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Can a Sexual 'Hall Pass' Be Good for a Long-term Relationship?

Some couples see sex — with someone else — as a means of staying together

AARP relationship experts Dr. Pepper Schwartz and Michael Castleman examine the up- and downsides of granting a mate a free ticket to sexual adventure — with someone else.

Couple in hotel room. Should you consider a hall-pass for your marriage?

Non-monogamy happens — but is it smart to build it into a marriage? — Alamy

Dr. Pepper Schwartz:
I was flipping channels the other night when I came across the nearly unwatchable Hall Pass (2011), a simpleminded movie with an even simpler premise: When the partners in a long-term marriage get sexually antsy, they start fantasizing — seriously fantasizing — about strangers.

And they become obsessed with the question, “Will I ever have sex with anyone but my wife/husband before I die?”

Two suburban dads, Rick and Fred (played by Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis), get the chance to find out when their wives, Maggie and Grace (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate), grant them a once-in-a-marriage “hall pass” — a weeklong free ticket to sexual adventure. Their rationale seems to be that a lighthearted fling might forestall an actual affair. Also implied is the notion that a good marriage should be able to withstand this sort of sexual generosity.

What do I think? I think they’re playing with fire.

No matter how casual its immediate lustful attraction, sex often develops into an emotional bond — one that could threaten the original couple. I also believe that most people are way more territorial than they let on. They can easily imagine themselves handling a free night out, but it’s nearly impossible for them to visualize their partner in the throes of passion with someone else.

“Let’s be honest here,” you might reasonably say. “Lots of people have a sexcapade without their partner discovering it. Wouldn’t it be more honest — more respectful — to be open with each other?”

Um, no. Toby Keith summed it up nicely when he wrote, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” His line gets at the truism that secrets may be a good thing: Even if both parties agreed to the experiment ahead of time, learning what happened in the sex lab can haunt one or both spouses so much that it destroys the relationship. Isn’t that what nearly scuttled Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore’s marriage in Indecent Proposal? (Your own hall pass, of course, is unlikely to feature a million-dollar proposition from Robert Redford.)

So consider the potential emotional fallout from getting, or granting, a hall pass of your own: Regardless of what the two of you consent to in advance, you could easily find yourselves unable to handle the emotional wreckage of your own hearts.

That said, I feel honor bound to report that I’ve seen a hall pass or two invoked without catastrophe.

One couple in a very long marriage confided to me that they had always followed a “5 percent privacy” rule — a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that freed each of them to devote one night in 20 to whatever they wished to do. This time off could include having sex outside the relationship, but it remained unknowable to (and inviolable by) the other party.

Their arrangement worked beautifully for more than 40 years. Then came the rocky night when it emerged that the husband had always viewed the pact as purely theoretical, whereas his wife had been putting it into regular practice. Though shocked to learn that his wife had been redeeming her hall pass, he was forced to simmer down when she reminded him that he had agreed to this state of affairs four decades earlier. The 5 percent clause was kept in place. The relationship stayed strong and happy.

Still, I can’t help wondering: What if that man hadn’t reacted so graciously when he learned that philosophy had morphed into reality? Theirs was, and is, a swell marriage — but what if that hall pass had become a “Hell, no!”?

If my position sounds conservative, it’s because I’m dedicated to conserving happy couples. I understand the desire for sexual variety and adventure. But I also think it’s impossible to know how we would react if we agreed to a hall pass — and it actually happened.

So, alluring as it is, I have to say “pass” on the hall pass. Loyalty and exclusiveness build the trust and commitment that a relationship needs to endure. Non-monogamy happens, sure — but to build it into a marriage is way too risky.

Michael Castleman: I recently watched Hall Pass, too. Like Pepper, I found it eminently forgettable. But with all due respect to monogamy, it’s not the only way.

Polygamy was common in the Bible. In ancient Britain, that well-known sex commentator Julius Caesar reported that its counterpart, polyandry (one woman, several men), was a common practice. And the Lusi of Papua, New Guinea, believe that healthy fetal development requires pregnant women to have intercourse with many men.

Finally, some cultures have standing free-for-alls: In 1985, anthropologist Thomas Gregor counted 88 active sexual relationships among the 37 adults of a single village in the Amazon.

Non-monogamy occurs in urban tribes, too. Most U.S. cities harbor sex clubs or swing clubs. The former are open to anyone; the latter are open to couples and single women. And don’t even get me started on Craigslist Personals, where couples advertise for threesomes, partner swaps and group sex.

Strict monogamists claim that non-monogamy "can’t work." And while a hall pass is risky, as Pepper points out, it’s also true that committing to a relationship is a risk — a big risk, given that one-half of all marriages fail. This explains why some couples consider it more of a risk to insist on monogamy and create the conditions for secret affairs than to grant a hall pass every now and then.

I happen to know four long-term couples who have been happily non-monogamous for decades — and I like to think it’s not just because I live in California.

One couple is mostly monogamous, but the woman spends a long weekend each month with her “secondary man,” who lives an hour’s drive away. A second couple is usually monogamous, but every year the man arranges for another man (or two) to join them to celebrate the woman’s birthday — in bed. With a third couple, the two spouses are monogamous at home but grant each other hall passes when they travel solo for business. With a fourth, each spouse has a “secondary” (or two) who lives nearby. Each partner is allowed to visit his or her secondary about once a month or when the spouse is out of town.

“I’m in love only with my husband,” the woman in this fourth couple says. “And my husband is in love only with me. But we enjoy playing outside our marriage, usually with people we both know socially, sometimes with people one of us knows from work.”

As you may have gathered, these couples do not regard a hall pass or its variants as cheating — so long as one spouse secures the other’s advance consent to be “excused from class.”

So is a hall pass a harmless fidelity furlough or a certain ticket to tears?

I believe there’s no right or wrong way to be coupled or to manage one’s marriage — there’s merely what works best for the two people involved. Arrangements that work well may look bizarre to outsiders. But if strict monogamy is not your cup of tea, I say it’s fine to brew up something else.

Read more from Dr. Pepper Schwartz and Michael Castleman.

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