You Can’t See Your Partner in a Porous Marriage (An Open Marriage, Part 2)

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin

In this fourth article of the Marital Labyrinth series, published simultaneously at Psychology Today, we consider whether you can truly see your partner in an open marriage. You can view all articles on the series page.

The purpose of marriage is to teach us how to face our partner

Why?

Because the essence of love is to see the other. 

In the movie Avatar, the humanoid natives of Pandora look deeply into one another’s eyes and say, “I see you.” Those three words communicate the most intimate connection: “I see and cherish your inner beauty, your essence, your uniqueness.” When one Na’vi tells another, “I see you,” they mate for life in a monogamous bond. 

I don’t know whether the writer and director, James Cameron, consciously decided that the union between his Pandora natives would be sacred, exclusive, and closed. Yet, regardless of his intentionality, I’d argue it had to be that way if the goal of coupling is to see your partner. 

Cameron understood that a monogamous lifelong relationship is how we achieve what we long for in our most private and honest moments: a soulmate connection built through mutual commitment, trust, and effort.

To achieve true marital intimacy is heroic 

Although it’s speculative on my part to state this, I’m going to assume that given a choice most of you would want a Na’vi-like connection over an open relationship where the emphasis is on self-expression, need fulfilment, and multiple experiences. 

To my mind, and perhaps yours as well, the idea of two partners growing together in intimacy makes for a much more interesting movie than a film about an open marriage. The first feels heroic, the second a cop out. I can’t imagine any of us walking out of the movie theatre celebrating the open marriage. 

I could be wrong. 

But then again, I wouldn’t be so sure of myself if I hadn’t witnessed how affairs and open marriages destroy love and commitment. No one gets married to cheat on their spouse and no marital ceremony extols the wonders of an open marriage. An affair and an open marriage are worst case “solutions” for unresolved marital problems and confusion about what a marriage is and what it’s not. 

So why is a soul-to-soul connection not possible in an open marriage?

In the Jewish marriage ceremony, the bride encircles the groom seven times. Seven symbolizes divine wholeness and completion like the seven days of the week or the seven lamps in the holy temple. With each circle, the bride creates the sacred space necessary for their love and connection to thrive. 

It takes seven rotations for the circle to be unbroken, but it takes a lifetime of love and commitment to protect this potentially sanctified area from the assault of boredom, conflict, and loneliness. The encircled space of marriage is the opportunity; the couple’s shared responsibility and work actualize the potential for love and connection.

I believe this ritual, the movie Avatar, the overwhelming failure of open marriages, and our innate sense of what’s true all point to the same direction: marriage must be a closed relationship to achieve the Na’vi’s level of reciprocal seeing.  A soulmate connection demands that you truly see your partner in a bond of trust and safety. But beyond that, marital unity also depends on a clear understanding of what a marriage is and what it’s not. 

What is marriage and what is it not?

Despite what many people think, marriage is not about need fulfilment. Love doesn’t arrive on demand nor rush to fill your empty spaces because you believe you deserve it. If that’s your attitude, you’re a perfect candidate for a broken marriage, a perennial power struggle, or an affair. 

A marriage in which you and your partner compete to get your needs met is a scenario for a marital nightmare, like two kids fighting over a five-cent toy. Call it a blind marriage. The only thing each person sees is not their partner, but his or her own suffering. You know you’re groping in the dark when all you can focus on is what you’re missing. 

So, to sharpen the distinction about what a marriage is and what it’s not, I’d like to copy and paste a section from the first blog in this series: 

  • Marriage has never been, nor will it ever be a solution to loneliness. 
  • The “institution” of marriage doesn’t offer a quick and painless means to easy intimacy and love. 
  • Marriage is—if nothing else—a challenge: to your ego, your character, your values, your sense of entitlement, your theories about love and commitment
  • There is no relationship more powerful, more aptly suited, and more perfectly designed to facilitate a transformation—
    • toward personal responsibility
    • from demanding to giving
    • to a deeply intimate and loving connection 
    • to a life of depth, meaning, and purpose

Marriage is an exacting institution. 

Marriage won’t tolerate selfishness, neediness, or disloyalty. It punishes those who refuse to abide by its strict demands for integrity, personal responsibility, honesty, commitment, and words, expressions and acts of love. 

Contrast this with an open marriage, a term I consider to be an oxymoron, like a tolerant racist or a blue greenback. Unlike the goal of an open marriage, in which the focus is on meeting individual needs and desires at the expense of marital unity, a monogamous marriage focuses on individual growth within and not at the expense of the protected space of marriage. 

To achieve the level of reciprocal seeing in a marriage takes work on oneself.  You’ll know you’re there when you can say, without blinking, that my partner’s needs are at least as important as my own.

Poll

Poll Marital Labyrinth Series Poll 4
Do you feel seen in your marriage?
Do you feel you see your partner?

(In future blogs in the Marital Labyrinth Series, we’ll focus more on the mechanics of building an affair-proof and open marriage-proof relationship. To achieve the potential that marriage offers, be prepared to commit 100%. Not easy but worth it. This is coming from a guy who’s been married 47 years.)

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