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Rachel A. Sussman, LCSW Headshot

Do Open Marriages Work?

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It seems like everyone is discussing the concept of open marriages this week after Marianne Gingrich, the second wife of GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, claimed in an ABC News "Nightline" interview that her ex asked her to enter into an "open marriage" arrangement so he could continue to see his affair partner, Callista Bisek. Apparently Mrs. Gingrich said no, and now we all know some fun facts about why that marriage ended.

Many of my friends and clients wanted to talk to me about open marriages since this scandal broke. They wanted to know if I'd ever worked with couples exploring this arrangement and if open marriages can ever succeed. Some asked in earnest, yet others simply wanted salacious details. Several joked that they wouldn't mind exploring that option themselves. Nevertheless, the intrigue was there.

I can certainly understand the vast interest in this topic. The divorce rate remains high and a large percentage of marriages do end over infidelity. And even those who are happily wed grapple with the concept of lifelong monogamy. Monogamy in itself is also a hot topic as of late. Journalists and bloggers regularly speculate on whether or not it is human nature to mate for life. And the scientific community is putting more research into the study of pair bonds while speculating if humans are designed to be sexually monogamous.

In some relationships, a husband or wife may ask their partner if they would consent to an open marriage. More often than not, requesting an open marriage means that the inquiring partner is interested in having an affair or continuing on with an affair. They are torn between the excitement of an affair and the comfort and security of their marriage, which they don't want to give up. Also, they may wish to cover their bases; if the affair doesn't pan out (and most don't), they want their spouse to be available to continue forward with the marriage. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too.

When the "faithful" spouse is presented with this situation -- once they've picked themselves up off the floor and put the revolver back in its case -- they will generally not agree to the proposal. In a few cases that I've seen, the faithful will temporarily allow the arrangement merely as a tactic to "win" back the estranged partner. This generally backfires, which either causes the broken marriage to end, or it makes reunification (if it's on the table) even more challenging than it would be if the couple was on the mend from say a "regular" affair.

I have worked with couples who endeavor to have an open marriage either from the inception, or later on in their relationship. I entertain no judgment when such couples seek counseling. When there is agreement in place, to each his own. I try to help these couples communicate with each other as to why they are interested in this sort of arrangement, and, equally as important, to guide them to set up "rules." Once the conversations get going I often find that many of these couples really don't want to go this route, but they are having a hard time communicating their sexual or emotional needs to each other. And when those needs are in place, the desire to seek sex from another is often alleviated.

Other couples have sought my guidance after attempting to have an open relationship. By the time they get into my office, all hell has usually broken lose. Several years ago I worked with a couple who agreed to an open relationship shortly after they began dating. Alan*, with two divorces behind him, had explained to Selina* that he was not monogamous by nature, and that he would only go forward with marriage if she agreed that they could both have clandestine external sex lives. Although she readily agreed, it did not work out as intended. They began to regularly spy on and lie to each other. By the time they came to see me, rampant jealousy had poisoned their connection. No rules had been put into place, and with lax boundaries, they both had slept with others in their large circle of friends. In our sessions I inquired as to why Alan felt he couldn't be monogamous, and what eventually came to light was that he had an overwhelming need to have attention paid to him by a variety of women. This desire was rooted deep into his past, yet he didn't have much interest to explore its origins and make repairs. The relationship ended with both parties feeling completely betrayed.

So back to that illustrious initial question: do open marriages work? My answer is no, they generally don't. Open relationships are simply too tricky to navigate and one or both parties end up getting badly burned.

Discussions about sex and fidelity continue to be a hard topic for many couples to navigate. Yet it's one that cannot and should not be avoided. It would do the institution of marriage a world of good if couples were to take the time while dating to seriously contemplate these matters. If done correctly, it will serve as a model to talk about sex throughout the duration of a marriage. Couples who are able to converse fluently about difficult topics stand a fighting chance that when the going gets tough in a relationship -- and it always will -- words can solve problems. And from my perspective, a dialogue is always a healthier and better place to turn to than an affair.

*Please note that all names in this post have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.