Open Marriage: Closing The Book On A Bad Idea

"Open marriage" should remain a relic from the 1970s.

open marriage

There are plenty of things from the 1970s that should remain in the 1970s: disco, the polyester leisure suit, and "open" marriage. Unlike disco, there are some people who think that open marriage, championed in the 1972 book (written by Nena and George O'Neill and titled, of course, "The Open Marriage") should come back.

But marriage expert Brad Wilcox explains why the "open marriage" doesn't work in a Washington Post editorial. Despite the claims of open-marriage advocates, such arrangements really don't work out in the real world. Those, like syndicated columnist Dan Savage, who believe that "we're not wired for monogamy" are making arguments that aren't supported by biology and sociology. If we weren't "wired" for monogamous relationships, then why does the University of Chicago Sex Survey find that couples in monogamous relationships are happier than their swinging counterparts?


For all the talk about "redefining" marriage to be whatever some pop-psychologist or sex columnist wants it to be, marriage is an institution that has existed in human culture since human culture has existed. Monogamous pair bonding is quite literally written into our DNA. It came about not because some old white guys declared it so, but because thousands of years ago when our ancestors were living in the savannas of Africa, it was evolutionary advantageous for us to do so. 5 Myths About Open Marriages That Will Destroy Yours

And just because we're using iPads instead of cooking mastodon meat on sticks, that doesn't mean that the same basic factors aren't still in play. Our brains may have evolved much in the last few millennia, but we are still driven by the same basic factors. The reason why "open marriages" and other nontraditional relationships are so ultimately unfulfilling is that they don't satisfy those essential parts of us that are designed for monogamy and pair bonding.


Even in the modern age, open relationships don't work as well. Economically, it's expensive to be in a series of "open" relationships. It's hard enough for monogamous married couples to make it in this economy, no less trying to manage the work/life balance of multiple relationships. As Wilcox explores, there's also the emotional toll. As much as some "open marriage" advocates try to convince people that these arrangements are perfectly acceptable so long as all parties are willing, the emotional entanglements created by open relationships are incredibly complicated, and the chances of someone getting hurt run high.

There's also the obvious risk factors: unwanted pregnancies, AIDS, or other STDs. Even with contraception and "safe" sex, those risks can only be mitigated, never eliminated. In the 1970s, when the "open" marriage concept was first popularized, STDs were an embarrassment. Today, they can be fatal. An Open Marriage Can Work

The "open marriage" concept wasn't a particularly good idea in 1972. It's even a worse idea now. So why dust off this discarded content? Ultimately, calling for "open" relationships tends to be about having your cake and eating it too: wanting to have all the stability and emotional support of a trusting relationship without any of the commitment.

But unfortunately, reality doesn't work that way. Commitment is necessary to have the level of trust needed for a healthy relationship. Infidelity damages that commitment, perhaps not visibly at first, but inevitably the damage is done. That's why "open" marriages are, despite some high-profile examples, not that common. We're wired for monogamy, and that's why we're happiest in monogamous relationships. The "open" marriage is about as durable and dependable as an AMC Gremlin, and both belong in the junkyard.