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

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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.

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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 writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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