Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.



August 29, 2011

"Why 'Open' Marriages Don't Work"

Psychology Today blogs

New York therapist Anne Rettenberg writes a blog titled "Beyond Don Juan" about "relationship and dating issues, targeted to men." In her article below, she generalizes from her sad clients — dysfunctional women and doggy men, apparently — to everybody else.

This is common among statistically illiterate therapists who can't grasp the concept of sampling bias.


Why "Open" Marriages Don't Work

Jealousy is as old and as powerful as sex.

The number one issue that brings couples to my office is infidelity. In my experience, infidelity usually, although not always, destroys the relationship. In a few cases, I've seen people develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from a spouse's infidelity. Yet there are people who want to believe that monogamy is unnatural, or impossible for them as individuals. Some attempt for themselves (or promote to others) the idea of an "open marriage." There are some (in my opinion rather obvious) reasons why ultimately, an "open" marriage almost never works.

First, let's look at who promotes the idea of "open marriage." One of the male bloggers on this site wrote a book [Sex at Dawn] promoting the idea that infidelity is "natural" (a meaningless word--aggression and eating high-fat foods are natural behaviors, yet indulging in them is destructive)....

...In counseling, a variety of reasons for this struggle come out: Marriage at too young an age, difficulties with emotional intimacy (often due to an abusive childhood) or an inability to directly confront problems in a relationship. There may also be some people who are more biologically wired than others to be promiscuous, just as there are people who seem to be biologically wired for addiction....

People who desire open marriages often don't think about how they would feel knowing their partner is sleeping with someone else....

Some couples engage in threesomes; I don't consider this behavior part of an "open" marriage, a term that connotes that each member of the couple has sex with whoever they want outside of the relationship. A threesome is group sex within the relationship; I don't see it as infidelity because it's a shared activity. It can also lead to problems, however, if occasional threesomes become a triadic relationship. It's hard to live in a stable triad because humans are wired for pair relationships. As babies, we feel a merger with our primary caretaker, a feeling that relieves the anxiety of our dependency. As adults, we still find comfort in a pair relationship that reminds us of this merger....

The reason an open relationship almost never works is because people who enter a serious relationship are people who are capable of attachment. They might tell themselves that because they have a special relationship with one person, it's "just sex" when they have sex with someone else. They forget that their initial attraction to their spouse/partner was probably mostly sexual....

There are some people who aren't capable of attachment. These people don't worry about monogamy or fidelity.... When they aren't sexual, they sometimes fit into a diagnostic category called Schizoid Personality Disorder. When they are sexual, they are often psychopaths. The reasons why some people develop these disorders are not completely known....

In many cases an "open" relationship is an attempt to avoid problems in a relationship instead of openly discussing or dealing with them. A better option to an "open" relationship is a frank discussion with your partner about your differences and how to manage them within the relationship. That would be a different kind of "openness," and a healthier one.


Read the whole article (Aug. 26, 2011).

Now this really isn't a big deal in itself — Psychology Today hosts hundreds of blogs, for practically anybody — but it stirred up a lot of reaction in the poly community.

Geri D. Weitzman, the lead author of the booklet What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory (2010, expanded from a her 1999 paper with the same title), posted in the LiveJournal Polyamory community,


Sigh.... There are a ridiculous number of inaccuracies in the piece. I will need to write a rebuttal letter to the editor, citing various research studies....

...In my experience, discussion of these issues is heavily coloured by confirmation bias and observer effects; open marriages tend to be much more visible when they fail than when they don't.

The most relevant research I'm aware of on this issue is Rubin and Adams (J. Sex Research, August 1986) which found "no statistically significant difference in marital stability" between sexually open and sexually exclusive couples.


Noel Figart, who blogs as the advice columnist The Polyamorous Misanthrope ("wielding the stick of grandmotherly kindness"), has also stirred up people to send in rebuttals. In a post widely forwarded by others, she writes,


This article is a bit insidious and I find it disturbing. The basic allusion is that anyone who wants to be poly is damaged somehow and might actually have Schizoid Personality Disorder. I deeply disagree with many points in her article. Where there’s not an armchair diagnosis, she seems to find open relationships male-driven and female-tolerated. As you can imagine, I find this really weird. In fact, I’d say that she’s not interacted much with the polyamory community to have this point of view!

I would like to encourage the polyamory community to respond to this by going to Psychology Today and giving some feedback. However, a caveat: I don’t think the author knows many poly people. The letters she gets are going to be the face of polyamory to her. You will be the face of polyamory to her. Keep that in mind and be a credit to your kink in your responses.


But notice that you can't actually post comments; you can only write to the author personally.

See the Misanthrope post's comments for some excellent letters that people have sent the author, and in one case the author's reply.

Elsewhere, researcher Kelly Cookson takes a measured view:


Actually, Rettenberg's argument is:
(1) People in open marriages want a "special relationship" between spouses and "just sex" with satellite partners.
(2) Psychologically healthy people can't "turn off" the psychological systems that lead them to form attachments.
(3) Therefore, having a "special relationship" between spouses and "just sex" with satellite partners can't work because unwanted attachments will develop....

The statements above do not imply that poly people [necessarily] have psychological problems....

I think statement (2) is basically correct (based on 40 years of psychological studies into attachment).

I think statement (3) is sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect. An older study found that some people dropped out of swinging because they developed unwanted attachments to satellite partners. But that was not the only reason for dropping out. Plus, we don't know what percent of people drop out versus stay involved in swinging. Empirical evidence does not support the universality of Rettenberg's conclusion (though it does suggest her conclusion is correct for some open marriages).

Statement (1) is clearly the source of the problem. This is an incorrect assumption about open marriages.... The percentage of open marriages that want just sex with their partners may be quite low.



Update Aug. 31: Well whaddaya know, her "Why 'Open' Marriages Don't Work" article has been taken down. On her index page, her other articles are still up.

Update Sept. 3: Turns out that the overseers of Psychology Today's blogfarm are the ones who pulled Rettenberg's blog post, because they were getting inundated with polyfolks' objections to it. (Rettenberg had turned off commenting, so her critics could not speak back to the article directly.)

Now Rettenberg is up with a new post about the whole episode: Free Speech Under Attack. This time comments are enabled, and the fur is flying. Have a look.

I still say tempest in a teapot, relative to the amount of fuss this is generating.

This episode does, however, give notice that polyfolks are an articulate, self-confident, mobilize-able bunch. And that if you're going to say dumb things about them, you'd better leave commenting turned on if you don't want them venting their steam higher up your food chain.

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17 Comments:

Blogger DarkMage said...

One of our contributors at SWOhio Young and Poly had a great response to this, I thought (which she also sent to the article's author). You can find it here: http://goo.gl/uF4FU

August 29, 2011 2:50 PM  
Blogger John U said...

Perhaps the way to deal with bigoted demagogues like Anne Rettenberg is to write to her publisher, Psychology Today and point out that her article is a dishonest diatribe, not a scholarly article. In writing that "open marriage almost never works", she ignores a huge body of data to the contrary. Conflating infidelity with open marriage is like conflating drive by shootings with paintball. And even if a large percentage of open relationships do fail (whatever fail means), how does that compare to mono marriages? In 1903, would Rettenberg have dismissed the Wright Brothers efforts because powered flight almost never works? Also, shutting off comments is a hallmark of the academically dishonest. Knowing that more speech is the remedy for their bad speech, they prevent the opinion of others from being heard.

I think it is appropriate to go after her in the same way one might if she had spewed racism. Her ilk have no place in either academia or journalism.

August 29, 2011 4:30 PM  
Anonymous James said...

"Yeah, only screwed up people come to my practice, so the whole world must be screwed up." Makes for a very accurate sampling to draw general conclusions, doesn't it? And it's no mystery that some very mentally unhealthy individuals wind up as therapists."

August 29, 2011 11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most people go into the healing professions to heal themselves. Sometimes they do heal through the work they on themselves and with others. Sometimes they don't. Ironically, being around wounded people all the time can be emotionally and spiritually draining and dispiriting. It's sad that this woman is apparently so well thought of in her field that she's allowed to impose her extremely narrow view on the world. May she find the healing she seeks.

August 30, 2011 8:15 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

As far as I can tell that's not really a blog - it's an advice column. There appears to be no comments or discussion. One can write directly to the author I suppose, but none of it is public or affects the visible discussion.

August 30, 2011 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Linda said...

The links to the Rettenberg column furnished here, at the Polyamorous Misanthrope, and at SW Ohio Poly's blog appear to be dead. Was the piece retracted or moved?

August 31, 2011 5:01 PM  
Anonymous Lucius Scribbens said...

It's been removed. It's not even on her list of recent articles http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-don-juan .

Can't handle the heat when confronted with another point of view?

September 01, 2011 9:12 PM  
Anonymous Lucius Scribbens said...

P.S. Thank you Alan for posting what I assume is most of it here so that her ignorance isn't lost forever.

September 01, 2011 9:14 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

> ...so that her ignorance isn't lost forever.

Oh, it will live for eternity. Aside from the whole internet being archived by things like the Wayback Machine, this website is specially saved on hard media in the Kinsey Institute Library's Polyamory Collection.

September 02, 2011 2:17 PM  
Anonymous gidget commando said...

So she's got a problem with people criticizing her as a "free speech" issue?

Puh-LEEEZE. The government made no effort to control or suppress her speech. Part of the free marketplace of ideas is facing the consequences of speech that is poorly supported, inaccurate or just plain sucky. Deal with it, darling. You shot your mouth off about something for which you were grossly understudied and unprepared, and you faced the consequences.

September 04, 2011 12:18 PM  
Anonymous Goddess of Java said...

*eyebrow* I'm not entirely sure where disagreement is "free speech under attack".

I'm sorry that the flood of disagreement from the polyamory community distressed the authors and editors so.

What distresses me worse is the open admission that Psychology Today is mostly opinion pieces not requiring the academic rigor of a peer-reviewed journal. Since the credentials of the authors are given a strong prominence when they exist, this seems to me to be kind of weasel-worded.

Basically, it seems to me to be an admission the Psychology Today is admitting they're not SUPPOSED to be taken any more seriously than an astrology column. Fair enough, if that's their editorial policy, but they go to some lengths to hide that.

September 05, 2011 7:43 AM  
Blogger wendolen said...

I think my favorite part is where she explains that triad relationships can't work because humans are wired for pair relationships by bonding with our primary caretaker. Um... what about people who were actually raised by BOTH parents??

September 05, 2011 1:12 PM  
Anonymous Rachel S said...

I think the lesson to be learned here is that people need to be more specific in their communications. She wasn't talking about my relationship style at all (we don't sleep with whomever we want, and emotional attachment is pretty much expected before any kind of sex goes on), but because of the terminology used, my relationship style got lumped in with other relationship styles (swinging), and my fur got a little ruffled. Although, not ruffled enough to make an angry phone call. The other issue is over-generalizations and the use of psycho-babble to say that triads are doomed because you can never love your dad as much as you love your mom.

Mostly, I think this whole thing is silly.

September 05, 2011 2:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael Rios said...

wendolen said...
> I think my favorite part is where she explains that triad
> relationships can't work because humans are wired for pair
> relationships by bonding with our primary caretaker. Um...
> what about people who were actually raised by BOTH parents??

The idea that children are raised by one or two people is a recent and novel concept in human history. As the old saying goes,"it takes a village to raise a child." In Nepales tribal culture, there isn't even a separate word for "mother": there is just a word that means, essentially, "female person in my tribe who takes care of me", and that word is used for the mother, aunts, and older female cousins. Likewise, "father" has no distinct meaning, and "brother" or "sister" refers to anyone in the same generation who is part of that tribe or village.

Another characteristic that is unique to humans, with similarities only among a few other primates, is menopause. Anthropologists and biologists generally agree that the function of menopause is to provide more caregivers for the children-- since the post-menopausal woman is no longer having babies of her own, she is available to help care for her grandchildren and others.

So the idea that humans are programmed for a single caregiver flies in the face of most current reality, traditional childrearing practices throughout history (except in wealthy nations during recent times), and biology.

Michael Rios

September 05, 2011 5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone ever watch the Waltons? Grandparents lived with the parents and helped to raise the kids. Gee... that's a quad of caretakers... uh oh... must be something wrong in that family!

Honestly, I do wish more people would get to know members of select communities before making accusations.

As far as infidelty goes... I expect that some of those issues could arise if anyone in any relationship (Mono or not) was not open, and was secretive about another encounter, sexual or relational.

"People who desire open marriages often don't think about how they would feel knowing their partner is sleeping with someone else...." This implies that she thinks the MEN (since her opinion is that men desire this) feel it's ok for them, but not for their ladies. There's more than one type of poly relationship however! The first poly family I ever heard about, was one lady with 2 gentlemen. It does happen folks!

Glad it was removed.

October 14, 2011 9:55 AM  
Blogger Zœy Bacelonia said...

Makes a lot of sense

March 16, 2013 12:43 PM  
Blogger Zœy Bacelonia said...

Yeah but children are wired on one caretaker more than the others, the others are simply there to help

March 16, 2013 12:52 PM  

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