A recent article in the New York Times Magazine asked, “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” and answered with a cautious “Yes.” Susan Dominus profiles several couples who pursue polyamory and suggests that, in many cases, the experiment has been a success. But as successes go, it is a sad one. These couples have combated loneliness by adding sexual partners—a sign of the decline of friendship in America. More and more, we treat intimacy as coterminous with sexuality, leaving no room for philia, or brotherly love. The opening of marriage is also a sign of the decline of childbearing. These couples have also neglected the time-honored means of expanding a family and falling in love repeatedly: having more children.
For most of the couples in Dominus’s article, the decision to open a marriage is not primarily about sexual fulfillment. Instead, they feel that life as a couple is lonely, atomized. Daniel and Elizabeth, the pseudonymous husband and wife we follow throughout the piece, each report a lack of self-fulfillment. Daniel raised the idea of an open marriage after he had “felt some vital part of himself dwindling.” Elizabeth came around to the idea after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. At that point, she said, “I really just felt like it was right, like it was important to my growth.” Neither husband nor wife was after sexual thrills, so much as purpose and a renewed sense of identity. In this respect, they seem representative of couples with open marriages.
They seem representative, as well, in terms of their socioeconomic profile. The therapeutic resources that make open marriages manageable are mostly available to couples flush with economic and social capital. It was through counseling from Tammy Nelson, author of The New Monogamy, that Daniel and Elizabeth arrived at an arrangement whereby each could have an additional lover without jeopardizing the primary partnership. Dominus notes parenthetically, “anyone holding down three jobs to keep a family together is not likely to spend excess emotional energy negotiating and acting on a nonmonogamy agreement.” It’s worth noting that marriage itself—not just open marriage—is treated more and more as a luxury good, attainable only by middle-aged couples with well-paying jobs.
A healthier response to the ennui Daniel and Elizabeth experienced would involve, not a lifestyle fad, but a recovery of community. Friendship is the obvious missing piece here. Elizabeth and her lover, Joseph, found solidarity and closeness because of their shared struggles with Parkinson’s. Why must their bond have become an erotic one? If Joseph and Elizabeth had cultivated a friendship, they could have supported not only each other but also each other’s spouses—without the temptation to deception and betrayal. Friendship is a crucial part of a flourishing life, but we make friendships harder to form, sustain, or even imagine, when all intimacy is eroticized.
There’s another overlooked option in these couples’ stories. It seems they sometimes turn to open marriages after rejecting (or not considering) an older mode of familiar expansiveness, one that is attainable by families outside the upper and upper-middle classes.
Polyamorists have a term for the high they chase in courting a new partner: “new relationship energy,” or N.R.E. They talk about the sense of risk and excitement that comes from meeting and bonding with someone new. My family was friends with many religious couples with large broods of children. A thrill much like N.R.E. accompanied the arrival of each new child, by birth or by adoption. And the thrill was not limited to one person, but swept through the community. The children transformed their parents’ identities but also allowed older siblings and friends to take on new ones: older playmate, babysitter, mentor. Institutions like godparenthood allow babies to deepen bonds of friendship, so that, thanks to a baby, two more people can join in your circle of intimacy.
The couples Dominus profiles all seem to have zero, one, or two children, cleaving to bourgeois norms of family size if not of erotic arrangement. Perhaps they should rebel not against marital fidelity, but against filial parsimony.
They should certainly acknowledge the consequences of the rebellion they have chosen. Daniel and Elizabeth and Joseph have taken a careless approach—Joseph is married and has not told his wife about his relationship with Elizabeth, “certain she wouldn’t accept it.” Elizabeth and Daniel have both consented to her arrangement with Joseph, but in so doing they have wronged Joseph’s unsuspecting wife. Despite the assumptions of our individualistic age, no new relationship can be without consequences for the broader community—just as no new baby could be. Betrayal and birth each have ripple effects, but one tends toward cruelty and the other toward joy.
Daniel and Elizabeth’s experience (and that of couples like them) makes an important truth very clear: The current practice of middle-class American marriage, with its atomized nuclear families, sparse and carefully spaced offspring, and long empty-nesting period before grandchildren arrive, is a recipe for dissatisfaction. The solution is indeed to open up marriage—not to novel sexual partners, but to the greater novelty of true friendship and of more children, who present the opportunity to fall in love again and again and again.
Alexi Sargeant is a director and culture critic who writes from New York.