The Open Marriage, by Nena and George O’Neill, was published in 1972, as the sexual revolution gathered steam in America. The best-selling book encouraged spouses to “to strip marriage of its antiquated ideals” and, most famously in one chapter, to explore sexual partnerships outside their marriage, if they so desired.
Fortunately, the book has since come to be seen as an antiquated relic of the Me Decade, when all too many men and women put their own desires—in the sexual arena, as in so many other arenas—ahead of the needs of their spouse, their marriage, and their children. While swinging may have seemed reasonable to some at the height of the sexual revolution, many couples and the vast majority of Americans have since turned away from the idea.
In fact, notwithstanding the recent marital misbehavior of athletes, actors, and politicians, public tolerance for marital infidelity has fallen since the 1970s, with fully 79 percent of American adults now saying that infidelity is “always wrong.” Moreover, recent research from the National Marriage Project indicates that infidelity has also declined in recent years to the point where just 16 percent of married men and 10 percent of married women now report that they have been unfaithful. So, clearly, in contemporary America that vast majority of couples reject infidelity in theory and practice.
Unfortunately, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage and academic apologists for open marriage would like to turn back the clock to this dark chapter in American marital history. Savage, who got a big plug in a recent The New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story, argues for a more “realistic” marital ethic that makes a place for nonmonogamy for some couples (so long as both parties consent), and is more forgiving of the occasional affair. In his view, “we’re not wired for monogamy,” some spouses can actually enrich their marriage by spicing up their sex or emotional lives with an extramarital relationship, and a one-size-fits-all sexual ethic cannot begin to cover the variability of human sexual desire
Savage-style love has also been getting a pass from some progressive family scholars. Family sociologist Judith Stacey signaled her basic agreement with Savage’s philosophy in the Times profile: “What integrity means for me is we shouldn’t impose a single vow of monogamy as a superior standard for all relationships.” And in a recent New York Press article, family historian Stephanie Coontz said “nonmonogamy” is “one of the ways that some people may handle the pressures of a world where people want partnerships but live long lives and have frequent opportunities.”
So, what is the problem with a little “nonmonogamy” in marriage, so long as everyone is open and honest about it? There are at least five problems with open marriage.
1. Even today, sex often results in pregnancy. In the heat of the moment, couples do not always use contraception. And for those who do, more than 10 percent of women aged 15-44 engaging in “typical use” contraception get pregnant over the course of a year, according to a recent Guttmacher Institute study. So, open marriages pose a real risk that children will be born without the benefit of two, married parents.
2. Monogamous, married sex is more likely to deliver long-lasting satisfaction than the quick thrill offered by infidelity. According to the renowned University of Chicago Sex Survey, a “monogamous sexual partnership embedded in a formal marriage evidently produces the greatest satisfaction and pleasure.” This study found that both women and men like the emotional security that fidelity affords, and are more likely to report that they are “anxious,” “scared,” and “guilty” when they have had sex with multiple partners in the last year.
3.People often do not realize what they are really consenting to when it comes to open marriage. Sexual relationships require some combination of time, money, and emotional effort. Efforts devoted to an outside partner can detract from efforts to invest in your spouse. Women who have sex with multiple partners are significantly more likely to end up depressed than women who do not. And, because sex is an emotionally bonding experience for many, extramarital sex can easily lead to the breakup of an existing marriage, even when all parties go into the situation with their eyes open.
4. Swinging increases your risk of acquiring a sexually-transmitted disease (STD). One of the best predictors of acquiring an STD is having sex with multiple partners, which is precisely what swinging is all about. Note here also that even consistent condom use often does not protect against STDs that are passed through genital skin to skin contact, such as herpes, HPV, and chancroid.
5. Open marriages put children at risk. Children are markedly more likely to be physically, emotionally, and especially sexually abused when they are exposed to a revolving carousel of romantic partners in the home, according to a recent federal report on child abuse. And we know nothing of the emotional impact on children of being exposed to open infidelity on the part of their parents.
When it comes to marriage, one of the few bright spots to emerge over the last forty years is increasing public support for sexual fidelity—in both theory and practice. Indeed, social science tells us that married couples who remain faithful to one another enjoy higher-quality marriages, lower rates of divorce, and, yes, higher levels of emotional satisfaction with their sex life. Sexual fidelity also increases the odds that children are born into and reared in a stable, two-parent home.
For all these reasons, and even though Savage is right to point out that fidelity can be a difficult virtue to live, turning the clock back to the swinging seventies is a stupid idea. Better for the sake of adults, children, and marriage as an institution to keep the book closed on open marriage.
W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the author of When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America.