Open Marriages Are Not The Future, And That’s A Good Thing

Couple kissing at sunset near water
Couple kissing at sunset near water

Why aren’t you in an open relationship yet? Carla Bruni Sarkozy, wife of ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, famously “prefers polygamy and polyandry.” Reveal magazine quoted Will Smith as saying that he and wife Jada Pinkett-Smith allow each other extra-marital dalliances. Oprah did a segment on open marriages. And both YourTango contributor Jenny Block and Village Voice sex columnist Tristan Taormino have brand new books out on open relationships. 

All of this talk of free love is enough to make women who prefer old-fashioned monogamy feel a bit, well, old-fashioned. But if history can teach us anything, the open relationship bandwagon will come and go, which is a good thing because most women still benefit from and prefer monogamy.

Why? Women still generally do more work in relationships than men do and openness requires even more diligence than a regular relationship; women are taught to care more about relationships and risk more for them than men, so non-monogamy raises the stakes more for us. And, despite today’s female open relationship proponents, it’s men who typically initiate and prefer non-monogamy.

People yearn for sexual variety, and now that we live longer than ever, it’s unrealistic to imagine a couple staying together fifty years without a single affair.

And in fact, statistics show twenty percent of men and thirteen percent of women cheat on their spouse. But open relationships are not the solution, says Ayala Pines, psychologist and author of Romantic Jealousy, because jealousy and envy are just as hardwired as monogamy. 

Only a third of monogamous marriages survive cheating because of the jealousy and lingering sense of betrayal, says Pines. And the success rate for open relationships is not any better for similar reasons. “In my experience with open relationships,” she says, “the couple goes back to monogamy or else to illicit affairs. Or, it ends in divorce.”

Another reason why open relationships don’t work in practice for a lot of women is because they’re simply too time-consuming. Block is up front about the work involved in juggling a husband and a girlfriend.

An excerpt of her book on Huffingtonpost.comLife In An Open Marriage: The Four (Not-So-Easy) Steps prompted one HuffPo commenter to say, “I’m exhausted just reading about all the ‘work’ and never-ending ‘communication’ about feelings, situations, jealousy, worry, etc. It all sounds like much more effort than its worth (IMO).”

Likewise, Taormino’s Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships is an intimidating 300 pages, in which the kind of person who is successful at non-monogamy is described as someone committed to knowing themselves “on a deep level,” a process she says might include “psychotherapy and counseling, reading, writing, journaling, blogging, attending workshops and peer support groups, meditation, and various spiritual practices.”

While the idea of openness may be appealing to some women, it’s hard to imagine many of us finding the time to juggle a second relationship. Especially those of us with careers and children.

Open relationships  are being billed as the wave of the future, but they’ve actually gone in and out of style every few decades, never becoming more than a fringe movement. According to Susan Squire, author of I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage, “there have been experiments of mate-swapping in the 19th century and again in the 70s and in a few Utopian societies, but it never seems to stick. It doesn’t work or only works for a short period of time. Then, history cycles, marriage cycles, and everything repeats itself.” 

The last time open marriages (often known as polyandry, free love, friends with benefits, et al were in vogue was during the sexual revolution of the late sixties and seventies. In 1972, the landmark book Open Marriage, documented Nena and George O’Neill’s attempts to redefine marriage and open up their relationship to other partners. It was a runaway bestseller and, like today, promoted the impression that open marriages were the way of the future. By 1977, Nena O’Neill had published The Marriage Premise, which argued that fidelity was not such a bad thing after all.

Squire herself got caught up in what she calls “the five minutes of open relationships” in the seventies. In her first marriage, she says, “we did this thing where we had to tell each other but we could fuck whoever we wanted. Did it work? No. I remember him calling me to tell me he was drinking with some woman, and saying ‘I’m going to go sleep with some woman, do you mind?’ Of course I minded. When faced with that, I wasn’t into it. And the reverse was true as well.”

Pines brings up another X factor of open relationships. Despite all the progress of feminism, she says “women are still socialized to care more about relationships and desire commitment more than men.” Just consider the multi-billion dollar wedding industry and the success of happily-ever-after rom-coms and shows like Sex and the City.

We are also more likely to devote our lives to children, family, and spouse. In short, the stakes are higher if there’s to be an emotional fallout from an open relationship. In Woody Allen’s ménage a trois flick Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Javier Bardem’s character is flagrantly trying to bed three women. The women agree, but Vicky falls in love with him, and is tormented. And Christina agrees to merely being the extra “salt” in the relationship between Bardem and jealous ex-wife Maria Elena.

Bardem is unflappable. Everyone in the theater laughs knowingly — for Bardem it’s about sex. But the women always seem to have a little too much invested, a little too much to lose.

And this isn’t just the stuff of a Woody Allen fantasy. Men are typically the ones who initiate open relationships. According to a 2016 survey, 1 in 5 out of almost 9,000 single people say that they have been in an open relationship at least once in their lives. The gender gap is due partially to the sexual habits of gay men, who are more likely than women or straight men to be in non-monogamous arrangements.

But, it’s also that “men tend to prefer open relationships more than women do,” says Pines, who has decades of clinical and research experience on the subject, “because their preference for casual sex far exceeds women’s.”

It’s intriguing that Block and Taormino, two of today’s loudest advocates for open relationships, are women. Historically, it’s been men who’ve advocated for polyandry and men who’ve benefited. “In the ancient world, men were never expected to be faithful,” says Squire.

And women were severely punished for extra-marital affairs primarily because it threatened patrilineal culture, where the paternity of a child would be in question if the woman strayed. In the last three or four centuries, the Lutheran marriage model of sexual fidelity has become the standard, which has given women a more equal stake in {{ romantic }} partnerships.

Sure, some women are able to tinker with this arrangement and come out on top, but for many of us there’s a sense that this is part of the battle of the sexes we’re not winning.

So if you’re feeling like a fuddy-duddy for not wanting two lovers, remember this open relationship thing is a fad, and, as history has shown us, this too shall pass.

And while it may seem like non-monogamy is feminism’s natural next step, the fact is that women largely prefer one partner, and we enjoy putting time and emotion into our primary relationship.

There’s not enough reason for us to change our ideas about what makes a satisfying love life, just to get on board with a time-consuming relationship model.

Originally written by Elizabeth Cline on YourTango

Featured image via Frank Mckenna on Unsplash


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