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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.

Next page: AARP sex expert Michael Castleman's take. »

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