Do Open Marriages Ever Work?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 20 2012 6:27 PM

Do Open Marriages Ever Work?

Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife says he wanted to have one.

Marianne and Newt Gingrich.
Newt and Marianne Gingrich in 1994

Getty Images

It works for some people. There has never been a scientific study of the success rate of open marriages, because different couples work out their arrangements in different ways. A marriage can be polyamorous from the beginning, or a couple might experiment only after tiring of monogamy. Some spouses have purely sexual relationships outside the marriage, while others have lasting emotional commitments to third parties. Lumping all of these together and comparing their aggregate divorce rate to those who have traditional marriages wouldn’t give an accurate picture. A couple of points are rather clear, though. There’s strong anecdotal evidence that open marriages can last for decades, but one that’s born of an ultimatum—like the threat that Newt Gingrich allegedly made to his ex-wife—would be unlikely to succeed. Such arrangements are typically ill-advised attempts to stave off divorce.

According to psychologist Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, gay men are more likely than any other group to practice polyamory. For a forthcoming study, she asked 120 cohabiting couples in the Salt Lake City area whether they had explicitly agreed to have sex outside of their relationships. Almost one-quarter of the gay male couples said they had a polyamorous arrangement. That’s compared with about 7 percent of the  heterosexual couples and 3 percent of the lesbians. Previous studies have suggested similar proportions, although none is large enough to state the prevalence of open marriage with any certainty. The character of the arrangement also differs between the groups. Among gay men, polyamory most often involves discrete sexual trysts. (Some of these arrangements are very specific, for example, allowing sexual infidelity only when one of the partners has crossed an ocean.) Lesbians are more likely to have a long-term second partner. The polyamorous couples in Diamond’s study reported the same level of relationship satisfaction as those who were monogamous.

Advertisement

People involved in open marriages and relationship counselors have a few tips for anyone who is considering such an arrangement, based on their personal experiences. First, they point out that open marriages work best when both partners are committed to the idea of non-monogamy in the abstract. (People in open marriages like to talk about research suggesting that monogamy is evolutionarily unnatural.) Second, polyamorous couples who have a secrecy policy—in which the partners are free to pursue outside relationships but are forbidden to discuss the trysts—are tempting trouble. Third, it’s worth testing the waters before committing to an open relationship:  for instance, going with your partner to a bar and behaving as though you’re both single, but without going home with someone else, to see how that feels for both of you.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jenny Block, author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage; Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. of Monmouth University; and clinical psychologist David Ley, author of Insatiable Wives: Women Who Stray and the Men Who Love Them.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.