So, now the culture warriors at The New York Times Magazine have gifted us with a piece titled “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” This was followed by an umpteen-word piece about couples for whom one of the major sacraments of Christianity (and most other world religions) is now a three-some, four-some or whatever.
I can just hear some folks screaming: “We knew it was going in this direction! Say 'yes' to same-sex marriage, single parenting and it’s down the slippery slope.” I don't quite follow that line of logic, but here we are. You know many people do think that and you also know that many journalists understand there are red-zip-code people who think that.
There's even a movie out called "Open Marriage", but the results of this social experiment aren't as rosy as the magazine imagines they could be.
The article started out with a couple named Daniel and Elizabeth and, how several years into it:
Daniel would think about a radical possibility: opening up their marriage to other relationships. He would poke around on the internet and read about other couples’ arrangements. It was both an outlandish idea and, to him, a totally rational one. He eventually even wrote about it in 2009 for a friend who had a blog about sexuality. “As our culture becomes more accepting of choices outside the norm, non-monogamy will expand as an acceptable choice, and the world will have to change as a result,” he predicted.
He was in his late 30s when he decided to broach the subject with Elizabeth gingerly: Do you ever miss that energy you feel when you’re in love with someone for the first time? They had two children, and he pointed out that having the second did not detract from how much they loved the first one. “Love is additive,” he told her. “It is not finite.” He was not surprised when Elizabeth rejected the idea; he had mostly raised it as a way of communicating the urgency of his needs.
Then Elizabeth gets Parkinson’s disease; she meets another man with similar symptoms and their relationship turns physical.
Now up to this point, the couple has a light relationship with religion. She grew up Catholic and the couple attends a church. It’s no secret what Catholic (or any Christian) doctrine is on adultery but this matters not a whit to her. As for him:
He was suddenly an outsider in his own marriage, scrambling for scraps of information and a sense of control. This was not at all what Daniel had in mind when he proposed opening the marriage. They had not agreed on anything ahead of time; they had not, as a couple, talked about their commitment to each other, about how they would manage and tend to each other’s feelings.
At this point in the article, the reader is asked to fill in a form asking whether one is now or has ever been part of an “open marriage” and to “share your story with us.” I would like to know the response rate on that one. The scene shifts to an author who is investigating this phenomenon and how:
… honesty and transparency, rather than fidelity, were the guiding principles underlying the healthiest of these kinds of marriages. The couples did not perceive their desire to see other people as a symptom of dysfunction but rather as a fairly typical human need that they thought they were up to the challenge of navigating.
Terms have long existed for arrangements similar to those she was seeing — they could fall under the category of polyamory, which involves more than one loving relationship, or the more all-encompassing term, consensual non-monogamy, which also includes more casual sex outside of marriage or a relationship. (The use of each term implies full knowledge of all parties.)
What’s interesting is how the article is illustrated with photos of some of the interviewees, most of whom are sitting on or arranged near a bed. After all, sex and its variants are the guiding principle for this social experiment.
Reading on, I grabbed what few references there were to what religious traditions say about marriage:
In his 2010 book, “The Marriage-Go-Round,” Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, argues that Americans, who are more religious than their counterparts in other wealthy, developed nations, are also more infatuated with marriage. And yet the tradition is nonetheless at odds, he argues, with the country’s emphasis on individualism, a tension that leads to high rates of divorce but also to remarriage, with worrisome outcomes for finances and children. Openness in a marriage, for better or for worse, would seem a natural outgrowth of those conflicting cultural values, especially since same-sex marriage, open adoptions, single-parent homes, and ideas about gender fluidity have already redefined what constitutes a family. Two-thirds of Americans feel that “a growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in” is “a good thing” or “makes no difference,” according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center.
The article says there were problems with finding people willing to go on the record about open marriages.
I could have given that author some ideas. Simply travel to parts of the intermountain West and ask around for the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints folks. Or travel to certain Muslim majority countries where it’s allowed for a man to have up to four wives. After all, Muhammad had at least 11, not including concubines.
That's not quite the same thing but both situations favor men in that it's the man who gets the choice of multiple sex partners. Or consider the household tensions between the biblical patriarch Jacob who was shuttled back and forth between the bedrooms of his two wives and their concubines. Hardly a blissful time.
Outside the religious world, consider Princess Diana’s famous quote about her then-husband Prince Charles’ obsession with Camilla Parker Bowles and how “There was three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” We all know how that "open marriage" ended.
Yes, the piece has definitely gotten some reaction. I caught myself wondering how many people are really doing this and is this mainly a blue-state phenomenon? And was religion not a serious factor in this story because the author felt that voice had nothing new to say?
There were certainly plenty of comments; 1,018 of them as of Friday morning. Some are worth repeating, such as the writer who noted how the interviewees displayed "chronic self-absorption and an adolescent desire for continual new experiences, and 'new energy' sap energy from the primary relationship in my opinion."
"I'm an unabashed liberal," another wrote. "Growing up in the 60s, I remember protesting the Vietnam War. Almost hippie parents. I'm sorry but "open marriage" defiles the concept of marriage. If you want to have an open relationship that's fine by me. Want to sleep with a different person every night? No issues with that. I take huge offense to anyone that would try to distort the institution of marriage to suit their own personal preferences. ... Just don't apply the moniker of marriage to every odd arrangement that comes along.
Finally, there was someone who pointed upwards: "Those of us who are more conservative do believe that it was ordained by a higher power to serve as the basis on which a family is to be built," someone wrote. "And it is this institution of a family that our future generations are being raised. Why bother marrying someone if you are not willing to commit yourself only to them?"
It does seem like the magazine is so eager to pinpoint a trend, no matter how weird, that it's OK if the writer asks few critical questions or delves into how this affects the kids. None were quoted for this piece. And if these sexual arrangements are truly "open," can they be called "marriage?"
Unless it's one more step toward deconstructing marriage itself by making its boundaries so porous, the word no longer has meaning.
I think the article is more bent on exploring ideas and it does say at the end that at least one of the 'open' marriages profiled ended in the original couple divorcing. But it doesn't cover what happens if a child is conceived during one of the extra-marital liaisons and to whom the child would belong.
After finishing the piece, I couldn't help but wonder how a polyamorous arrangement like this could end well. "Jealousy is as cruel as the grave," says the eighth chapter of the Song of Solomon. And the grave is where a lot of these extramarital experiments will end up.