Open Marriage Is Not A Fad

In defense of non-monogamy.

Last updated on Mar 17, 2024

Man enjoying date with two woman FG Trade Latin | Canva 

"Monogamy Is Good, And It's Here To Stay." I was leery about this 2008 piece the minute I saw the title. But as soon as I read it and saw the word "fad" used to describe the kind of relationship that I have been deliriously happy in for years (and the kind hundreds of other people I have met have been in for decades) I knew I was dealing with a classic case of fear and misunderstanding — a dangerous mix. I thought I might simply reply in the comments section, but I quickly realized that I had way too much ground to cover. So, below I have gone section by section in response to Ms. Cline's piece.


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"Why aren't you in an open relationship yet? Carla Bruni Sarkozy, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, famously "prefers polygamy and polyandry." Reveal magazine quoted Will Smith as saying that he and his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith allow each other extra-marital dalliances. Oprah did a segment on open marriages. Both YourTango contributor Jenny Block and Village Voice columnist Tristan Taormino have books out on open relationships. All of this talk of free love is enough to make chicks who prefer old-fashioned monogamy feel a bit, well, old-fashioned. But if history can teach us anything, the open relationship bandwagon will come and go, which is a good thing because most women still benefit from and prefer monogamy."


Cline's opening question immediately gave me pause. This is the tone of someone who feels either uncomfortable or threatened. Surely no one is asking Cline, or anyone else, why they're not in an open relationship, which me wonder if perhaps Cline is questioning herself. I have never suggested, and would never suggest, that anyone in a monogamous relationship is old-fashioned, and I have repeatedly assured my readers that I have no problem with honest, intentional monogamy. I have been told that to those on the outside, people in the open relationship community can come across as a smug group who think they're more highly evolved than the monogamous. I am saddened to hear that, but it's all the more reason that reading and writing on this topic is so important.



The truth is, it's the lying that is a racket. And, if history can teach us anything, which surely it can, it's that open relationships aren't going anywhere. They've been around since the dawn of time. If it seems like they come and go, that's only because the press coverage wavers, not the relationships themselves. The fact that Tristan and I both had books come out on the subject this past June certainly brought it into the public eye, hence the appearance of a suddenly new popularity.

I am not sure what Cline is referring to when she says "most women" as "most" of the women I have spoken to and researched neither prefer nor feel particularly benefited by monogamy. Quite the opposite is true. Many women feel caged in a relationship where their body is "owned" by their partner. Monogamy doesn't necessarily result in that dynamic but it certainly does at times. That's where open relationships can be very rewarding for women: controlling one is no longer the cornerstone of the relationship. Instead, love trust and intimacy are.


"Why? Women still generally do more work in relationships than men do and openness requires even more diligence than a regular relationship;"

That certainly is the stereotype. Whether or not it is the reality is unclear, but the fact that it is misogynistic is unarguable. I have trouble seeing how openness requires more diligence than a "regular" relationship. First, it begs the question of what "regular" is. Cheating is so common that, in some ways, I'd consider it more normal than true monogamy. Keeping one's partner from straying — even though their biology is driving them to seek multiple partners — requires all the assiduousness one can muster. I no longer have to be conscientious in that way, but I am as tireless when it comes to making sure the people I'm involved with know how much I love them — and you don't get a pass on that just because you're in a monogamous relationship.  Being with another person requires attention. Providing that attention should be a part of the joy of that relationship, not part of the burden.

"Women are taught to care more about relationships and risk more for them than men, so non-monogamy raises the stakes more for us."

I'm unclear here about what it is that women "risk more" than men. The stakes aren't any higher in open relationships than they are in closed ones; they're the same. We risk our hearts—whenever we love someone. What's the point if we don't take that risk? And if the risk is being alone, well, I think the divorce rate proves that "committing" to a monogamous relationship does not guarantee you anything.


"And, despite today's female open relationship proponents, it's men who typically initiate and prefer non-monogamy."

This is simply untrue, although I would be interested to review any historically and scientifically significant proof that shows otherwise.

"The recent rash of high-profile cheaters (Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, David Patterson, Larry Craig) has shown monogamy in an ugly light. People yearn for... variety, and now that we live longer than ever, it's unrealistic to imagine a couple staying together for fifty years without a single affair. And in fact, statistics show twenty percent of men and thirteen percent of women cheat on their spouse."

Exactly. So why not be honest with your partner about your needs instead of subscribing to a societal convention that is very young and that has proven to be highly unworkable? Cline is right when she says that these cases reveal monogamy in an unflattering light. So why not take advantage of that view and use it as an opportunity to take stock of the reality, as opposed to the fantasy, of what monogamy is and when it does and doesn't work?




"But open relationships are not the solution, says Ayala Pines, psychologist and author of Romantic Jealousy, because jealousy and envy are just as hardwired as infidelity. Only a third of monogamous marriages survive cheating because of jealousy and a lingering sense of betrayal, says Pines. And the success rate for open relationships is not any better for similar reasons. "In my experience with open relationships," she says, "the couple goes back to monogamy or else to illicit affairs. Or, it ends in divorce."

Jealousy and envy have not been scientifically proven to be hard-wired. It is more likely that they are learned, based upon the study of non-Western cultures who live decidedly non-monogamous lifestyles. And as for the statistic of one-third, well, show me an argument and I'll give you a statistic. As to Pines' experience with open relationships, people who go to see a psychologist are likely going because they have a problem. Pines doesn't see the people who are in happy open relationships. My question for Pines would be, what percentage of the closed couples that she treats end up happily back together?

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"Another reason why open relationships don't work in practice for a lot of women is because they're simply too time-consuming. The block is upfront about the work involved in juggling a husband and a girlfriend."

Again, I can't see not pursuing a fulfilling relationship because it requires some of your time. All relationships take time. Everything worth doing takes time. How about hobbies? People are willing to put in the work to train for a marathon. How about careers? People are willing to spend four whole years to get a degree. That's like saying, "I'd love to follow my dreams, but it's just too much trouble."

"An excerpt of her book on Huffington Post, Life In An Open Marriage: The Four (Not-So-Easy) Steps prompted one HuffPo commenter to say, "I'm exhausted just reading about all the 'work' and never-ending 'communication' about feelings, situations, jealousy, worry, etc. It all sounds like much more effort than it's worth (IMO)." Likewise, Taormino's Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships is an intimidating 300 pages, in which the kind of person who is successful at non-monogamy is described as someone committed to knowing themselves "on a deep level," a process she says might include "psychotherapy and counseling, reading, writing, journaling, blogging, attending workshops and peer support groups, meditation, and various spiritual practices." While the idea of openness may be appealing to some women, it's hard to imagine many of us finding the time to juggle a second relationship. Especially those of us with careers and children."

I have a career and children. All of the people I know in open relationships have careers and/or children. And shouldn't we all want to know ourselves on a deeper level? Good strong relationships require that. Otherwise, what's the point? What do you get out of a relationship if you only have a surface understanding of yourself and your partner? Relationships between any number of people — good ones anyway — require attention and care. Not wanting to deal with "all that trouble" is a sad commentary about the value one places on enjoying truly satisfying, happy, healthy relationships.


"Open relationships are being billed as the wave of the future, but they've gone in and out of style every few decades, never becoming more than a fringe movement."

Fringe is a tough word. At one time hippies were fringe but nowadays, not so much. The same goes for punks and guys who invented personal computers in their garages. Being part of a vanguard group doesn't make what you're doing wrong. Open relationships are far from being at their beginning stages, just as they are far from being unrecognized by the larger population. In the last six months alone, either myself, the topic, my book, or some combination thereof have been in or on The New York Times, the UK Observer, the Tyra Banks Show, Fox television, the London Observer, Huffingtonpost, the San Francisco Chronicle. I can't imagine how something with that sort of media coverage is fringe. Isn't that how the saying goes, once the media has it, whatever "it" is is no longer "cool"? I have never been more excited to no longer be cool.

"According to Susan Squire, author of I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, "there have been experiments of mate-swapping in the 19th century and again in the 70s and a few Utopian societies, but it never seems to stick. It doesn't work or only works for a short period. Then, history cycles, marriage cycles, and everything repeats itself."

As I mentioned earlier, I would argue that the cycle is the popularity of talking about open marriage rather than the popularity of actually having them. Otherwise, where did all of these people in open marriages go? I know a wealth of couples who have been in open marriages for more than thirty years. They might not have been talking about it because of prejudices like those presented in Cline's essay, but they were still living their happy, open lives.


"The last time open marriages (often known as polyandry, free love, friends with benefits, et al)"

Forgive me for breaking in mid-sentence, but "polyandry, free love, friends with benefits, et al" are not the same things. At all. Polyandry refers to when a man has multiple wives. Free love wasn't (isn't) necessarily about intimacy within committed relationships. The same goes for friends with benefits. Open marriage refers to, well, open marriage: two people are married and have the freedom to pursue additional physical and/or emotional relationships (the latter of which would then imply a polyamorous relationship).

"were in vogue during the revolution of the late sixties and seventies. In 1972, the landmark book Open Marriage documented Nena and George O'Neill's attempts to redefine marriage and open up their relationship to other partners."

The book Open Marriage offers only one chapter about intimacy and the authors only peripherally mention spouses pursuing other partners. O'Neill's definition of open marriage was more about opening oneself up to the world and not focusing on being a couple and nothing more. Interestingly, that is still the best marriage advice around. Have your friends, your hobby, your career. Be a partner to your spouse. But don't become defined by his or her existence and your relationship with him or her.


"It was a runaway bestseller and, like today, promoted the impression that open marriages were the way of the future. By 1977, Nena O'Neill had published The Marriage Premise, which argued that fidelity was not such a bad thing after all. Squire herself got caught up in what she calls "the five minutes of open relationships" in the seventies. In her first marriage, she says, "We did this thing where we had to tell each other but we could [be with] whoever we wanted. Did it work? No. I remember him calling me to tell me he was drinking with some woman, and saying 'I'm going to go sleep with some woman, do you mind?' Of course, I minded. When faced with that, I wasn't into it. And the reverse was true as well."

A personal antidote is interesting. But it certainly doesn't prove anything except that an open relationship with that partner wasn't for Squire. Pines brings up another X factor of open relationships. Despite all the progress of feminism, she says "women are still socialized to care more about relationships and desire commitment more than men." Just consider the multi-billion dollar wedding industry and the success of happily-ever-after rom-coms and shows like Sex and the City. Women want weddings, not necessarily marriages. It does make one ponder the old question of whether life imitates art or art imitates life.

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"We are also more likely to devote our lives to children, family, and spouse."


Only because society drills into our heads that we're supposed to. What would women be like if no one told them incessantly how they were supposed to be? There's no way to know. No way to know.

"In short, the stakes are higher if there's to be an emotional fallout from an open relationship."

Why? We have our own money and our careers. We shouldn't be defining ourselves by our spouses. The problem is not with open relationships, but with continuing to tell women that they need a man, that they have to be mothers to be fulfilled, that there is one right way to do things, and that everything else is just a "fad." If we keep telling this tale, it will most certainly continue to prevail. But what if we drop the whole ownership thing, the whole who cares if science says we're not monogamous, let's demand it anyway because one group of people (read: the church) says we should and live like thinking human beings who choose lifestyles because they work for us and our partners and the community at large. Keep in mind that marriage has a 50% failure rate and infidelity is rampant. If we went by those statistics, one might conclude that it's heterosexual monogamous marriage that's a fad. 

"In Woody Allen's ménage a trois flick Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Javier Bardem's character is flagrantly trying to bed three women. The women agree, but Vicky falls in love with him and is tormented. Christina agrees to merely be the extra "salt" in the relationship between Bardem and jealous ex-wife Maria Elena. Bardem is unflappable. Everyone in the theater laughs knowingly—for Bardem, it's about [intimacy]. But the women always seem to have a little too much invested, a little too much to lose."


This is a movie written by a man. Not real life. A movie. Truth be told, I wasn't at all convinced at the end of the film that Christina wouldn't pursue open relationships in the future. This one simply was no longer working for her. It makes me sad to think that viewers would perceive as novel a woman making a choice based on her own needs.

"And this isn't just the stuff of a Woody Allen fantasy. Men are typically the ones who initiate open relationships. According to a poll on, seven percent of women and fourteen percent of men say they are in an open relationship. The gender gap is due partially to the habits of gay men, who are more likely than women or straight men to be in non-monogamous arrangements. But, it's also that "men tend to prefer open relationships more than women do," says Pines, who has decades of clinical and research experience on the subject, "because their preference for casual [intimacy] far exceeds women's."

That is, if women are telling the truth on those surveys, which researchers have said time and again they are not because of the stigma of admitting to being in or wanting an open relationship. Open relationship boards, events, and organizations are filled with women. I can't see why that would be difficult to accept. It doesn't affect those women — or men for that matter — who want to remain in closed relationships. Just as the legality of gay marriage doesn't affect the state of heterosexual marriage. There is no need to invalidate another person's life to validate your own.


"It's intriguing that Block and Taormino, two of today's loudest advocates for open relationships, are women."

Why isn't our existence — and popularity — proof enough that there are women in the lead? I don't follow the logic. First, the argument is that there are very few women who want open relationships so they must be a fad or fringe. But then she says two women are leading the charge. What should one conclude from that?

"Historically, it's been men who've advocated for polyandry and men who've benefited. "In the ancient world, men were never expected to be faithful," says Squire. Women were severely punished for extra-marital affairs primarily because it threatened patrilineal culture, where the paternity of a child would be in question if the woman strayed. In the last three or four centuries, the Lutheran marriage model of fidelity has become the standard, which has given women a more equal stake in romantic partnerships."

But what about all of the matriarchal societies? Surely it isn't only Western cultures that count in this discussion?


"Sure, some women can tinker with this arrangement and come out on top, but for many of us there's a sense that this is part of the battle of the sexes we're not winning."

Exactly. Open relationships work for some people, monogamy works for others. This isn't a competition. Not for me anyway. They both can — and do — work. The decision is about individuality consciousness and desire. How do you want this world to work? If there's only one way to have a relationship, how long before we're back to only one "right" religion or one way for the genders to behave or one way to look?

"So if you're feeling like a fuddy-duddy for not wanting two lovers, remember this open relationship thing is a fad, and, as history has shown us, this too shall pass. While it may seem like non-monogamy is feminism's natural next step, the fact is that women largely prefer one partner, and we enjoy putting time and emotion into our primary relationship. There's not enough reason for us to change our ideas about what makes a satisfying love life, just to get on board with a time-consuming relationship model."

Everyone is allowed their own opinion. This is Cline's and that's fine. But it is imperative that it not be taken as fact, because fact it is not. The truth is that the model of a romantic, monogamous, "you complete me" marriage is little more than a hundred years old. And how old is civilization? Maybe heterosexual, monogamous marriage will end up being the fad in the long run. We don't and can't know. But, regardless, the only thing I advocate for is honesty and respect. Be honest with your partner. Respect the ways others choose to live even if that way might be different from yours. And if you're feeling like a "fuddy-duddy," perhaps it's time to reevaluate your own life, not the lives of others. As my dad always says, "No one ever cares about what we're doing nearly as much as we think we do."


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Jenny Block writes for numerous national and national publications, including the Dallas Morning News and American Way. She's the author of Open: Love And Sex In An Open Relationship.