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Are Open Marriages Psychologically Healthy for Couples?

Eye-opening new research on alternative relationships.

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I was recently interviewed for a New York Times article by Tammy La Gorce that portrayed the long-term open marriage of the actress Mo’Nique and her husband Sidney Hicks. The couple maintains that it works for them, despite the criticism and disbelief they often encounter. La Gorce’s article quoted my views about open marriage—what it means, and whether it “works,” from a psychological perspective.

Because my views contrasted sharply with some of the others cited, especially those of Helen Fisher of the Kinsey Institute, I’m elaborating on them here.

First, the open marriage is just the current version of what became more visible in the early ‘70s through the book, The Open Marriage, and the popular movie, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Overall, it’s part of a much broader shift, or evolution, underway today, toward a sense of greater freedom to create and be open about different forms of intimate relationships—ones that people define for themselves as desirable and satisfying.

Increasingly, men and women seek to create and maintain an intimate relationship that they experience as fulfilling and meaningful—and that they define themselves, not by others or conventional norms. How their relationships evolve down the road, over time, is something they will assess and judge for themselves. And we can see what the evidence shows.

It’s wise to suspend judgment, especially about psychological health, when views about the latter are contaminated by ideology or shared values and norms. As you grow through the adult years in a changing, increasingly diverse society, a broadened perspective enables you to realize that life can be complex, and can work differently for different people.

For example, Kim (not her real name) a divorced woman in her 40s, explained to me that she maintains a satisfying relationship with a man who also has a lifelong, supportive connection with the woman who is the mother of his three children. They find it works for them, given their life circumstances. And we can judge them from our own perspectives and life choices—or observe and respect what works for them.

To understand why some men and women may choose different kinds of relationships (open marriage is just one variety) we need to see them within that larger context—the variety of ways that people explore different kinds of emotional and sexual relationships. That includes evolving views about what defines “family,” as well as couplehood.

Take polyamory, for example, in which people have multiple partnerships at once with the full knowledge of all involved. There’s even an annual conference for polyamory and research finding that some polyamorous people report feeling energized by their multiple relationships—they say that good feelings in one translate to good feelings in others.

The open marriage is now usually described as a consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationship. And some recent research finds that up to 40 percent of men and up to 25 percent of women in a monogamous relationship said they would switch to a CNM if they lived in a world where everyone had open relationships. In fact, the research finds a continuum along which some people are completely monogamous, others are completely nonmonogamous, and many more are somewhere in between.

Many couples prefer permanent cohabitation, rather than marriage, and may refer to each other as “husband” or “wife,” despite not being formal married. And they are comfortable maintaining this form of relationship while raising children. They may view marriage as not so much a path to happiness but simply a legal contract “that doesn’t innately legitimize a commitment” — and which they don’t need.

Some even suggest that polygamy will become increasingly accepted as a form of relationship, and that it may become the next frontier in marriage and family law. The reasoning is that if states are able allowing two men or two women to wed, then the next step could be to decriminalize marriage between one man and several women (or vice versa).

How people define their families is yet another dimension of evolving relationships, as people’s intimate partnerships impact what “family” really means. The family has become increasingly more diverse—ethnically, racially, religiously and in what couplehood looks like within it—according to new studies.

Critics of such shifts and the experimental forms of relationship they reflect are frozen within an ideological or personal viewpoint. Consider Fisher’s comments in the New York Times article asserting that open marriages “…never end up working long-term"; that the reasons are “biological”; and that “open marriages establish all kinds of unworkable rules for what is and isn’t allowed....They’re people who want it all: to preserve their deep attachment to one partner and have romance with others. But what they don’t tell you is that our brains don’t do that very well.”

However, there’s no evidence for Fisher’s assertions, as relationship columnist Dan Savage explained in detail in his recent essay about the Times article. Assertions like Fisher’s are personal and ideological convictions, not science.

Returning to the Times article, Mo’Nique and Hicks say they believe they have the foundation for a union that will last. “Defining what makes a marriage work is like asking one’s interpretation of success,” Hicks said. “It’s defined a different way by every person you ask.” Mo’Nique said: “For us, it’s defined by openness and not fear. What we have is real and honest.”

Their comments reflect the actual experiences of people. They highlight the importance of understanding and learning from the psychological and social experiences of what people are actually doing—and being open to what those experiences reveal over time about the range of relationships that can support positive lives and wellbeing among people in our continuously evolving world.

Progressive Impact

Center for Progressive Development

© 2016 Douglas LaBier

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