelley guided both of you that really made a difference?

So there was a period of time where I was pretty seriously seeing a man who lived up in Seattle. He was also married to a woman, and they had an open arrangement. And at certain points, I was interested in having Betsy meet Tim. And I think her initial reaction was one of kind of hesitation, some anxiety. I didn’t ask her to do that kind of thing that often. But at a certain point, she kind of surprised me, and she turned around and she said, “OK, the next time Tim is in town, I’ll meet him.” And I was like, “Well, what changed? What happened?” And she was like, “Well, Eric told me I wasn’t being fair.”

Oh, that’s so interesting.

But it gets a little bit more interesting, which is that Eric actually stepped it up one more step and said, “You know what? When you meet Tim, Betsy, I’ll go along with you.” And so we ended up, the four of us, going out, having a lovely dinner together, and that was how Betsy met the guy I was going out with at the time.

Yeah, it was a little odd, and it was also lovely because they were all just interesting people who have common interests. it made me feel a lot more relieved and also like I could see integrating the people we care about more closely into our lives.

Right, but ahead of that, you’d obviously had reservations about it. And then you had a conversation with Eric?

Well, to be fair, I mentioned that he and Shelley are brave and wide open. And so, a lot of times, I would be over their house and hanging out with them and their family and having conversations. And then Eric and I would go out and go on our date. And so it was seamless. And it was really easy to be integrated. But I wasn’t offering Wayne the same opportunities.

Right, but you explained that to Eric and he said, get with the program!

He did. Yeah, he’d schooled me.

[LAUGHTER]

Eric and Shelley, are they still in your life after Eric recovered from his accident?

Yes, we’re still friends. And I love hearing about their daughter and seeing how they’re thriving. And we’re going to have coffee tomorrow.

Well, thank you both so much for talking to me today. It’s been really good to get to know you.

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero, with help from Hans Buetow and Elyssa Dudley. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. The executive producer is Wendy Dorr. This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel.

Special thanks to Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick and Ryan Wegner at Audm.



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