In this third article of the Marital Labyrinth series, published simultaneously at Psychology Today, we look at the realities of an open marriage. You can view all articles on the series page.
Thanks to Will and Jada Smith, there’s been an increased discussion in the media about open marriages. I’ve been asked to wade in on this subject. This is an unexpected but relevant detour from the Marital Labyrinth Series.
There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Will and Jada Smith’s public proclamation about their open marriage.
Personally, I could care less about who they sleep with. But the fact that they’re making the rounds discussing their open marriage gives us non-celebrities an opportunity to ask the following questions:
“What’s an open marriage?”
“Can an open marriage solve the inevitable marital doldrums that most long-term relationships encounter?”
“Is it possible to mate for life and be happy?
What’s an Open Marriage?
Let’s be clear: It’s not an affair. The defining quality of an affair is secrecy, not sex. You can have an emotional affair without ever consummating the relationship. Duplicity provides those extra ingredients of danger and mystery that make the affair so alluring.
An open marriage is the opposite of an affair. There’s no secrecy. By mutual agreement, both partners have extra marital lovers. It’s their shared belief that a monogamous relationship limits their ability to explore their sexuality and their desire to connect amorously with multiple partners. It’s as if the couple are saying we’re complex individuals with a variety of needs, wants, and personality traits. It’s not fair to expect our partner to fulfil all our sexual desires or connect with every aspect of who we are.
On the other hand, neither partner wants to lose the primary marital relationship. Just because we like to travel doesn’t mean we don’t want to return home. Roaming is exciting and adventurous but home gives us stability, a sense of belonging, and hopefully, a partner who supports and shares our desire for novelty and exploration.
Ideally, with an open marriage the couple has the freedom to explore their sexuality without the duplicity, guilt, and shock of an affair while maintaining the intimate connection that a committed relationship can offer.
Can an Open Marriage Solve the Inevitable Marital Doldrums that Most Long-term Relationships Encounter?
Based on my forty-seven years as a relationship psychologist, and according to all available data on open marriages, the answer is a resounding, “No!”
I’ve worked with 14 couples in an open relationship and every one of them ended in a divorce. Studies have shown that 92% of open marriages break up—nearly twice the rate of a traditional marriage.
So why is an arrangement that sounds logical in theory not sustainable in the real world of relationships?
An open marriage opens the door to a flood of negative reactions.
No doubt we humans need variety and novelty, but we also suffer from sticky emotions like jealousy, fear of abandonment, rejection, hurt, anger, and insecurity to name a few—emotions that plague over 90% of participants in an open marriage.
Even the most open-minded explorers among us seem to be hard-wired against sharing their partner.
A Thought Experience to Test Your Readiness for an Open Marriage
Here’s a quick thought experiment for someone who’s considering an open marriage:
Close your eyes and visualize your partner making love to someone else. Hear your partner vocalizing the sounds of ecstasy, whispering words of desire. Do you rejoice in the knowledge that your significant other is achieving sexual pleasure with this individual? Consider this: Your partner sounds more alive and happier than he or she does with you.
If all that sounds good to you; if you rejoice in your partner’s delight; and if you feel no jealousy, no insecurity, no momentary feelings of loss and abandonment, then you may be a good candidate for an open marriage, assuming your partner is built like you are.
I have no idea whether Will and Jada are built for an open marriage. Time will tell. Based on Will’s statements about his conservative up bringing, I suspect an open marriage may be far more challenging than he realizes.
I’d love to interview them in a year from now to learn about their individual and shared experiences as a couple in an open marriage.
Is it Possible to Mate for Life and be Happy?
Yes, but like all things worthwhile you need to work for enduring pleasure and say no to alluring distractions. Not everyone’s cut out for abstaining and restraining.
Let’s be real. Monogamy isn’t natural unless you’re a beaver, a grey wolf, or a Macaroni Penguin. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not impressed: they’re hardwired for fidelity and we’re not.
We’re built to roam.
If we weren’t, why would we need Biblical injunctions commanding us to be faithful. Steamy stories of marital infidelity are as ancient as the Bible, as vibrant and painful as the tales of the Greek gods, and as tragic as the demise of Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton. Hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t wrestled with the question: to cheat or not to cheat, to betray or to remain faithful?
In fact, 42% of respondents to a survey conducted on our website, www.wholefamily.com, answered affirmatively to the question, “Have you ever had an affair?”
In other words, infidelity is so ubiquitous that, statistically speaking, a couple has a better chance of having an affair than the Casino has at winning Blackjack!
We also asked this: Have you ever thought about cheating on your spouse? 91% answered, “Yes.” Don’t you wonder if the 9% were lying?
The value of commitment
No surprise that God said something like “Cheat and you’re dead.” He or She designed us to salivate over forbidden fruit and then told us, “Don’t eat what isn’t yours.”
Ok, not fair, but maybe there’s something so valuable in committing to one person for life that it pales in comparison to the fleeting pleasures of an affair or an open marriage.
In Part 2 we’ll discuss why an open marriage is an oxymoron and why monogamy is essential for an emotionally and physically intimate relationship.
Dr. Tobin takes a deep dive into the question of monogamy in a 20-part series called The Marital Odyssey, How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage and Create Lasting Love. The series appears on The Psychology Today website and here on his personal website.