Would you be okay if your husband had a girlfriend? Or what if your wife went on vacation with her male lover – without you — could you handle that?
Most people admittedly could not, with such ideas often igniting feelings of rage, jealousy, a barrage of expletives or even cause windows to be busted. Yeah, it could get ugly.
But BlackVoices found a married couple who is fine with those scenarios and even spent last July apart with their significant others. Meet Carl and Kenya Stevens, parents of three who, after spending 12 years of marriage monogamously, decided three years ago to try open marriage.
What would make them switch up?
Well, in 2006, Carl, 40, came home from work and told Kenya, 36, he’d fallen in love with another woman. No, he didn’t cheat on her, as the relationship was nonsexual. But it didn’t stop him from having feelings for his coworker. His honesty propelled them to explore the deeper meaning of their union and, at Carl’s suggestion, contemplate an open marriage. Kenya admits that she wasn’t down for it at first and it took two years for her to warm up to the idea.
Before you write her off as another woman kowtowing to her man’s lustful appetite, know that she was the first one to have sex outside their marriage once it was open. They say their open marriage has been spiritually and emotionally transformational, and even brought them closer together.
As unconventional as the Stevenses’ marital status appears, they aren’t the first African Americans to engage in this lifestyle. Academy Award-winning actressMo’Nique has spoken publicly on various occasions about the open marriage she shares with her husband, Sidney Hicks. Legendary Hollywood couple Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis admitted in their 1998 joint biography, ” With Ossie and Ruby: In this Life Together“ that they tried an open marriage but later decided it wasn’t for them. Supermodel Naomi Campbell’s Russian billionaire boyfriend Vladimir Doronin has an open marriage with his wife. And let’s not forget the occasional rumblings surrounding whether A-list couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have an open marriage.
Even though there isn’t any statistical data pointing to open relationships as a growing trend among African American couples, you have to wonder with rampant cases of infidelity and marital dishonesty, reports of the single black woman’s plight and nearly half of American marriages – a reported 70% for African Americans – ending in divorce, should African Americans consider this lifestyle?
Black Voices sat down with the Stevenses to discuss how this marital arrangement is working for them and why others may want to consider it.
Black Voices: How do you define open marriage as a couple?
Carl Stevens: For us it’s the ability to relate to other people, meaning we can have friendships, we can have intimate relationships, we can have any kind of relating with someone else that we feel is necessary for us as individuals. We also have to be able to be open and honest with each other, and we have a certain line of communication so that everybody is in the loop with how we’re feeling and what’s going on.
Kenya Stevens: Oftentimes in marriage, parameters are set on even emotional friendships with the opposite sex. If my husband wanted to go and play checkers with the woman who lived across the street, that’s deemed as ‘not right.’ In our marriage, we can have emotional relationships with people of the opposite sex.
BV: Then why continue to stay married?
CS: The fact is that it’s natural and the realness is that you will have and desire to be in relationships with other people. Humans, by nature, are gregarious beings. It’s more natural for us to love others and to be with others on a different level than it is for us not to. We actually have to close ourselves off, so to speak, in a traditional Christian-based marriage and stop ourselves from expressing our natural desires. So we’re kind of going against the natural order of things by trying to control who and how you love. Love doesn’t work that way.
BV: How do you deal with jealousy without finding yourself resenting the other?
CS: The thing is, it starts with understanding people’s perspective on jealousy. It’s valid to feel jealousy, but is it valid that it’s accepted? So if somebody’s jealous, do we accept that jealousy and change our behavior to accommodate it? The answer to that is no, you don’t accept it and change your behavior. Instead we work with each other and support each other to overcome these jealous feelings.
An example would be to say if Kenya goes out with her boyfriend and I have a feeling of jealousy around it, I, being able to be vulnerable and truthful, am able talk with her about how I feel.
BV: You are love coaches who have a foundation in tantra. How has this influenced your ability to have an open relationship?
KS: Tantra is the idea that sex is a sacred activity. It’s the most grandiose meditation that two people can participate in together. So we don’t think about sex in a pornographic fashion. We think of sex as connecting with another person. And so that separates the idea of just swinging and going out and just looking for sex and so forth.
When we deal with a relationship outside of our marriage, it’s a deep connection. The individuals that we are friends with outside of our marriage are also friends with our partners. So my boyfriend is friends with my husband. My husband’s girlfriend is friends with me. So we have a tantric connection to each individual that we have an intimate partnership with.
BV: That’s a very evolved way of thinking, but it still can’t be easy knowing that your mate now has another lover. How did you adjust?
KS: Yes, there’s a big adjustment period and we’re still in it. We’re very comfortable right now, three years in, but for the first year it was very, very rough because we’re discarding all of these notions and ideas like jealousy. We’re replacing jealously with ideas like compersion – the state of being actually joyous and excited if your partner is receiving pleasure and happiness outside your union.
So replacing jealousy with compersion was a big, big thing for us. We’re at the point now where we’re actually very happy when our partner is satisfied outside our union. And we’re very happy when we receive satisfaction with each other.
BV: You spent the majority of your marriage as a monogamous couple. How do you become joyous and excited that your spouse is with another when your habits have been the complete opposite of that?
CS: You have to be willing to ask, ‘why do I have a problem with the way someone wants to live their life, even if it is somebody that I am married to?’ Or, ‘where is the source of my anger, mistrust and jealousy coming from?’ If you’re willing to do that analysis on yourself and really be introspective, what you’ll find is that it comes from the cultural bias that we’ve been implanted with by society.
It comes from us not being in touch with our own selves. So when you’re willing to do that, that will bring you back around to being more at a place where you can express love for other people, be happy for other people, be OK with their choices and not feel offended or threatened.
BV: You have three children under the age of 12. Do they understand your lifestyle arrangement? What’s their reaction?
CS: We basically talk to them openly about our lifestyle. We include them in it in terms of communication and they may meet our partners. The only negative effect I see is their being judged by other children or adults who want to pass judgment upon Kenya and I. I think overall, it’s a positive thing for our children because they understand they can actually make a choice. They can live the lifestyle they want to live. They don’t have to follow tradition or follow the ‘cultural norm.’
BV: Are you worried about your children thinking open relationships are the norm and then finding themselves perpetually single because the other half of their partnerships aren’t down for sharing?
CS: I don’t have any worries about that. One of the essential things that we teach people is that you create your life. We think that our children will feel empowered to create the relationships that they want in life because everything we do is based on the law of attraction. So if they can’t find a partner who is aligned with their belief system then they probably would have some internal doubts about themselves or internal guilt about something.
BV: What about your other family members, how are they responding to your current marital status?
KS: Our parents didn’t really approve at first. But they see we’re going to live this lifestyle whether they approve or not. And it’s really their choice if they’re going to accept it or not. Fortunately for us, they did accept it.
BV: You discuss your open marriage in radio personality Michael Baisden’s upcoming documentary, “Do Women Know What They Want?” Why did you decide to speak publicly about your open marriage?
CS: We started doing relationship coaching in 2005 so we were already in a mode where we were open about sharing our lives. That was our whole approach when teaching couples about monogamy. Kenya started being open about her relationships on her blog and when the open relationship came along she started writing about it along with her other relationship experiences. Also, Michael Baisden approached us about being a part of his documentary.
BV: What has been some of the feedback you’ve received about open marriage from the African American community?
CS: We get a lot of feedback that’s against open marriages, but at the same time, I think there’s a very large group of people out there who understand that the current institution of marriage does not work. And instead, we need to focus on more of a universal love concept and focus on not being victims in our own lives. I think those people are open to the concept of an open marriage because basically they understand they create their life and have control of it. If a person isn’t used to being open and honest in a monogamous relationship and is used to playing games there’s no way they will be able to conceive of an open relationship that’s built on trust and honesty.
BV: Given the often dire statistics reported about marriage and infidelity relating to African Americans, is this a lifestyle choice that more of them should consider?
KS: I don’t think that this is a lifestyle choice that will benefit African Americans any more than monogamy will. What I do feel is that it will expand our awareness and aid us in really coming out of a system that does not work. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any difficulties coming into a new system.
If we are able to make a real transition where we really feel that we don’t have to own our partner, we don’t have to own his penis, we don’t have to own her vagina, if we actually get to that point, and we will find the benefits of that type of thinking. But it’s a journey that I won’t claim to be easy.
BV: What are some of the joys and advantages that you’ve experienced as participants in an open marriage?
CS: It’s brought Kenya and I closer. We’re able to talk about things that we didn’t imagine we would be talking about, like our experiences with our other partners or things that we like or dislike on an intimate level. That’s been a big benefit for us.
KS: I feel very much more connected and more fearless. I feel free in my sensuality and happier on a daily basis. I feel like I have choices, options. I feel like I’m more willing to work things out with my husband because we have a real relationship based on truth and authenticity. Most people who are married do not have a choice or an option –ever – for the next 50 or 80 years to relate with someone of the opposite sex really intimately or emotionally. That’s what we vehemently dispute.
BV: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced as an open marriage couple?
CS: We’re still trying to get through some earlier feelings we have around jealousy.
BV: Kenya, last July you and Carl spent time with your respective lovers. Please tell me about that experience.
KS: We spent the entire month of July with our significant others. Our kids go away every summer to my parents’ home so we decided to spend last summer with our significant others. It was good. I was in New York and Carl was in Mississippi. Carl and I talked every day. We coordinated with each other every day and communicated with each other.
BV: You obviously are OK with the other staying away overnight. Do you have any guidelines that you follow in your open marriage?
KS: The most important thing is trust, which is really our only rule. I trust my husband to protect our family, to protect my heart, to protect himself and to be the type of person who will be a viable husband for years to come. He expects and trusts the same things in me. We don’t have rules like ‘you can’t stay out late’ or ‘you can only go out on these days.’
BV: Speaking of protection, some may wonder if this lifestyle puts you at risk for contracting diseases?
KS: We don’t have that concern because we protect ourselves. We use many different forms of protection based on what we think is necessary. There is using a condom, which is a very good idea if you want to have that form of physical protection. There’s the idea that you are spiritually protected, meaning that you are not prone to a disease. And there’s also the option not to engage in intercourse. We have used all three of those options.
BV: Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee tried an open marriage but later decided monogamy was a better option for them. Do you think you’ll always have an open marriage?
KS: I hope so. I don’t know what would change or make it different. You never know what life is going to bring.
Carl and Kenya Stevens, who authored ‘Tame Your Woman‘ and ‘Change Your Man,’ respectively, are love coaches who blog about their experiences atwww.JuJuMamaBlog.com, where they also operate JuJuMama’s Love Academy
By Aisha I Jefferson/Black Voices