“When I was a little girl, I wanted to have my own Prince Charming... until I grew up and realized there was nothing like that.”
This was Sarah’s very own “Childhood ruined” moment. Sarah agreed to speak to Yahoo Philippines on the condition of not mentioning her surname.
“I wanted to marry a man who was tall, dark, and handsome; rich and powerful; and of course sweet, loyal, and caring,” she recalled.
Sarah claimed that ever since she had her first boyfriend at 17 years old, she never became single again. “When I would break up with somebody, there would always be someone next in line. I guess I always feared being alone.”
Sarah, now 32, can no longer recall how many boyfriends she had, “but it should not be less than 10.” She said it reached that many because she kept looking for the man who would check all the boxes.
She stopped counting when she married in 2018 to her then-boyfriend for 13 months, Carl*.
“Carl also did not check all of the boxes, actually, but at least he got more than half.”
While she declined to share what boxes Carl missed, Sarah shared that she was the one who opened the idea of engaging in an open marriage.
“It happened about a year after our wedding. I started to feel scared, thinking, ‘Oh no, this is kind of like permanent now. This will be my life until I die – a woman married to a man.’ It hit me too late that I got tied to someone for a lifetime,” shared Sarah.
“Until I read about open marriages, which I knew sounded ridiculous but also made perfect sense for some reason.”
“Why would I settle with Prince Charming, if I could have Prince Charmings?”
“I talked to Carl about it, and guess what? He said he also thought about the same thing.”
“All along, I was so afraid to open it up to him, and when I finally did, I found out that he was thinking about the same.”
“My best friend thought my reaction of joy upon finding out that my husband was entertaining the idea of open marriage was weird, but I found it great. If anything, it proved to me that we were really meant for each other.”
‘I do not want to eat adobo every single day’
Psychotherapist Joy Laberinto, who provides spiritual counseling to people, many of whom are spouses, shared that in her years of working as a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor, she has already met a lot of married couples who come to her because they are having problems with their marriage. The most common problem, according to Laberinto, is the fear of accountability and responsibility.
"They would tell their spouse, 'Why do I have to be honest at all times?', 'Why do I always have to tell you everything?', or 'Why are you scolding me for not opening up about something.' They do not like feeling tied to their spouse," shared Laberinto. "They do not like being questioned or interrogated about something – which is contradicting to how married couples are always expected to have an open communication between each other."
Another common problem, said Laberinto, is having sexual dissatisfaction.
"I remember I had someone confess to me before when we were discussing their issues with their spouse, saying, 'I do not want to eat adobo every single day. I need a different menu.' That is how they described it – having to eat the same food every day, for the rest of their life. They did not like that," she said.
The third most common problem among married couples is not being able to find the kind of happiness that they want for themselves from their spouse.
"This is pretty subjective because one's happiness cannot be the same kind of happiness for the other," noted Laberinto. "They would say, 'I want to be happy. I do not want stress. I do not want to go home because I would be stressed.' They are looking for their happiness outside of their home because they saw their home as a place full of limits and boundaries."
"'I do not want to eat adobo every single day. I need a different menu.' That is how they described it – having to eat the same food every day, for the rest of their life. They did not like that,Joy Laberinto, psychotherapist and spiritual counselor
She added that it is pretty common for married couples to demand personal space for each other, and that is often a tricky ask "because how would you trust someone – especially if they are your spouse – if they tell you they want personal space? 'Why are you asking for personal space? What are you going to do in that personal space that you do not want me to see?' This, even though the person asking for personal space does not mean to cheat or anything; they just want to feel a sense of freedom. And of course, it is hard to feel that 'freedom' if you are married."
Both Laberinto and public sociologist Emmanual Caliwan, who specializes in legal, political, and cultural sociology, agree that the urgent reason why the concept of open marriage came to married Filipinos' minds is because of globalization. As people become more dependent and hooked on the Internet, they get to know more about the practices and norms in other countries and they get to see which of those may also work for them.
Caliwan said that the open marriage's foundation in sociology is liquid love, a concept by Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Here, love is likened to a liquid that easily adapts to its container, whatever its shape or size. According to Bauman's theory, love adapts according to how the person wants it to be.
He noted, "What is being prioritized today is one’s beliefs and principles over society's. That is what creates open marriage."
Eventually, according to Caliwan, it becomes a subculture wherein a small cultural practice is observed by a small group of people. This subculture, then, evolves into a counterculture that would fight the existing, accepted norms and practices.
When self-love trumps respect for society
While there is no official data yet on the number of spouses who choose to engage in nonmonogamous marriage in the Philippines as it would be hard to accurately count that, given that "open marriage" remains to have a liquid meaning to many – Sarah, however, shared that she already knows four other Filipino couples who are in the same set-up as she is with Carl.
"I do not think there is a lot, but I am pretty sure that we are not that few either," said Sarah. "We understand that this is very complicated to discuss with everybody, so people who are in an open marriage setup may have chosen not to speak about it instead."
Sarah recalled “self-love” being the main driving force of their decision to enter into an open marriage.
“Carl told me one time that he never felt more excited about our marriage than he is now. He gets to do things he wants, and I get to do the same,” she shared. “I respect that he is a man and that he wants to do things that a married man cannot always do, and he respects that I am a strong, independent woman who is very afraid of being in a predictable environment. More than self-love, it is also respect that is being dominant in our relationship.”
“In the end, we still sleep beside each other in our bed at home; we do not sleep in the homes of our other sexual partners** because we are still each other’s Number 1. That is very clear to us.”
According to Laberinto, it may be possible that as more and more people are told to practice "self-care," the more the idea of open marriage becomes more enticing.
“In the end, we still sleep beside each other in our bed at home; we do not sleep in the homes of our other sexual partners because we are still each other’s Number 1. That is very clear to us.Sarah
Self-care is not at all a new phenomenon. According to a paper published on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy of the University of Tennessee at Martin, Ancient Greeks saw self-care as a way to make people more honest citizens. Further, Audre Lorde said in her book, "A Burst of Light" published in 1988, that "caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare."
Laberinto explained, "There is positive and there is negative self-care. In the negative kind of self-care, the selfishness in you has grown, hence your love for yourself has increased while your love for others has decreased."
The concept of open marriage is highly hyper-individualistic "in a sense that you prioritized whatever you want to do – be it in a setup we call open marriage – because you can just easily change partners in this setup," noted Caliwan. "In that sense, you do not value your society; the concept of norms is thrown out."
Laberinto added, "'Self-care' or 'self-love' is becoming a more popular concept among the younger people. They say, 'This is me. I make my own rules. No one can control me. I need freedom rather than commitment,' and that is hard because marriage is all about commitment."
Hence, people's reasons why they get married have already shifted, too, noted Laberinto.
"Before, it was like, 'I will marry you because I want to give you the best.' Not, it is more of like, 'I will marry you, provided that you will validate all my wants and I will validate yours.'"
What would society be like when open marriage becomes the norm?
Caliwan says it is hard to think of compelling good reasons as to why open marriage should be seen as a promising setup for a couple.
"Right now, I am seeing this more of a dysfunctional rather than a functional setup, more of being on the bad side rather than the good side," said Caliwan. "Even Zygmunt Bauman, in his concepts of liquid modernity and liquid love, sees it as a problem and not a promise.”
For him, no matter how people who are in an open marriage describe it, he still sees this concept as the antithesis of the concept of family. In sociology, it is well-defined that the family is a social institution and is the basic unit of society; as a social institution, it is the foundation of society.
“If we have a normalization of this kind of setup, definitely, as an anti-thesis, it would always fight with the thesis, which is the family. And there would come a point in time that this thesis and antithesis would clash heavily and there would be the creation of a new definition, which will then be the new thesis,” explained Caliwan. “So that would be, in a way, a dystopian form of family. So it will not be right anymore to call it a ‘family’ because family is a concept created by modernity and from the feudal society.”
Laberinto echoes this. For her, as married couples chase their respective desires by engaging in an open marriage, the ones who will suffer the most are not themselves but their children, if any.
"Naturally, children grow up by looking up to their parents as their role models, right? They follow whatever their parents do. Eventually, when they are already at a thinking age, they might think that having multiple sexual partners is okay and normal because that is what they saw growing up," explained Laberinto.
"If you attack the institution of marriage and you attack the institution of family, definitely you attack society at large. What would the society be in the next years once this type of social interaction becomes the norm?"Emmanuel Caliwan, public sociologist
Sarah and Carl do not have a child yet as of now, although they plan to build a family soon. “Honestly, I am afraid to think how I will handle this open marriage setup soon when we have children already. I do not know how I will be able to explain this to them,” she shared.
Don’t they plan to stop being in this setup soon, when their child or children are old enough to realize their parents’ unusual setup?
“No,” Sarah quickly answered. “I know it is too early to say this, but I can no longer imagine my marriage with Carl if we are not in this setup. As long as Carl and I love each other and everything is transparent, I do not see any reason to stop. It is not like any of us is cheating; on the contrary, we are being more faithful, honest, and loyal to each other because of this setup.”
Aside from influencing their children, spouses who are in open marriage may also entice their peers to do the same, whereas they probably would not have done so had they not seen them in such a setup.
"For example, Person A is engaged in an open marriage. He kept sharing his experiences of open marriage to his best friend, Person B. Person B has long been happily married, but because he saw how the open marriage setup made Person A happy, he would likely be curious to try that, too," described Laberinto. "Without Person A knowing it, he indoctrinated a supposedly immoral practice to his group of friends, and then those friends would share it with the others as well. That is very dangerous."
While the concept of open marriage may feel empowering for people to be able to become who they are and whatever they want to be, the only ones who are benefitting from this are those who choose to engage in nonmonogamous marriage and no one else.
Caliwan stressed, "If you are being overly hyper-individualistic and being more on to your rights, sometimes, you tend to forget the rights of others – especially those who are pro-family who see this kind of setup as a risk to the institution."
He added, "If you attack the institution of marriage and you attack the institution of family, definitely you attack society at large. What would the society be in the next years once this type of social interaction becomes the norm?"
*Not his real name
**Sarah declined to give details about her and Carl’s other sexual partners
Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who writes in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications. He covers cultures, media, and gender.
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