A few months ago, my friends Christian and Magda suffered their first bad relationship crisis to date. Magda had a lover (“only sex,” she emphasises) and when she went to see him one night, Christian went out alone and met another woman. With him, too, it was “only sex” at first, but then things changed.
Usually affairs serve to improve their marital love life — they turn them on. However, this time the trick didn’t work. Christian was swept off his feet by the erotic tension with his new lover, the whole thing went out of control. “I felt intoxicated.” In hindsight, Magda even empathises: “That feeling that there’s a fire inside you, it’s amazing. I can totally understand that.”
Back then, however, she’d reached the limits of her understanding. Magda felt how Christian drifted away from her and, for the first time in their relationship, gave him a choice: Break this off immediately or I’m gone. It was a drastic measure, and it jolted Christian awake. He complied. Ever since then, they have been slowly rebuilding the damaged trust between them as I’ve been watching from the sidelines, in awe. Turns out you can cheat on your partner in an open relationship, too.
On this they agree: No matter how much you love each other — passion fades. That shouldn’t stand in the way of a happy marriage.
Christian, 37, and Magda, 39, have been together for 12 years and married for 10. And for about six years they’ve been having sex, affairs and little love stories with others. For a while that was fairly easy: She was in Berlin, he in Barcelona. But even now that they’ve been living together again for three years, they have kept it that way. Because on this they agree: No matter how much you love each other — passion fades. That shouldn’t stand in the way of a happy marriage.
“When you love somebody, there’s a difference between the relationship and the fleeting intoxication of sex,” Christian says. Neither of them can understand how a union that has been going well for years could end after one act of infidelity. “I’ve often asked myself: What kind of relationship is that? You’ve cheated once! Is there no empathy?” And Magda adds: “If I can’t be the way I am, I don’t want to be in a relationship. After all, many relationships fail because people aren’t being honest.”
We’re sitting in their kitchen, drinking wine and smoking. We do that regularly, Magda and Christian are my friends. That’s why they are letting me tell their story and even publish their pictures. Because we’re friends — and because they want to pass on some things they’ve learnt. They aren’t narcissists or social media junkies, both value their privacy. But this is a welcome opportunity to address a few prejudices. Because when they hear “open relationship,” many people still respond with a skeptical look. Isn’t that just an excuse for cheating? And is that really love, or a marriage of convenience?
These are questions I’ve been asking myself, too. But even more so, I’ve been wanting to find out the rules of engagement in an open relationship for very selfish reasons. I love sex. And I have yet to survive the blows that dying passion strikes against a relationship that has settled into comfortable routines.
Of course, I’m far from alone with this predicament. A large-scale study by the Psychological Institute at Göttingen University shows that only about a fourth of all German couples have sex twice a week. 57 percent sleep with each other once a week, 17 percent of all contestants hadn’t had any sex in four weeks. Another study by the same institute concluded that 97 percent of all men and women who start a relationship in Germany expect their partner to be faithful. And a very anecdotal survey among my friends leads me to conclude that this schism is something many of us strive to overcome, yet we have no idea how.
Because what if you aren’t ready for a life without the intoxicating effect of passion, of desire and its fulfilment? What if you’re attracted to other people even though you love your partner? The safety and stability of a stable relationship, coupled with the surprise and adventure that comes with sex with strangers — it sounds very much like having it all. But of several couples I know who’ve tried “the open relationship thing,” there are only two where it wasn’t the beginning of the end. Because it turns out that having an open relationship is just as hard as having a sexually monogamous one. It’s just that the hard bits have a different shape.
“It was an experiment. We didn’t know what would happen. There are no rules.”
Magda and Christian believe that for them it works because they’ve never regarded it as a model. “It was an experiment. We didn’t know what would happen,” Magda explains. “There are no rules. Every couple makes their own rules.” If you’d like an outside opinion, I believe that their recipe for success is no-frills pragmatism based on deep love and caring. And a near-total absence of jealousy, of course.
The path they’ve chosen was particularly challenging for Magda, who grew up in the Catholic culture of Colombia. She had to learn not only to have casual sex, but also to deal with other people judging her relationship. And she had to find out what love actually means to her, an issue she believes many people face today. “People want to redefine what love is,” she says. “They want freedom, but they don’t want to give back. They want to be loved but they don’t want to reveal anything. Maybe we have to expand our ideas of happiness and love. I don’t want love if it means doing something only because society expects it.”
“Maybe we have to expand our ideas of happiness and love. I don’t want love if it means doing something only because society expects it.”
In Christian and Magda’s relationship, things always just sort of happened. They met at Sónar Festival in Barcelona where he, the Austrian graphic designer, worked as a VJ and spontaneously used her, the Colombian who’d overstayed her tourist visa, as a model. Their one-night stand slowly turned into an ever more serious relationship, and Magda’s inability to travel became a nuisance. She needed a residence permit. Suddenly, they were talking about marriage. “It was a pragmatic decision. It had nothing to do with love,” Magda asserts, matter-of-factly. She had never even wanted to get married, she’d seen too much sanctimoniousness and double standards back in Colombia. Christian, on the other hand, simply felt too young. “I wasn’t at an age where I could say: I’m marrying the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
But marry they did, in summer 2005, and two years later Magda was awarded Spanish citizenship. They could have gotten divorced now, yet didn’t. However, while Christian’s design studio flourished, Magda had trouble settling in Barcelona. She decided to move to Berlin. They both needed the break.
Looking back to those days, they say: We were like brother and sister. Their relationship had changed, desire was gone. “And that’s still an issue,” Magda says. “Being happy is never a permanent state. Passion fades. Always, in my experience. But many people can turn me on. Love goes deeper. And love I only know with Christian.”
This is something of a fashionable topic among sexual therapists. Both the German Ulrich Clement and the Belgian Esther Perel are stars of their trade who advocate more openness and honesty in relationships (for some entertainment, watch Perel’s TED talk on the subject). They believe that our standards in modern relationships are simply too high — that we expect one person to fulfil the roles traditionally covered by an entire village. “We want everything from one person: Great conversation and great sex, security and adventure. These are hopelessly excessive demands for any normal relationship,” Clement said in an interview.
These “delusions of grandeur that one love has to provide for everything,” as he calls it — Magda and Christian have simply turned their backs on that. And even though they have no rules, they instinctively act according to principles that Perel and Clement suggest: They are respectful, loyal, relaxed and very much aware of their boundaries.
Sexual therapists believe that our standards in modern relationships are simply too high — that we expect one person to fulfil the roles traditionally covered by an entire village.
One question that often arises when discussing open relationships is that of balance and fairness. Isn’t one person exploiting the other? When I ask Christian and Magda whether they feel one is profiting more than the other, they both say: Yes, me.
They’re saying this as they are sitting together, correcting and finishing each other’s sentences. At first glance, they are cultural clichés: She’s emotional, talks about big feelings and existential learnings and true love, while he focusses on facts and details, acts rationally and interrupts her when she strays from the chronological sequence of events. Yet he is the one who blossoms when he’s among people, who travels constantly and parties all night while she, the yoga teacher, goes to bed at 11pm, gets up at 6 and generally likes things quiet. He has more affairs, her’s may last a bit longer. There are no clear power structures. Certainly neither lacks willpower.
The feeling of benefitting more than the other goes back to the first time they cheated on each other — because their open relationship didn’t begin with rules, but with two acts of infidelity. Christian in Barcelona, Magda in Berlin. They told each other at their Christmas reunion, first her, than him. The cat was out of the bag, both were relieved and decided, more implicitly than explicitly, to continue this way. Christian recalls it as a grey zone: “We simply accepted it tacitly.”
That leads us to transparency. How much does the other person have to know? He’s always found it more difficult to come clean than her, and they rarely tell each other immediately. Details aren’t required, either. “We’ve never had an interrogative situation,” Christian says. “Sometimes things surface after a couple of glasses of wine.”
All in all, they have few rules. “Nobody from our circle of friends” is one, but Christian is by now good friends with one of Magda’s former lovers and often forgets that they ever had an affair. “It’s like knowing Magda’s ex. I couldn’t care less about her ex,” he says and laughs.
So does sex matter less or more to them than to others? It’s hard to say. Clearly sex is very important to them in general, but it plays a secondary role in their relationship. There are much more important things. That Christian inspires Magda to strive to be a better person, for example. Or that Christian feels incapable of being angry with Magda, no matter what she does.
There is one rule, however, and it was Magda who spelled it out. “I’m the queen. There may be ladies of the court, but I always have to be number one.” In other words: They can share their bodies freely, but their hearts belong to each other. Even their relationship is exclusive. Christian puts it this way: “It’s essentially a monogamous relationship. Only that we give each other space.”
But even though they emphasise the difference between love and passion, the boundaries are unclear. Magda says she can’t have any superficial relationships at all, whether they’re friendships or affairs, and Christian agrees: “It’s never just about a quick fuck. There’s always attraction that goes beyond the purely physical.” Where attraction ends and love begins is something only the two of them know.
The betrayal wasn’t the other woman. It was Christian’s doubt in his life with Magda. And that could have just as easily happened if they didn’t have an open relationship.
So it is possible to be unfaithful in an open relationship, only that adultery doesn’t take place in bed. It’s not an act, it’s a feeling — the feeling that Magda had a few months ago when Christian was swept off his feet by his lover. For the first time in their relationship, she thought they’d be better off going separate ways. However, the betrayal wasn’t the other woman; it was Christian’s doubt in his life with Magda. And that, both agree, could have happened just as easily if they didn’t have an open relationship.
So they had to make a very conscious decision to be with each other again. They gave themselves a few months, talked a lot, fought, made up again, travelled to Colombia and said: Let’s see how things go afterwards. Things are going fine. They’re thinking about having a baby. I continue standing by the sidelines, in awe.
It’s not that, having written this article, I’m much wiser about how one leads an open relationship. I still have no master plan for my own love life and no idea whether I could deal with the emotional stress of my partner having sex with others. Like Christian and Magda, I’ll have to experiment, I guess.
But there’s one thing I’ve taken away from their story: perseverance. “We have a lot of stamina,” Christian says. “Others would act much more quickly. We simply wait a bit and often things just work themselves out.” Or to say it in the words of celebrity sex therapist Ulrich Clement: “Innocence is lost. But hanging on provides the opportunity for something new. And that can be very exciting.”