Why Open Marriages Sometimes Work
Open marriage is not for everyone. Neither is monogamy.
Posted September 7, 2011
Recently, another blogger on this site wrote a piece taking a stand against open marriages. If someone had written a similar piece about homosexuality I think the editorial board would have had to make another apology. While there is generally a grain of truth in any point of view, it's unfortunate that someone claiming to be an expert and a professional has painted such a distorted picture of open marriage. No doubt she has good intentions but she is poor informed, most likely because her information comes from clients who are seeking help with infidelity and failing marriages. I am the first to admit that polyamorous relationships have their fair share of dysfunction, but there are also many healthy and happy open marriages.
Rarely does an open marriage mean that the individuals have sex with whomever they want whenever they want without any consideration for the feelings and preferences of their mate. And contrary to the outdated image of patriarchal polygamy, most of the leadership in the modern polyamory movement worldwide has come from women.
For example, some good friends of mine recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. I've known them for about 20 of those 50 years. I can assure you that not only are they very capable of attachment, and very "special" to each other, they have each had other loves and other sexual partners over the years. While they may have struggled with jealousy at times, I think they would both tell you that they would not have missed the depth and richness of experiencing intimacy with others. Few couples are fortunate to have such a creative, expansive, and productive partnership. And you don't have to take my word for it - they've recently published a book reviewing their shared half a century of marriage called CO-CREATION: FIFTY YEARS IN THE MAKING which you can preview at tp://www.independenteye.org/print.html
There are many other high functioning open couples, polyamorous singles, and a sprinkling of triads and group marriages I've written about in Polyamory in the 21st Century, and while we all need support at times, I doubt that any of these folks would be inclined to end up in the office of a therapist or marriage counselor who has a pro-monogamy bias.
While many people do choose their partners solely on the basis of sexual attraction, those who are more aware realize that sex alone is not a strong basis for a committed, long term partnership. Those who are more conscious also realize that commitment and fidelity are not synonymous with monogamy and they know the difference between healthy bonding and codependency.
Furthermore, despite the precepts of attachment theory, some people do seem to have the discipline to place limits on their involvement with others outside of a committed couple. This style of relating doesn't appeal to me or to many polyamorous couples for whom the whole point of intimacy with others is to develop bonded relationships that go beyond the couple, but this only goes to show that we humans are an extraordinarily diverse species, with differing capacities for attachment ranging from none to one at a time, to several simultaneously. So far as I can tell there is no universal hard wiring when it comes to sex and relationships, other than the wish to love and be loved.
A baby who has only one "primary" caretaker is at risk for all kinds of psychological disturbances. We now understand that having at least one nurturing figure is necessary for babies to thrive because without this their health is jeopardized even if they have adequate food and warmth. But if one caretaker is sufficient to support life, many are recognizing that two or more are needed to develop our full potential. This understanding is reflected in the tribal wisdom that "it takes a village to raise a child." We have lived in this relationally impoverished way for so long that many people accept it as normal, but this doesn't make it so. My sense is that children who feel special to several loving adults are better able to bond with a partner in adulthood and at the same time much less inclined to cling to a single significant other, whether or not they choose monogamy.
Anyone who comes to me for relationship coaching with a situation where he or she wants to open their marriage while their spouse does not will hear the suggestion that they invite their spouse to take a lover before they do so themselves. Often this invitation is not received enthusiastically, and should never be proposed as a demand, but the very idea of it inevitably brings forward feelings from both partners that help them to have more compassion and understanding of the other's point of view and often leads to breakthroughs on both sides.
The reality is that we all have inner desires for both monogamy and non-monogamy and projecting the shadow side that we don't identify with onto a partner will only result in conflict and judgments. Rather I advise people to resolve this split within themselves before telling others what to do.