New York City has had some colorful characters as mayor. There was Fiorello La Guardia, a Republican who sponsored pro-union legislation; James John Walker, who loved fancy suits, women, speakeasies, and bribes in equal measure; Michael Bloomberg, who got into the weeds of civic policy from the manicured grounds of billionaire life; and, of course, Rudy Giuliani, with his dizzying journey from champion to chumpion. Bill de Blasio was not one of those mayors.
But now it appears de Blasio might make history after all, as the first New York City mayor to decide to open up his marriage and talk about it in detail in a big newspaper. On July 5, the New York Times revealed that de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, have decided to separate, but still live together. Their union was thwarted, they said, partly by the stresses of politics and in particular de Blasio’s quixotic run for President but also, well, it was complicated.
For many, the de Blasio-McCray marriage was a beacon of what family values among progressives could look like. They were an interracial couple, both career-minded and smart, she was six years older than he, and she had identified as a lesbian when they met, and they made it work. Their new chapter seems again to be stretching the traditional model of marriage. They are not divorcing, nor at this stage moving out, but they are exploring the process of dating other people. (It’s unclear if either of them has started yet.)
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The term of art for this arrangement is “consensual non-monogamy.” Therapists say they’ve heard a lot more about it in the last decade. “Over the 17 years that I’ve seen couples, I’ve definitely seen a rise in the last few years,” says Tracy Dalgleish, a clinical therapist in Ottawa, Canada, and the author of the forthcoming book about marital malaise I Didn’t Sign Up for This. “It is being discussed more frequently, and it is a topic that I think has existed beforehand, but perhaps people are more openly sharing about this now.”
Martha Kauppi, a Madison, Wisconsin-based therapist who specializes in non-monogamous and polyamorous couples, trains others on counseling clients about the issue. “It’s definitely a growing thing,” she says. “I’ve been getting questions about it for many years in my own private practice, and have overflowed, which is why I teach therapists to work with it, so I can do a referral.” She adds that a large chunk of her clients have been married, as de Blasio and McCray have, for 25 years or more.
Most therapists say such relationships are workable but take a lot of effort, openness, and communication. “The successful ones do it with care and with thoughtfulness,” says Stan Tatkin, a Los Angeles-based therapist and researcher whose latest book is In Each Other’s Care. He says it’s important to have discussions about “what could go wrong, and what do we do if it does, and how are we going to do this so that we remain intact.” The couple has to work out how to make sure they don’t hurt each other and often the levels of honesty and responsibility have to be just as high, if not higher, as in monogamous couples. “They both have to be really on board and have to be thoughtful,” says Tatkin. “And there has to be rigorous honesty and vetting.”
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Many couples who try to date while married do not realize how laborious it will be. “If this is truly a situation where the couple has mutually decided to open their relationship, then it’s a boon that de Blasio has time on his hands, because these relationships tend to require a great deal of time-consuming and emotional conversation in order to work out well for both people,” says Daphne De Marneffe, a therapist from San Francisco and author of The Rough Patch.
Others advise against it for exactly that reason, especially with high-profile marriages, which are already tricky to maintain. “I caution against adopting this ideology due to the fact that it only complicates an already complex unit,” says Bridgette Reed, a marriage and family therapist from Dallas. “The more people you add to that unit, the more complicated it becomes and the more strain you put on the relationship long-term.”
For those who are interested in exploring it, however, Kauppi starts by working with clients on three skills, which she says help with what’s known as self-differentiation. “One is being able to get in connection with yourself, look inside of yourself and figure out what you think, feel, desire, prefer, believe, separate from what anybody else wants you to think or feel or desire,” she says. “The second is to be able to do that and then share it with someone else, even if you think it’s going to be hard for them to hear. And then the third is to be able to stay grounded and curious when someone else is telling you something about themselves, their preferences, their desires, that’s hard for you to hear.”
Kauppi believes that until couples can see and understand their own and each other’s desires clearly, they will not be able to abide by any agreements they may otherwise make just to avoid a conflict. She gets her clients to ask such questions as “How did you get this idea and why does it feel relevant? How do you imagine it working for me? Can you think of some ways that could make our relationship better or is this really just a thing that you want and you haven’t really thought through how it would affect our connection?”
One of the main reasons couples open their relationship, say therapists, is they have what’s known as a “desire discrepancy,” in which one person would like to have sex more often than the other. “The higher-desire partner is not having their sexual needs fulfilled, and so they are looking at ways to maintain this core relationship while also then connecting and exploring with other people,” says Dalgleish. But often therapists find that the issue they’re trying to address is not the one that is at the heart of the problems in their union, which could be that the couple is not as securely attached as they think they are.
Those couples who are securely attached may weather non-monogamy better than others. “Security means we trust each other, we can share difficult things, we can have hard conversations, we can set boundaries, we are differentiated, we have healthy interdependence,” says Dalgleish.
Despite the unusual openness of de Blasio and McCray, nobody really knows what concerns are at play in any marriage. “People sometimes [separate but live together] when they don’t know what they feel,” says de Marneffe. “They don’t want to decisively leave the marriage, but they are opening the door to the possibility of that eventuality.” The former mayor and his wife are just old enough to be considered boomers, a generation for whom the so-called gray divorce—splitting in your later years after decades of marriage—has been a huge trend. “Women, mainly, start to feel, ‘I don’t want this anymore,’” says Tatkin, referring to the still unequal burden borne by women around the household and child-rearing duties. “People look back and they see that they’ve been living a life that has been unfair.”
Tatkin also believes political campaigns and careers are particularly brutal on marriages. “A couple comes to me and he’s getting into politics, and now his people are telling her how to dress and how to talk and they are protecting their client,” he says, comparing the power imbalance to a stepfamily, where there are two claims on a spouse’s attention and loyalty. “We see [marital discord] a lot in politicians after they stop serving,” says Tatkin. Family members toe the line while the candidate is in office, but as soon as he or she is out, there’s a lot of reevaluation.
Therapists, who caution that they mostly see couples who are struggling, do not find consensual non-monogamy to be a cure-all for a marriage that is in a jam. “In my clinical experience, I’ve not seen opening up the relationship help couples and I have seen it lead to separations,” says Dalgleish. But she has seen the suggestion made by one partner act as a kind of wake-up call to the other partner that their lover is deeply unhappy. “I have also seen it lead to a strengthening in a relationship when couples have decided to then do something different.”