My Wife Once Agreed To an Open Relationship. Can I Hold Her to It?

My wife became pregnant soon after we met, when our relationship was “fluid” and non-monogamous. We agreed to raise the child together and, at my urging, to have an open relationship. However, our relationship since has been monogamous. My wife was injured during the birth of our second child and now finds sex painful and avoids it. (We had a terrific sex life before the injury.) When I broached the topic of having other partners and reminded her of our agreement to have an open relationship, she became irritated and said that having kids changed things. Subsequent discussions resulted in a stalemate.

I very much enjoy my wife’s company and love her and our two kids. I have no intention of separating from my family. Nonetheless, I harbor resentments that my wife reneged on her commitment to me, and this, together with the lack of sex, is creating a wedge between us. Would it be ethical to take a mistress, given her earlier promise, and if so, can I do this discreetly so as to avoid tension and perhaps divorce? Or should I tell her I am planning to pursue this course of action? Or does the inherent risk of infidelity mean I should accept near-celibacy indefinitely? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

I do understand your quandary, but you’re undermining the needed conversation by insisting that its outcome has already been settled. You say your wife reneged on her commitment to you. Did she really? The arrangement that you urged, and that she acquiesced to, never materialized. If a relationship becomes de facto monogamous, it’s reasonable to think that a long-ago agreement — dating back to a time when a relationship that has since coalesced was still “fluid” — has been made moot. The rules of a non-monogamous relationship need to be very clear if it isn’t going to be undermined by outside activities. Ethical non-monogamy requires open channels of communication and consent that’s more than resigned submission.

Proceeding, openly or otherwise, on the basis of an agreement she has repudiated would be disrespectful. Discretion doesn’t guarantee that your wife won’t discover what you’re doing, which could result in extensive damage to trust and intimacy. And especially if your liaisons are on the down-low, you may end up with an emotional investment in an outside relationship that diminishes or competes with your marital relationship. That’s a problem if your aim is to keep your marriage together and to preserve a nurturing family for your children.

I should point out that persistent low libido after childbirth is not uncommon, and neither is finding coitus painful — a condition that does seem to be undertreated. (If it were a male condition, doctors might be more aggressive in trying to set it right.) There are various treatments that may be effective, and your wife should explore her options fully; it’s also the case that physical intimacy can take many forms. Given your conversational stalemates, you and your wife could find counseling helpful. In the meantime, bear in mind that sex isn’t just about physiology, and a peremptory insistence that you’re owed a hall pass may not put her in a loving mood.

Readers Respond

Last week’s question was from an American reader who moved abroad permanently and wondered if she should vote in U.S. elections. She wrote: “I’m a dual Swedish and American citizen and have lived in Sweden for the past five years, with no plans on moving back to the United States. I have a Swedish husband, pay Swedish taxes and vote in Swedish elections. I still maintain my American citizenship and file taxes in the United States every year. But I’ve made a choice not to vote in U.S. elections. Because I no longer live (or plan to live) in the States, I don’t think I should have a say in selecting its government. I have expat friends who strongly disagree. They all vote and think that I should. What’s your take?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “A reasonable conclusion is that people granted the legal right to vote are morally free to exercise it — whether or not some theory of representation suggests that they should have that right. There are a great many considerations relevant to deciding who should have the right to vote and no unique way to balance them all correctly. Given that the reason you have the vote isn’t wildly unjust, I say you can go for it. So you may vote, morally speaking. But must you? Do you have a duty to vote, as some of your fellow expatriates evidently believe? You do not. A responsibly exercised vote is, I agree, an important civic contribution in a democracy. … OK, so you don’t have to vote. But would it be a good thing for us if you did? Would it do you any good? Not that I can see. Voting, so it seems to me, is an expressive act. It’s a way of committing yourself to your country. If you vote, you’re part of the winning bloc or the losing one. It’s a way of being invested in an outcome. You’re now invested, politically, in Sweden and not in the United States. Whatever your legal status, that’s a choice you’re morally free to make.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

I agree with the Ethicist’s arguments on voting by foreign residents, but I would add that, given the influence of U.S. politics over the entire world, I think that whoever has the right to vote for the U.S. president should. Fabio

I thoroughly disagree with the Ethicist’s stance on voting. Voting is a privilege, and one you should exercise by mere dint of being allowed to. There are millions of people around the world who are not allowed to vote, or whose elections are so corrupt and farcical that voting is pointless. Not voting because of vague personal moral qualms is a slap in the face for every disenfranchised person on the planet, it is a slap in the face for Americans — alive today! —who could not or struggled to vote before 1965. You vote to honor all those who died or were jailed fighting for the right. You vote for the women around the world who were excluded from voting. You vote because you can. Christine

As a U.S. citizen who has lived abroad for many years, I have chosen to vote in presidential elections only, for the candidates whose views on foreign policy I believe will most benefit the U.S. as well as my adopted home. I do not vote for state or local officials; because I do not live there, I may not be familiar enough with all the issues. Nancy

I am an American citizen who moved to Israel 25 years ago. And since then, I have never voted in an American election because I believe it would be ethically wrong for me to do so. In voting, I would be (at least subconsciously) influenced by which election outcome would be better for Israel. I would not be making the same judgments if I were living in the U.S. and deciding what would be good for my fellow Americans in America. Further, I would not be keeping up with the relevant issues in the same way as I would be if I were still living in the U.S. So I think that those living permanently abroad have no moral right to sway elections in the country in which they do not live (even if they pay taxes there). Uriela

I am a dual citizen of the United States and Sweden, where I have lived the past 12 years; I also have no intention of returning permanently to the United States. However, I find it difficult to understand how this writer could have no interest in or feel no connection to the United States, especially in its current political chaos. I assume I am older than the writer, and as a retired person I care very much, not least because I have relatives and friends who will be directly impacted, for example, if a certain person is re-elected president. I agree with the Ethicist that people who vote really should care very much about doing so. I simply cannot understand how one cannot feel that voting is a civic duty, regardless of where one lives. Also, five years is not a terribly long time, and the writer’s life circumstances could still change and necessitate a return. She might live to regret her indifference. Deborah

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