The old saw about a young man sowing his oats before settling down now seems quaint, if not altogether stupid. Why should anyone put a stop clock on sowing oats? Just as important, why shouldn't women ditch the clock as well? To top things off, why should marriage act as a brake on sowing oats with other partners?
That's one of the take-aways from a lengthy New York Times Magazine article, "Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?" Written by Susan Dominus, a staff writer for the magazine, the piece draws on anecdotes from more than 50 persons who live in open marriages, arrangements where cheating is the norm. It is available online and will appear in print on May 14, the Times' Mother's Day gift.
Cheating sounds judgmental, and that is one characteristic that cannot be tolerated: "nonmonogamous" relationships is the preferred euphemism. Must all parties to this condition give their consent? Not always. But many do, and Dominus tells us that the gals are more likely to initiate it than the guys. Looks like the "comfortable concentration camp" of suburban marriages described by Betty Friedan has found a sure-fire way to escape the ennui.
Dominus cites Dan Savage as a contemporary exponent of open marriages. This is not exactly reassuring. It would be more accurate to say that this gay-happy sex columnist has not found a sexual act he doesn't like. It would be like asking an alcoholic to offer his opinion on a new whiskey. What's not to like?
The reader is introduced to several open marriage couples, all of whom are convinced that they are not the dysfunctional ones—the rest of us are. Let's start with a couple from Seattle.
Tim and Luce met in their early 20s, got married, and had two children. When Luce hit 40, she discovered she was in a midlife crisis. For her that meant she wanted more sex, but not with Tim. "I felt like, I don't want to be kinky with you—I want something different." Like, well, if that's how she felt, then why not just go for it? Feelings are dispositive, are they not?
What convinced Luce to mess around was listening to an NPR show on the virtues of promiscuity. She was sitting in her car in her driveway when the bells began to chime. No, I am not making this up.
She figured there were some not so nice things to consider. "Could they go without a condom, if everyone tested clean and the relationship seemed to have potential? Could one's spouse's partner veto the other spouse's new love interest, if that person had an S.T.D.?" Good questions, but isn't this getting a bit judgmental?
Tim and Luce are six years into their open marriage, and the four partners get together for drinks. What about the kids? Tim says they have learned "that their parents are a little bit different." But maybe not that much—they live in Seattle.
Susan met her man through Tammy Nelson, a therapist known for matching couples up who want to experience a "nonmonogamous" relationship. Susan, who is from Kenya, is also a therapist, and she counsels those in open marriages. She got lucky and met a home town boy, an immigrant from Kenya, and they moved in together. But then he started dating some other gal, and Susan went ballistic. "At the peak of one fury, she grabbed his phone and sent the girlfriend a text: 'Get your own boyfriend.'"
That wasn't very nice. It was also judgmental and possessive. Which is why Susan the therapist sought therapy with Tammy, "working by Skype to identify the source of her own jealousy." Good medium.
Much of the article focuses on Daniel and Elizabeth. Liz was not exactly a swinger in bed, blaming her Catholic parents for her staleness. Dan wasn't happy either. Naturally, they were in therapy. Then a light went off in Dan's head: Why not have sex with someone other than Liz? He told her about his interest, but she shot it down.
Then Liz got Parkinson's disease. At a Parkinson's fundraiser, lo and behold, she met Joe. The two had similar symptoms and soon started bonding. Next thing you know they're getting it on, but when Dan found out, he was bummed. Liz reasoned that it was his idea to sleep around, so what right did he have to be judgmental? Excellent point.
Then Dan met a gal to fool around with, but that didn't sit too well with Liz. Why not? "She and Joseph had waited for months before having intercourse, building the relationship first; Daniel did not wait, which bothered Elizabeth." But what right did she have to put a stop clock on Dan? There's that judgmental thing again.
Liz was still seeing Joe one year later, but not all was well. "The fact that Joseph's wife didn't know troubles her, and she wrestled with guilt." Surely more therapy can fix that.
If this doesn't sound like a Lifetime chick flick, the ending will. The author, who is married, got so hot doing all these interviews that she wanted to put some spice in her life, too. She met a guy in a hotel who seemed like the right one to experiment with, but she didn't take the plunge.
What stopped her? It wouldn't be fair to her husband, she thought. There is no need to congratulate her—she was not pleased with her decision. She accused herself of "instinctively acting out a familiar, but also ridiculous, paradigm of marriage, one in which we collude in the fiction that no one of the opposite sex ever draws our interest."
Sounds like another candidate for therapy.
Bill Donohue is President and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization. He was awarded his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University and is the author of seven books and many articles.