02 March 2016

The Case for Open Marriage

Stephen Kershnar
Open Marriages: Quiet but not uncommon
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 28, 2016

An open marriage is one in which the partners agree that they can have sex with other people without it being considered cheating. The rules of the open marriage vary between couples, but they sometimes include things such as no emotional attachment, barrier contraception, no use of the marital bed, no out-of-wedlock children, and limits or prohibitions on sex with people known to both partners.

Open marriages are surprisingly common in the U.S. Writing in Psychology Today, Stephen Betchen notes that estimates range from 1.7% to 6% of American marriages are open, with some estimates running as high as 9%. A number of famous people have or had such marriages, including Ayn Rand (philosopher), Margaret Sanger (founder Planned Parenthood), Shirley MacLaine (actress), Will Smith (actor), Erica Jong (author), and Larry King (talk show host).

The argument for such marriages being permissible is straightforward. A marriage is a contract couples make to one another. The nature of the commitment is largely, although not entirely, a matter of whatever the couples agree to. The agreement can, and sometimes does, address children, work, or religion. If the agreement allows extramarital sex, it is no more wrong than agreements that allow for the spouses to have close friends of opposite sex or explore other religions. More generally, if an arrangement does not infringe on anyone’s right or break a promise, it is not wrong.

The standard ethical arguments against it fail. One objection is that it’s cheating. As philosophers Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins and Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa argue, an open marriage clearly isn’t cheating because neither partner is breaking the marital rules. In the same way that kosher and non-kosher households have different food-preparation and consumption rules, and thus different rules about food-cheating, the same is true for closed and open marriages.  

A second objection is that open marriages are physically unhealthy or psychologically damaging.

First, it is not clear that marriage contracts include conditions against doing physically unhealthy or psychologically damaging things. Consider a husband who marries a pretty little runner (110 lbs. and marathon thin). After her first child, she loses interest in running or even controlling her eating and her weight balloons up to over 200 lbs., resulting in her having health problems and her husband finding her unattractive. Most husbands would have a hard time explaining what condition she violated in the marriage contract, whether we look at the formal vows or the implicit understanding that accompanies it. The same is true for women married to men who serve in the infantry and come back from war with severe posttraumatic stress disorder.

Also, if there is no duty for people to become healthy after they become married when they were not beforehand, then it is unclear why they should have a duty to avoid becoming unhealthy after they marry.

Second, it is not clear that premarital sex or promiscuity is unhealthy. 95% of Americans had premarital sex and there is little evidence that this has damaged them. Many people have had a surprising number of sexual partners over their lifetime and there is little evidence that this is physically or psychologically unhealthy.

In any case, open marriages need not involve promiscuity in that some of the contracts can and do sharply limit the number of extramarital partners. In fact, one study of people in an open marriage found that the majority did not have extramarital sex over the preceding year even though their marital agreement allowed them to do so.

Third, it is not clear that an open marriage is bad for a relationship. A number of dated studies found that there was no different in marriage satisfaction between those in open and closed marriages and a more recent study found those in open marriages had higher levels satisfaction than those in closed marriages. Perhaps the people who enter into open marriages are happier or more stable than others and this accounts for the difference, rather than the open marriage itself, but at the very least it is unclear that being in an open rather than closed marriage makes a marriage worse.

For bisexuals, an open marriage might lead to a more honest way of living. The same is true for a heterosexual couple in which one member discovers she is gay years into a marriage but does not wish to break up her family or even leave her spouse. The stories of men or women discovering they are gay after they are married are surprisingly common, although one must always be wary of treating anecdotes as data. Open marriages might be more honest for people who just cannot stay faithful (consider, for example, Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King). It might also be benefit someone who is frigid and would prefer her spouse seek sex elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, dated studies show that couples in open marriages are jealous more often and there is anecdotal evidence that the openness of the marriage leads to divorce in a substantial minority of openly married couples. However, it is unclear whether this breaks up marriage more than does adultery. More importantly, it is unclear whether the increased risk of jealousy and purported risk to marriage isn’t outweighed by greater marital satisfaction or sexual satisfaction.

In any case, many types of marriage increase the likelihood of divorce. Consider, for example, marrying at an early age, having an interracial marriage, and marrying someone dissimilar to you. These marriages are not wrong or bad even though they come with an increased risk of divorce.  

There are religious objections to open marriages from groups such as the Catholic Church, but given their objections to clearly permissible practices such as premarital sex, masturbation, non-procreative heterosexual sex (oral and anal), gay sex, and contraception, these objections should be ignored.

An open marriage might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this doesn’t make it wrong or harmful.

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