Open Marriage, Healthy Marriage?

New research shows open marriages are healthier and happier

Posted Jan 04, 2011

Current research and views of Western marriage support the idea that an open marriage, supporting the growth and development of the individuals within a marriage, creates the healthiest environment for a happy, long-term relationship.

Arthur Aron and Gary Lewandowski are psychologists who recently published research about the things that make healthy marriages last. They found that qualities such as healthy communication, social support and mental well-being contributed most to making marriages last. But, these things didn't predict how happy a marriage was. Instead, the degree to which a marriage, and one's marital partner, helped an individual grow as a person, and expand themselves, was the single variable most predictive of that person's judgment of their marriage. In other words, people who feel that their husband or wife has helped them to grow as a person, to learn new things, to become a better, different person, are most likely to view their marriage as a positive, healthy and vibrant thing.

When Nena and George O'Neill wrote their book, Open Marriage, the media and society grabbed onto a small piece of their concept, the idea that married partners might have sex with people other than their spouse. In later writings, the O'Neill's expressed regret over this, and the fact that the term "open marriage" was now synonymous with sexual nonmonogamy. The O'Neill's were writing at the end of an era when women had been returned to the kitchen, after working in the factories during World War II. During the Fifties, American culture strongly asserted the value of the traditional marriage, where a wife stayed home and the husband went to work. A wife and husband were supposed to be everything to one another, to satisfy each other's every need. Best friend, soul mate, confidant, bedmate, all wrapped into one pretty, neat, tidy package.

But, this is a stifling, growth-retarding package and recipe for a relationship. Fifty years ago, the O'Neills argued that healthy marriages were ones that recognized the need for individual growth of each person in the marriage. And growth comes from encountering and reacting to new things, new ideas, and new people. Rather than expecting people to grow, trapped in a fishbowl with one other person, the O'Neills said that husbands and wives needed relationships and experiences with people other than their spouses. Not necessarily sexual or intimate relationships either, but even just friendships, and professional relationships. Experiences that help each person to continue a lifetime of growth, in partnership with their spouse.

The lovely thing about the recent research by Aron and Lewandowski is their support of the underlying concept that a healthy, happy marriage is one that is comprised of two healthy, happy individuals. Health and happiness are driven by growth, not stagnation. A healthy marriage is thus one that provides a stable, safe "home base" for each partner to venture out from, acquiring new experiences, and bringing them back home to digest and grow. Before Socrates died, the story goes, he was reading a book about plant cultivation. A student asked him why he was bothering to do so, when he was condemned to die in a few hours. "Because," he said, "When I stop learning, that is when I die." Marriages are the same; when the people in them stop growing, that is when a marriage begins to die.

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