Robin Rinaldi finally felt like a "satisfied wife": Two lovers and a third new date were texting her in the bathroom of an upscale restaurant, while her husband paid their $400 bill at the table.
Rinaldi shares the anecdote in her somewhat maddening new memoir The Wild Oats Project: One Woman's Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost, which traces her one-year experiment trying out an open marriage. After her husband Scott gets a vasectomy, Rinaldi uses it as a bargaining chip to take on sexual partners outside their relationship: "I can't go to my grave a quiet, childless wife with no adventures" is her rationale.
In 2008, Rinaldi was a 44-year-old magazine editor in swinging-happy San Francisco. She posted a personal ad on Nerve.com (the grandpa of Tinder) "seeking single men age 35-50 to help me explore my sexuality." Between Mondays and Fridays, she sequestered herself in a studio apartment and later at an "urban commune" called OneTaste, that hosts hands-on orgasm meditation sessions in which "research partners" are tasked with "quietly stroking a woman's clitoris for 15 minutes."
Over the course of the year, Rinaldi took 12 lovers, returning to her husband on weekends so they could make dinner and do brunch. Husband and wife set just three rules for their open relationship: No unsafe sex, no serious involvements and no sleeping with mutual friends. They promptly broke all the rules, eventually divorcing after she shacked up with one of her paramours.
Critics have not been kind, dissing Rinaldi's self-empowerment tour as an exercise in narcissism. Meanwhile, most of the women the author encounters tell her she's "brave." Rinaldi does show glimmers of self-awareness, solidly mining the very real competing desires that marrieds have for security versus novelty ("I don't think you should stay in a relationship that's not working any more because of some dictum you have about monogamy," she says flatly).
It's too bad such plain talk gets lost in a book plagued by insufferable New Agey-isms (Exhibit A: "My clitoris … dealt solely in truth"). The Globe spoke with Rinaldi from Los Angeles.
How did you and your husband hammer out the logistics of an open marriage?
When you've been with someone for a long time monogamously it's very scary to talk about opening that up. We were trying to think of a way so that we wouldn't be breaking up because we still wanted to spend time together. We decided on part-time away and part-time together, on the weekends. That way we could have a little space to experiment but also keep our marriage going. If you're leaving or cheating, you're letting go of a lot of security.
We constructed this balance of a secure, domestic life on the weekends and this freer, more adventurous life during the week. For a while, we both had our cake and ate it too. It's hard to do and usually you have to pay for it. In the end, of course, we did.
Did you and your husband ever consider swinging together?
No, neither of us were attracted to that option at all. I don't judge it; it just didn't appeal to either of us.
We felt for us it would have to be a don't ask, don't tell policy.
What was it like coming home on the weekends to your spouse?
You would think it would feel extremely strange or upsetting but it wasn't. I was relieved to be home. We didn't have a bad marriage. I missed him during the week and I think he missed me too.
In a relatively happy marriage, why did you seek out other sexual partners?I hadn't sowed enough oats before I married – no one's fault but mine. And even though my marriage wasn't sexless, I was wanting a different kind of sexual experience in my 40s – more engaged, naughtier and forceful. Loving, married sex is one avenue to a certain essential female experience of feeling safe, contained and tender. But at that point I was seeking a more primal sense of femaleness, which I found very difficult to get within the marriage.
Why did the chemistry with your husband slump further with this freer setup?
At first, it improved. During and after an affair, passion can go up in marital sex because you've created some distance. You're suddenly seeing your spouse from a little further back, the way you used to see him when you didn't know him as well. At first that happened for us.
But when you open it up you're also experiencing lots of other people. You see parts of yourself that perhaps weren't being expressed in the marriage, parts that are much easier to express with other people or just even on your own. What's hard is to put those new versions of yourself back into the marriage as it was. The marriage really then has to change.
There are also threats from the outside, even once you close the marriage back up. My husband stayed friends with a woman he had been seeing and I stayed friends with some of the men I had met. That put chinks in the marriage. And I reconnected with one of those men and that ended the marriage. This is why most people in decent marriages (or even not-so-decent marriages), if they want to stay married, they don't do this for good reason.
You had 12 partners while your husband dated one woman for six months. How did that hurt more?
It was the opposite of what you'd expect a man and a woman to do: We're always told that it's men who want the variety and women who want monogamy. Which one was more dangerous? The one serious relationship is what most would be afraid of their spouse forming because emotional attachment is more serious than sexual attachment.
What conditions make an open relationship work over the long haul?
They're very rare. Most people are not built for it. I wasn't built for it on any long-term basis. From what I've seen in San Francisco, it seemed that the couples who start off that way tend to do better. They're people who aren't big believers in monogamy to begin with. Eventually they may move to monogamy, but they just have much looser parameters around sex. The people who tend not to do fine are people exactly like Scott and me, who were monogamous and conventional for a very long time and then opened it up. That tends to be too much.
What reaction have you gotten for upending your marriage this way, as a wife?
I've been called self-absorbed, narcissistic, selfish. To an extent, that is true. This is a messy, real-life story of a very imperfect woman who was indulging her selfishness. I don't think those kinds of women are likable, as fictional characters and certainly not as real women.
How do you think this book would be received if it were written by a man in midlife crisis?
I think there would have been an equal amount of scorn but of a different variety – people ridiculing it a bit and calling it sexist. When a woman does it the tone of the feedback takes on some shaming.
If you're writing openly about midlife crisis, you're going to get emotional knee-jerk reactions from people who are having their buttons pushed. That's not why I wrote this. It's not just some romp where I'm telling everyone to come along and look at my sexy midlife crisis. There's not just sexuality and rebelliousness in there, there's also panic, guilt, grief and loss.
People write off midlife crisis because it's a cliché but it's a cliché because it's real. The thing that's catalyzing it is very serious: Mortality. When you look at where you want to be at the end, your soul panics. Choices often get messy, destroying what you've built up until that point in your life so that you can reinvent.
Are there things you would have done differently?
If I could go back, I wouldn't change the open marriage, but I would not cheat and I would not lie. I mean it's a no-brainer, isn't it? Don't cheat and don't lie? I learned that lesson the messy way, but now I've learned it.
I wasn't 100-per-cent clear on my rationale for doing things and in part I'm still not. If I said I understood it completely or had it all wrapped up in a pretty bow with life lessons and happy endings, I'd be lying. Life and marriage and desire are messy.
Are you hoping women will be emboldened by your book the way they were by Fifty Shades of Grey?
I want women to take what they can from it and leave the rest. I'm certainly not advocating that they take this route through their midlife crisis but what they can relate to are the thoughts, feelings and contradictory urges that were driving me. I loved my husband very much but I felt that a part of me that was so vital to my soul was going unexpressed in the marriage. What do you do with that choice? I hope women will talk about that in their book clubs and with me. I want this book to be a very serious conversation about sex, marriage, passion, security and life choices.
Are you monogamous with your current boyfriend, or is it ultimately more about serial monogamy?
I don't even know if there's a difference between monogamy and serial monogamy. I hope my current monogamous relationship lasts as long as possible.
I'm sure I'll be monogamous the rest of my life, now that my oats are sown.
This interview has been condensed and edited.