Skip to main content

Do open marriages work?

By Karen Salmansohn,
Some online dating sites let applicants check off "married" box.
Some online dating sites let applicants check off "married" box.
  • Columnist says man she loved told her he wanted an open marriage
  • Good open marriage is supposed to create a buffet of sexual experiences
  • Research suggests that open marriage has a 92 percent failure rate
  • Several online dating sites offer applicants a new box to check -- married
  • Marriage
  • Relationships

( -- Can we talk? I mean really talk? I was deeply involved with a man (let's call him Steve) when he surprised me with an unusual request. One night, Steve explained that if and when we got married, he would always want to have a separate apartment where he could be "alone."

In his version of our lives, Steve's "alone" was when he would step out on our relationship -- up to three nights a week. Steve wanted an open marriage -- a nonmonogamous, polyamorous arrangement wherein he could go his way and I could go mine.

Steve made his request after he and I were intimately involved -- catching me totally off guard. I'm a nice Jewish girl from Philadelphia who grew up in a cul de sac where we played kickball and said "darn" instead of "damn" when we missed a kick. The concept of open marriage is very foreign to me, but I do consider myself open-minded. I was already in love with Steve, so wondered, "Was four-sevenths of a marriage to Steve better than no marriage at all?"

Was it at all possible that the pros of an open marriage agreement could outweigh its cons? We all know that deceiving someone you love feels horrible on both sides -- so could creating a system of rules for cheating actually prove to be helpful? Does operating with transparency when cheating lessen the stress of an affair? Is the true immorality of cheating the act of dishonesty rather than the act of sex itself?

Here's what I learned about open marriages -- the good, the bad and the @#$@! When to break up and when to make up

The Good

When open marriages work, it is most likely because the unconventional unions are focused on good old-fashioned open communication. Telling the truth shows your partner respect, as does following agreed upon rules -- for example, keeping your partner in the loop as to where you have been and who you have been with.

The goal of an open marriage is to never have to lie -- to create an environment where you can be open about anything that makes you uncomfortable or afraid. Proponents say that this atmosphere supposedly then creates an opportunity for incredible communication, deeper intimacy and the opportunity to thrive as your fullest self.

Basically, the thought is that if you truly love your partner, you want them to live their fullest life -- flings and all. Flings are simply superficial sensory delights. There's no difference between your partner enjoying a pizza with anchovies without you and your partner enjoying a blonde with blue eyes without you.

In a good open marriage, you are simply creating a buffet of sexual experiences, so nobody feels like they are starving for new sensations. This honesty enables couples to avoid the emotional downward spiral of hidden affairs because the need for secrecy is removed. Are men only as faithful as their options?

And what about that green-eyed monster jealousy? Most open marriages make strong distinctions between sex with others and romance with others. Couples who subscribe to open-marriage philosophies typically agree to keep their spouses first at heart -- no matter who else they mingle with.

The Bad

I must confess, every time I type the words "good open marriage," my fingers twitch. These words feel oxymoronic. Personally, I view more cons than pros to an open marriage. For me, the whole point of marriage is to show your love and commitment by protecting your union with fidelity. There's a great deal of calm and security that comes from knowing your partner is directing his love and attention to you and you alone.

For me, rather than viewing open marriage as offering a yummy buffet of taste sensations, I view it as one big recipe for disaster. The main ingredients -- resentment, competitiveness, jealousy, insecurity, curtailed time, scattered affections, feelings of betrayal, lack of security -- all inevitably blur the lines of a healthy marriage.

For me, a healthy marriage asks you both to bring out your highest selves. Sure, it might take a little higher willpower to resist the lure of extracurricular sex, but this discipline is for the higher good, allowing for a calm, secure refuge to emerge. Calm and security may not sound as hotsy totsy as sex and more sex, but many of us believe it brings far more happiness in the long run. This security brings with it the confidence of knowing your partner is committed to you "till death do you part" rather than until their next Wednesday evening date.

In my opinion, open marriage is pretty much the opposite of marriage. It seems to be about avoiding commitment -- one of the cornerstones of a happy marriage. You may be able to agree on the "rules for cheating" in an intellectual way, but doesn't the emotional nature of love always get in the way? How to get good at love

The "#$@%^!"

By the end of my research, I firmly believed that open marriage is merely an excuse for getting away with behaving self-indulgently and recklessly. In my book "Prince Harming Syndrome", any man who wants an open marriage is what I call a Prince Harming. Prince Harming is someone who does not make his partner feel safe, calm, secure, confident -- and the idea of an open marriage does not leave me feeling that way. Could you be dating a Prince Harming?

Dating is for making the most of your options. Marriage is for nurturing the one wonderful union you've been lucky enough to find so it grows into something incredibly wonderful.

It was surprisingly difficult to find statistics on whether open marriages work. Ironically, open marriage isn't something we talk about all that openly. Some research suggests that open marriage has a 92 percent failure rate. Steve Brody, Ph.D., a psychologist in Cambria, California, explains that less than 1 percent of married people are in open marriages. Nevertheless,it does seem to be a trend on the upturn. Several online dating sites offer applicants a new box to check -- married.

So what happened to Steve? I said no to his suggestion for an apartment he'd go to three days a week. You can't be four-sevenths married. If you are going to cheat, why bother asking someone to marry you in the first place?

Karen Salmansohn is a best-selling author known for creating self-help for people who wouldn't be caught dead reading self-help. Get more information on finding a loving happier-ever-after relationship in her book "Prince Harming Syndrome".

Subscribe to O, The Oprah Magazine for up to 75% off the newsstand price. That's like getting 18 issues FREE. Subscribe now!

TM & © 2011 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.