"Why 'Open' Marriages Don't Work"
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.