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Molly Roden Winter can vividly recall the moment her oldest son found out about her open marriage. Understandable, really. It’s not every day you find yourself taking an awkward-as-hell phone call in the middle of an airport, preparing to talk with your child about your sex life.
“That moment was terror,” Winter tells SheKnows a few weeks after the release of her bestselling book, More: A Memoir of Open Marriage, which opens with the airport scene. There was embarrassment, of course, at the prospect of talking to her 13-year-old son about this particular topic, but the emotions ran deeper than that. “Ultimately, it was about shame for me,” Winter said. She was terrified her son, Daniel, would either think less of her or “be damaged in some way by what I was doing.”
What Winter was doing was dating other men while staying married to her husband, who, for his part, was also dating other women — in other words, an open relationship. Daniel found out by glimpsing the profile her husband, Stewart, had posted on a dating website. (Coincidentally, Winter’s younger son, Nate, found out the same way a few years ago. “My husband’s sloppiness,” Winter sighs.)
More is filled with moments like this, infused with secondhand cringe so strong you might have to put the book down for a minute. And yes, before you ask, there are also plenty of sexy interludes with Winter’s various partners, but those are often followed by distress as Winter learned to manage the maelstrom of emotions, from euphoria to guilt to poisonous jealousy, that came with navigating life outside the bounds of monogamy.
It’s what she hopes to show through the memoir: an honest portrayal of an open relationship that’s as challenging as it is joyous. “We have myriad examples of monogamy, so let’s offer some models of non-monogamy as well,” Winter says. “We need models of people who have been through some rough stuff so you have some guidance as to where this might go and how you might handle it when it happens.”
For Winter, opening up her marriage was a mutual decision. Overwhelmed with the demands of mothering two young children, she found herself crushing on an acquaintance. “I met somebody and was just flooded with this feeling that I didn’t know what to do with,” Winter recalls. “I didn’t know what it meant, but my husband encouraged me to act on it. And that’s the story of More.”
We caught up with Winter to talk about what it’s really like to juggle the responsibilities of parenthood within an open marriage and how it’s made her happier and more fulfilled than ever.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
More: A Memoir of Open Marriage by Molly Roden Winter
SheKnows: So… that moment with your son at the beginning of the book. What was that like?
Molly Roden Winter: That moment was terror. In retrospect, I’m like, of course, he found out. I really wish I would have preempted it and and revealed it rather than let him discover it.
Now that my kids are 19 and almost 22, I feel a lot calmer about how things went. You’re kind of waiting to make sure you haven’t totally screwed them up, you know? There’s a line in the book where I ask my therapist, ‘Do you think I’ve screwed Daniel up?’ and my therapist says, ‘I think you’re screwing him up the exact average amount.’
We’re all doing our best. What I understand now is that the most important thing is for me to be my authentic self with my children, and that doesn’t mean I can’t have boundaries, or I can’t have private things in my life.
SK: That’s a major part of the book, too. Your role as a mom, and how it took over your whole identity, was a big impetus for you to open your marriage.
MRW: It was. I was 26 when I got married, which is pretty young, by New York standards [Winter lives in Brooklyn], and my whole life I kind of raced to do everything. I skipped a grade, I went to college at 16, and then I had one serious boyfriend before I met my husband. All of those years, my ‘identity’ was to be as good as I could be to please everyone all the time, which becomes impossible, and I had never really let myself figure out who the heck I was.
Stewart was the second man I went out on a date with. I didn’t expect to fall in love again that fast after my previous relationship, and Stewart told me before we even got engaged, ‘You know, there’s no way you’re gonna be okay with never sleeping with someone else again.’ He was five years older. He’d had a couple year-long relationships, but as I like to say, he dated the city. I still don’t know how many women he dated before we got married. (I also don’t know how many women he dated after we got married. Isn’t that funny?)
I consider myself lucky that I made a great choice of partner in a husband who recognized early on that I had some living to do, and he wanted to be part of it, not someone who thwarted it.
SK: Being a mom in an open marriage, you talk about having to code-switch between being a woman who’s actively dating and getting intimate with different men, and then coming back home and tucking your kids in for bed. Was there a period of adjusting to those two separate lives and bringing them together?
MRW: Yeah, I think some code-switching is gonna be required, but I think you need a little of it. You need that space to even be able to code-switch, you know what I mean? We encourage women to give up their full selves when they become mothers. I think you have to, as a mom, find a way to integrate these different parts of yourself into an authentic whole, and it’s not easy.
In other cultures it’s more accepted for a woman to be a sexual being and a mother, but in our culture — for whatever reason, our puritanical roots perhaps — we have this divide. And it doesn’t even have to be sexual, it just has to be authentic and whole. We need to find more space in our lives to embrace things that are not fulfilled by the role of mother.
SK: And that fear you mentioned, that you’re going to screw up your kid if you don’t give them every inch of your energy — in your experience, that hasn’t been the case.
MRW: No, and in fact, I do feel like my full, authentic self all the time, and because I’m able to do that, my kids now bring their authentic self to me. That’s a lovely thing. They don’t have to sanitize themselves for me. They know I’m not going to clutch my pearls. Yes, I can still be a bit of a worrier, but that’s part of it. I allow myself to be flawed, and so they feel like they feel like they can be flawed with me as well, in a way that’s a lot more relaxed and healthy.
SK: So, you mentioned your younger son, Nate, found out about your open marriage in a similar way…
MRW: I mean, almost exactly the same. It was also social media. I was actually meditating in my room when it happened, and the way I reacted was so different because I was coming from this secure, calm place.
He runs up the stairs, so anxious, like, ‘Dad’s cheating on you!’ And all I said was, ‘Honey. No, he’s not. Everything is fine. Let me finish my meditation, and then we’ll talk.’ I finished my meditation, then I called my husband and I was like, ‘What the hell did you do now?!’
This time we talked about it together with him, instead of one at a time. It was scattered and and not very well thought-through with our older child, and with our younger child, I think we handled it better and talked about it with a united front.
And again, it’s not easy. It’s not easy talking to your teenagers about sex, period, and it’s certainly not easy talking about your own sex life. It’s hard for kids to deal with, only because, in my opinion, in our culture, we don’t normalize that. We make it sound like there’s something deviant happening when, in fact, it’s totally normal to be a sexual person and a parent.
SK: Have you ever considered introducing your kids to your other partners?
MRW: A couple months ago, I introduced my current boyfriend of three years to my oldest, who is 21. I wanted to invite them both to my birthday party and I asked my son in advance if that would be OK, and he said yes.
But it’s all dependent on the situation. There’s a section in the book where a man I was dating wanted me to meet his younger son. And I didn’t want to, because I wasn’t sure where our relationship was headed. I used to be a middle school teacher and I know how kids can bond with adults that are not their parents, and I didn’t want him to like me and then lose me. His parents were getting a divorce, too, and I didn’t want to be seen as the reason for that. And if I was the reason for that, I needed to absent myself completely, because I shouldn’t be.
There are polyamorous families, more like kitchen table poly, where people are really, firmly established in your life as part of your family unit. That’s not the style of polyamory that my husband and I have. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but that was never my interest.
I think it’s an individual decision to make, and how it’s going to impact the kids is something to consider. If you think your relationship is shaky, introducing the person to your kids is not gonna make the relationship solid.
SK: When you first open up your marriage, you set a bunch of rules with Stewart, and then you go on to mostly break almost all of them. By the end of the book, you both agree to follow just one rule, which is that you’re going to be honest with each other. Why do you think that’s the most important?
MRW: I’ve actually added a second rule, too, so I’ll get to that in a second. But I think honesty is so crucial to trust. Once you’ve been in a marriage that is this open for this long — it’s been almost 16 years since we opened our marriage, and we’ve been married for 24 — we’re at a point now where the trust is baked in to who we are as a couple.
We also keep choosing each other. I know we’re not going anywhere, but it’s because we choose each other, not because we’re stuck. We both have had experiences where a partner wanted us to leave our spouse to be in a monogamous relationship with someone else, and that’s never what I wanted and never what my husband wanted. The reason I felt like I could explore was because I had that secure base.
We didn’t want a marriage that was based on anything other than choosing each other. I wanted him to want to be with me, and I don’t think that kind of freedom is the anathema to commitment. I think it’s got to be part of the commitment.
SK: And the second rule?
MRW: The second rule is that once you’re honest with each other, feelings are gonna come up, and you have to help your partner with those feelings. So if I want my husband to tell me that he’s going out with someone new and then he tells me how hilarious she was, I might have some feelings about that. And Stewart used say, ‘Well, I shouldn’t tell you anything, cause you just freak out.’ And that wasn’t working for me.
Those feelings are the price of admission. Yes, I might get upset, but then you have to help me deal with that. Sometimes I need you to give me a hug, or tell me nice things, or maybe I want a special date night. Before, he would get angry at my anger because I had given him permission to do something but then got upset when he did it. I see how that was unfair, but at the same time, it’s normal and natural. So we had to evolve into that.
SK: What advice do you have for someone considering opening up their relationship?
MRW: One of my rules of thumb is that, if one person is more enthusiastic than the other, the less enthusiastic person needs to go first. That seems a little counterintuitive, but in my experience, my husband was always pretty enthusiastic, so I was the one who went first. Once I was able to realize that my feelings for another man are making me love my husband more, not less, that helped to mitigate some of the threat I might feel if if my husband started developing feelings for someone else. And we had to really talk our way through it the whole time.
You’ve also got to just keep checking in with each other. You can make rules, but think of them more as guardrails and be aware that you’re gonna hit the guardrails sometimes. You’re gonna realize, ‘Oh, we need to make this lane a little wider.’ It’s about continuing to talk with each other throughout the process.
And also, you can’t save your marriage by opening it. You have to be pretty darn committed to the communication piece and understanding that it’s about the relationship, but even more so, it’s about you two as individuals, and you’ve gotta be willing to give some space to your partner for where this is gonna take them.
SK: After these years in an open marriage and reflecting on it in your memoir, what would you say is the hardest part of being in an open marriage? And what’s the best part?
MRW: The hardest part is definitely the jealousy, but the jealousy is a mask for fear. That, and the heartbreak — all the negative feelings are the hardest part. I’ve loved people and then lost them. I have had intense jealousy. I’ve had fear, feeling like I was going to lose my husband.
But as it so happens, I think that’s why I got the best parts, which are the things that I have learned about myself and the ways in which I’ve grown. I really feel that love is not finite, and it’s not just theoretical anymore — I’ve felt that I can love this person fully and this person fully. I just have more love in me and coming to me than I ever have before.
People ask me all the time, ‘If the open marriage was so hard, why did you do it?’ and for me, it was because I got this glimpse early on that there was something here that I needed to confront, and I could sense that open marriage was a way for me to confront it. Anything in life that is painful is an opportunity to learn and grow. This has been a trial by fire for me, but out of it has come this incredible self-knowledge and love that I wouldn’t trade.