The many shades of open love

Love triangles sound exciting, but can they be sustainable? And what happens when kids are involved? We talked to polyamorous Berliners about the highs and lows of open relationships.

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Photo by Alexa Vachon

Love triangles sound exciting, but can they be sustainable? And what happens when kids are involved? We talked to polyamorous Berliners about the highs and lows of open relationships.

Being ‘open’ in a relationship can mean many things. From no longer being exclusive to inviting a third party into the couple, sexual freedom lies at the core of the polyamorous exercise. For some, it is a transient phase of experimentation, for others, it’s a way of life. There is only one rule: honesty. And in the case of parents, the spirit of full transparency extends to their Nachwuchs.

A thriving throuple

Seventeen years ago, Alex* and Céline* first set eyes on each other, and since then, they attest to having found the perfect way to maintain a long-term relationship: “attuned loving”. “Attuned love means we both have to like the person the other one is going out with. And so it happened that we both fell in love with the same woman. Milena* is the love of our lives,” says Alex, a charming fortysomething writer based in Berlin. His wife Céline works as a life coach. “We only got officially married for legal reasons. I don’t believe in contracts, but as soon as I saw Céline sitting in the sunshine, I knew: we belong together. I have fallen in love thousands of times in my life and each love is unique. I cannot love two different people the same way, so my love for Céline is only for her,” explains Alex, enthusiastically, giving the impression that, really, he’s in love with life itself. “I take nothing for granted. Everything is a gift, including Céline, and I’m thankful for her every day.” For the first decade of their relationship, Alex and Céline were exclusive. They travelled the world together, had a child and settled in Berlin five years ago. That’s more or less when they started talking about their desires for new adventures that they’d like to experience together. And then they met Milena.

It was a year and a half ago and the couple was at Kater Blau on their weekly clubbing night out. “‘When we saw Milena, we were struck by a cosmic spark connecting the three of us. Like magic,” Alex beams. “Being together immediately felt as it should – one heart, a never-ending journey into the interrogation of the self, in search of essence. The honesty we share enables us to learn a lot about each other and life,” continues Alex with radiant conviction, adding that Milena is in an open relationship herself. “Several people have come up to us already saying how beautiful we are together – the three of us, deeply in love.” A compelling construct, indeed. But how often do people manage to achieve such blissful throuple harmony? Psychoanalyst and renowned couples’ therapist Wolfgang Schmidbauer says not a lot: “The main difficulty in polyamorous relationships is that partners have to come to terms with jealousy. And from what I have been able to observe, it often doesn’t work in a completely symmetrical way. A couple might agree rationally that they allow each other to have multiple relationships, but how that is negotiated once it happens is a different story.” Alex doesn’t deny that he and Céline experience moments of jealousy, but brushes it off as “the work of the ego” and explains: “When it happens, we just stop for a moment, and channel all that love we feel towards each other.”

When we saw Milena, we were struck by a cosmic spark connecting the three of us. Like magic.”

Gisela Wolf is a psychotherapist practising in Charlottenburg who specialises in LGBT issues and identifies as non-binary. They share a positive perspective on open relationships: “It can be sustainable as long as it’s based on communication and openness.” Having counselled couples for many years they see open marriage as an improvement from the secrecy that prevailed before: “Cheating is also a form of an open relationship, it’s just hidden, and rather one-sided. Then there is polyamory and lots of other forms.” They elaborate that open marriage has been around for decades, but that it was typically men who were ‘open’. What has changed since then, as Wolf points out, are the power dynamics between the sexes. Now that women have equal rights to sexual freedom, couples are in a position to discuss the myriad possibilities together. “It has become accepted that people can stay together even if they have multiple sexual partners,” Wolf says. And Berlin seems to be fertile ground for experimentation: “Berlin has been the place of open sexuality for a long time. There is more understanding and acceptance here.” Alex agrees: “I believe we would have pursued the same inward journey, regardless of where we live, but Berlin has widened my vision, for sure. The city has the ability to entice people to transform themselves into liberated individuals, on all levels.” He says that he, Céline and Melina have always been open about their set-up and have never felt stigmatised here.

When ‘open’ extends to kids

Alex and Céline’s immediate entourage know about their situation, and the spirit of openness extends to their 12-year-old daughter. “I have never faltered my words towards our daughter. She has never asked me directly about us, but she asks about all kinds of relationships, and I always answer her questions honestly,” says Alex. “She knows that we love Milena. They’ve met several times, and she once told Milena that her presence feels warm to her.” According to Wolf, it’s crucial not to hide anything from the children involved. “For a small child the most important thing to know is that they can count on loving parents and also the other people involved in their relationship. They need a safe, relaxed environment, without secrets!” With teens, they say it can be trickier as their desire to ‘fit in’ can cause them to react badly, at least in the beginning. But Wolf maintains that “trust is paramount and the earlier you tell the truth the better. Lying to your children always comes with a backlash. Just imagine the day you have to explain not only the actual situation but also the many lies you told them: it completely breaks a child’s trust.” The expert asserts that, as long as parents communicate continuously and honestly, the children will adjust: “They will grow into it, no matter how unusual the situation might appear to the rest of the world.”

You often see that one partner wants to be polyamorous and the other doesn’t. But the first doesn’t want to lose the second, or vice-versa.” 

For Benjamin, now 16, the “unusual situation” has meant growing up with the knowledge that his dad, Bruno, had a wife who wasn’t his mum, and another family. His parents’ relationship started as a secret affair years before he was born. “Bruno had been with Lydia since college, they had two children together, a business and all. I came into the picture 12 years later when I was doing an interpreting job for their company,” explains his mum, Kathy. Benjamin has heard the story many times before, and looks at his mother as if he wished for it to end differently. “He was 20 years older than me, handsome, smart. I always felt I didn’t have a chance. Still, I couldn’t help hoping he would leave his wife. But he didn’t. Instead he decided to come clean to her!” And when Bruno finally told Lydia about his other relationship, she agreed he could keep seeing Kathy while staying married to her and living with his family. “But she wanted to meet me,” says Kathy. “So we did that and it went fine. We decided to be open about everything. At the time, we had no idea that I was pregnant with Benjamin. I found out about it a few weeks later and was scared to tell Bruno. To my surprise, he was very happy! He still didn’t leave Lydia though.” Benjamin grew up with his mum in their Wedding home, about 20 minutes away from Bruno’s family. Bruno would spend one night and several afternoons there each week. Sometimes Benjamin even slept over at his dad’s place. “Lydia was always very nice to me! She would cook my favourite food and would buy me stuff, too,” says Benjamin. “It was like being the kid of divorced parents, except for the fact that my dad was together with both of them,” he adds, smiling wisely. The open-marriage fairytale didn’t last, though. Ever faithful, Lydia gradually started to dislike the arrangement, as did Kathy.

Polyamorous breakups

“Another five years passed and I got pregnant again. Lydia freaked out. By the time Anna was born, they wouldn’t invite Benjamin over. Bruno would tell me how horrible Lydia was becoming and how he was starting to think he should leave. They went to couples therapy and so did we.” The therapist suggested the three of them sit together and find a solution, but Lydia wasn’t interested. “She started calling me ‘the bitch’ and my children ‘bastards’. So we were no longer the ‘one big happy family’ Bruno had dreamt of,” Kathy continues. The situation lasted another two years before Bruno eventually left Lydia. “He moved in with us. It was what I had wanted all along. But then it just suddenly didn’t feel right anymore. I learned that he had other partners too, and that now I was just going to take over Lydia’s role.” Eight months later, before his divorce was finalised, Kathy asked Bruno to move out. They remained on friendly terms for the sake of their children but have both moved on since. “I had to realise that open relationships are not for me,” Kathy says now. “I was in one for way too long, because I felt like I could not ask him to leave his wife. I was the lover, I came second. But once he was ‘mine’, I didn’t want to share him anymore.” Eight years on, she says she is now happily married to a man who wants to be with her and no one else. “It feels so refreshing!”

Schmidbauer has seen many polyamory-related breakups: “In couples therapy you often see that one partner wants to be polyamorous and the other doesn’t. But the first doesn’t want to lose the second, or vice-versa. That’s when they come to therapy. They have contradicting needs and each of them wants me as the therapist to validate their position and say that either monogamy or polyamory is right. But all I can say is that both things are ‘right’. It’s up to the partners involved to agree which one is best for them!” Ultimately, open or not, a couple’s ability to reach an agreement is what makes or breaks the relationship. Or, as Wolf puts it: “If one person is not on the same page, it can cause a lot of damage.”

* Names changed