NY Times Magazine cover story: "Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?"
|Zaeli Kane and Joe Spurr. (Photo: Holly Andres / NYT)|
Open Love NY has been waiting for this piece for a long time. Two weeks ago Mischa Lin, past president of OLNY, wrote to the Polyamory Leadership Network that author Susan Dominus "has been working on this story on and off for more than a year, following couples in the northeast, and it's going to be the longest story she's ever worked on. She brought one of the couples to Poly Cocktails [run by OLNY] last year. There was a supporting video featuring four people that was shot in San Francisco, and the cover photo is being shot on Friday in Austin, Texas.
"Those of you speaking to the media may want to piggyback on the coverage for your own stories with local outlets."
The article is not just prominent and massive, it is damn good for what it does. It'll probably become the go-to article for conventional couples facing the question of having an open marriage.
Some of the poly community, however, is responding more critically — regarding the mostly glum photos, minority non-inclusiveness, couple-centricism, and the fact that in an article about "happier marriage," the woman in its central couple got involved with a man secretly cheating on his wife. More on all this below.
Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?
What the experiences of nonmonogamous couples can tell us about jealousy, love, desire and trust.
By SUSAN DOMINUS
...Occasionally, when he... felt some vital part of himself dwindling, Daniel would think about a radical possibility: opening up their marriage to other relationships. He would poke around on the internet and read about other couples’ arrangements. It was both an outlandish idea and, to him, a totally rational one. He eventually even wrote about it in 2009 for a friend who had a blog about sexuality. “As our culture becomes more accepting of choices outside the norm, nonmonogamy will expand as an acceptable choice, and the world will have to change as a result,” he predicted.
He was in his late 30s when he decided to broach the subject with Elizabeth gingerly....
...One seismic shift in a marriage often drives another. In the fall of 2015, Elizabeth met a man at a Parkinson’s fund-raiser. Joseph had symptoms similar to Elizabeth’s and also felt he was in his prime. (Daniel, Elizabeth and Joseph requested that their middle names be used and did not want to be photographed to protect their and their children’s privacy.) He asked her to tea once, and then a second time. They understood something profound about each other but also barely knew each other, which allowed for a lightness between them, pure fun in the face of everything. They met once more, and that afternoon, in the parking lot, he kissed her beside his car, someone else’s mouth on hers for the first time in 24 years. It did not occur to her to resist. Hadn’t Daniel wanted an open marriage?
...For several nights following that therapy session, they talked in their bedroom, with an attention they had not given each other in years, sitting on the strip of rug between the foot of their bed and the wall. The sex, too, was different, more varied, as if reflecting the inventing going on in their marriage. Elizabeth was still someone’s wife, still her children’s mother, but now she was also somebody’s girlfriend, desired and desiring; now her own marriage was also new to her.
...Daniel said he was past the point of fear. “Basically you could say maybe we loved each other before all this — but maybe we were just asleep. And maybe being asleep is more dangerous and worse to you as a person than what’s going on right now.”
...I met Elizabeth and Daniel through Tammy Nelson, a sex and couples therapist in New Haven ... She thought of the phenomenon as “the new monogamy,” which became the title of a book she published in 2012. “The new monogamy is, baldly speaking, the recognition that, for an increasing number of couples, marital attachment involves a more fluid idea of connection to the primary partner than is true of the ‘old monogamy.’ ”
Antoinette & Kevin Patterson. (Photo: Holly Andres / NYT)
...Terms have long existed for arrangements similar to those she was seeing — they could fall under the category of polyamory, which involves more than one loving relationship, or the more all-encompassing term, consensual nonmonogamy, which also includes more casual sex outside of marriage or a relationship. (The use of each term implies full knowledge of all parties.) But most of the couples she was seeing did not feel the need to name what they were doing at all. “Most people don’t like the word ‘polyamorous,’ ” Nelson told me. “It’s not easy to say; it sounds a little French, with all respect to the French.”
If pressed to find language, the couples might have said they were in open marriages, a phrase first popularized in 1972, with the publication of “Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples,” by Nena and George O’Neill. The book, which focused mostly on emotional openness, became a best seller, most likely because of a concept it introduced in three pages toward the end. “We are not recommending outside sex,” the authors wrote, “but we are not saying that it should be avoided, either.”
And yet open marriages — and to a lesser degree open but nonmarital committed relationships — are still considered so taboo that many of the people I interviewed over the last year resisted giving their names, for fear of social disapprobation and of jeopardizing their jobs. It is no surprise that most conservatives would perceive the concept as a degradation of marriage, of a key foundation of society. But even among progressives I talked to, the subject typically provoked a curled lip or a slack jaw. The thought bubble, or expressed thought: How?...
Married for 14 years, I felt that same visceral resistance, an emotion so strong it made me curious to understand how others were wholly free of it, or managed to move past it. ... I interviewed more than 50 members of open marriages, some of them a dozen or more times.
...Daniel assessed his wife’s boyfriend and decided with a defensive dismissiveness that he was “not a threat.” The conversation stayed light, the encounter ended without incident and then Daniel and Elizabeth went home and had sex: Reclamation sex, as it is sometimes called among the polyamorous.
Daniel had started to think of episodes like this one as part of a new marital order he called Bizarro World. Bizarro World, Scene 1: His wife taking photographs of him to post on his OkCupid profile. Scene 2: He reaches under his pillow on a night when his wife is with her boyfriend and finds a note she has left, knowing his hand would slide precisely there. He opens it up to see a picture of a heart, with their names written inside, a plus sign between them. Scene 3: One night, close to bedtime, Daniel and Elizabeth explain the concept of polyamory to their two teenage children and tell them that although their mother is seeing someone, the marriage is still strong. Their son, who is 17, sounds almost proud of them for doing something so alternative. Their daughter, who is 15, takes it in more quietly, uncomfortably. She is just relieved, she tells them, that they are not fighting anymore.
...And yet Daniel still felt conflicted about how the arrangement had started and all that it asked of him. In June, he sat down and made a document he called Bizarro World Benefits and Drawbacks.
...Elizabeth encouraged Daniel to invest more effort in meeting someone. She wanted the marriage to feel balanced, and she also wanted him to experience what she was feeling — that new relationship energy (for polyamorists, that is another technical term, frequently abbreviated as N.R.E.).
...These rules are often designed to manage jealousy. Most monogamous couples labor to avoid that emotion at all costs; but for the philosophically polyamorous, jealousy presents an opportunity to examine the insecurities that opening a relationships lays bare. Jealousy is not a primal impulse to be trusted because it feels so powerful; it is an emotion worth investigating.
Popular evolutionary psychology holds that jealousy is innate, a biological imperative that evolved to guarantee watchful, possessive males some certainty of their offspring’s paternity. Polyamorists would argue, as would others, that humans are capable of overriding that system with rational discourse. But many of them reject that version of evolutionary biology altogether, citing the work of Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, co-authors of “Sex at Dawn.”
...In her book “What Love Is,” published this year, Carrie Jenkins, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia who is married and has a longstanding boyfriend, questions the likelihood that humans, en masse, were built for any one mode of child rearing or sexual partnering, including, as she puts it, the “hippie commune” model that Ryan envisions. “...We we are a diverse and adaptive species, so what we should predict is a suite of biological mechanisms that would allow diverse approaches to that challenge of raising children. Flexibility is what is distinctive about us as humans.”
...In August, Elizabeth and Daniel made a road trip to a Lower East Side bar in New York to attend Poly Cocktails, a monthly event founded in 2007 for people who are interested in nonmonogamy, or practicing it. At the event, Elizabeth and Daniel felt overwhelmed, a little out of place. Over the course of the evening, about 300 people, a diverse crowd, packed into the rooftop bar, most of them, it seemed to Elizabeth and Daniel, younger than they were. A woman in cat’s-eye glasses and straight dark hair sat on another woman’s lap; the woman with glasses turned out to be one-half of a married heterosexual couple from Westchester. A 31-year-old man with his hair in a bun sat close to his beautiful girlfriend. Everyone seemed to know one veteran polyamorist: a 64-year-old man with a long, white braid. [Hi there Buck! –Ed.] For the most part, the socializing was studiously nonsexual, but a young woman with a retro look — red lipstick, baby-doll dress — was flirting with a tall man in a sleeveless T-shirt, a 45-year-old dad from brownstone Brooklyn, a musician with a corporate day job. His wife looked on, amused, as she waited for a drink at the bar.
...Dating, I started to think, as Daniel told me about talking to his companion, is wasted on the young and the single.
...Later, when he thought back on the evening, he thought less about the sex than about the easiness that there was between them afterward. They had that conversation people often have after confirming a suspected mutual attraction with actual sexual intimacy — the “when did you know?” conversation, the one that shines a spotlight on your sense of being chosen. ... And Daniel found himself reminiscing about the first time he met Elizabeth, early in his career, and how she looked so strangely bathed in a bright light at that moment, as if the universe was trying to make something clear to him.
“And we’re just having a normal chat, and I’m telling her how I feel about my wife, which in retrospect could have been really stupid,” Daniel told me. “But that I could share my love for my wife with her, and not have that takeaway from the experience, or even be awkward, even though she’s naked, lying on top of me — I really felt like it was kind of beautiful. And it struck me that she could have gone to this other place, and been insulted, ‘How dare you talk about that, you have me here now.’ But instead, she kind of saw it as a beautiful thing, too.”
...Conventional wisdom has it that men are more likely than women to crave, even need, variety in their sex lives. But of the 25 couples I encountered, a majority of the relationships were opened at the initiation of the women; only in six cases had it been the men. ...
...Forging new relationships was complicated, at first, and bruising: Could they go without a condom, if everyone tested clean and the relationship seemed to have potential? Could one spouse’s partner veto the other spouse’s new love interest, if that person had an S.T.D.?
Tim, after a few false starts, started dating a married woman, a former minister, whose husband also had a serious ongoing partner. He is six years into the relationship with her now, and the four of them — Tim, his girlfriend, her husband and her husband’s girlfriend — sometimes have drinks. His girlfriend is important enough to him that most of his and Luce’s close friends and neighbors have met her and understand her role in their lives. Their children are 10 and 14; they have grown up knowing, as Tim put it, “that their parents are a little bit different.”
There may be people who are more inclined toward monogamy or polyamory than others, who may even, at least one study shows, have some genetic predisposition toward one or the other. Tim seems to be a case study in adaptability, someone who never even considered, much less longed for, the option until his wife brought it up; he has since found the arrangement suits him.
[Psychoanalyst Stephen] Mitchell’s book, as well as “Mating in Captivity,” Esther Perel’s 2006 exploration of similar issues, suggests that the kind of marriage most people seek — secure, mutually desirous — is a precarious, elusive construct. Perel, whose forthcoming book is titled “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity,” has become interested in the emotional growth that comes from having different partners. In the book, she writes that “so often the most intoxicating other that people discover in the affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.”
...As I talked to couples over the last year, I often found myself reflecting back on my own marriage. I started to feel less baffled by the boldness they were showing in opening up their marriages, and more questioning of my own total aversion to the possibility. ... I felt, at times, that I was a rusty caliper, trying to take the measurement of some kind of advanced nanotechnology. ... Where I read humiliation into a situation, the people I was interviewing saw a kind of expansive love that defied pride, possessiveness, traditional notions of masculinity and ownership. I kept wanting to define terms — but who is your primary? Whom would you choose in the event of conflicting needs? My instructors were patient but resolute in their overarching easygoingness: It works out, and when it does not, we talk about it and are better for it.
Open marriages, I started to think, are not just for people who were more interested in sex, but also for people who were more interested in people...
...And then, just over a year after Zaeli first met Blake, when Zaeli and Joe were planning to move to a new home in Austin, they discarded the one rule that had governed their nonmonogamy and invited Blake to move in with them and their daughter, who is now 3. For Zaeli, nonmonogamy was also an antidote to the atomization of families, to the loneliness of how people live. “People think of this as a home-wrecking. But this can be a nice family structure.”
I thought that by the time I met Joe and Zaeli and Blake in February at their home in Austin that I had become used to the idea of openness. But from the moment I entered their house, I did not know where to look. Joe, warm and outgoing, greeted me at the door, making small talk I could barely engage in, as his wife and Blake were, at that moment, nuzzling by the stove, reunited after having been apart for most of the day. We sat down to dinner, Blake ushering their daughter — Joe and Zaeli’s daughter, biologically, but one Blake was helping to raise as part of the family — to the table. Blake does more day-to-day caregiving of Joe’s child than Joe does, given his more relaxed work hours, and Blake also does most of the cooking. That night, he made a Thai chicken soup for dinner.
As we ate, Zaeli recalled first meeting Blake. “I could just tell with him, that it wasn’t just, this will be a guy that I hang with. It was more like, ‘Oh, I’ve found you,’ that whole thing.” ... I watched Joe take it all in, his daughter on his lap; he was playing with some tiny balls of Play-Doh that she had left on the table and was flattening them out, shaping them into one big heart. The conversation wore on, but I eventually admitted to them what they already knew, which was that this was all strange, maybe even hard, for me to witness — Blake kissing Zaeli in front of Joe, the two of them recalling how they fell in love. ...
Susan Dominus is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine who often writes about family and culture.
Read the whole article (online May 11, 2017; to appear in the May 14 print issue).
● Near the top of the article is box where you can send in your own open-relationship story, for possible publication online. It says,
Are you currently in an open relationship, or have you been in one in the past? Share your story with us. A select group of responses will be published on nytimes.com.
● The poly world is abuzz with reaction to the article, some of it displeased. Aside from the cover photo, the portraits inside are uniformly somber, "verging on making everyone involved seem extremely unhappy," comments Kira An. "There's no variety at all in the character/mood. You're not actually exploring the question or leaving it up to interpretation if all of the images scream "WE ARE STRUGGLING AND SAD AND HURT."
And some of the people in the portraits get very little say in the article. Kevin and Antoinette Patterson, for instance. I was expecting a lot about Kevin — he's brilliant and articulate and has quite a personal story, he runs Poly Role Models, and he's a leading spokesperson for awareness of racial issues in the white-at-birth poly movement. Not only was this omitted, there's that picture of the two of them. I hardly recognized him. "We took sooooo many pictures," he says of the photo shoot. "I can't believe that the single image they chose was the best of the bunch. We didn't look happy at all. The ones we took in our living room were full of smiles and laughter."
Comments Open Love NY president Chrissy Raymond Holman, "They did the same with the gay couple too. One line. One sad pic."
Then again, the author did say she interviewed 50 people.
Join the discussion on FB, reddit/r/polyamory, etc.
Here's the New York Times Facebook post for the article, accruing comments by the bushel. Find the thread there started by the reporter, Susan Dominus; she asks for and responds to questions about the writing of the piece.
Update May 15: The author of the NYT article, Susan Dominus, has put up a reddit page for questions and feedback about it.
Labels: open marriage