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What's So Wrong With An Open Marriage?

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Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have been in the headlines a lot in recent years, and not because of their movies. They're either on the verge of divorce or they have an open marriage -- and I'm not sure which horrifies people more.

I can understand why people might be concerned about them divorcing; they have two kids, Jaden, 14, and Willow, 12, and everyone worries about parents facing divorce (unlike childfree couples, for some reason). But I can't understand the big deal being made about their alleged open marriage, which everyone is assuming is true because of what Jada recently told HuffPost Live:

"I've always told Will, 'You can do whatever you want as long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and be OK.' Because at the end of the day, Will is his own man. I'm here as his partner, but he is his own man. He has to decide who he wants to be and that's not for me to do for him. Or vice versa."

Just this week, she clarified her statement by saying they have a "grown" marriage, but obviously one with a lot of freedom:

Will and I BOTH can do WHATEVER we want, because we TRUST each other to do so. This does NOT mean we have an open relationship...this means we have a GROWN one."

Regardless of if you call it open or "grown," the reaction to their relationship is mixed. Are people upset, perhaps because they think it's morally wrong? Are they jealous? Are they curious in a "Gee, I've always wanted to do that but don't know how to bring that up with my partner" kind of way? Are those who are in an open marriage pleased that there are more of their kind? Are there former pro-open marriage types who've been burned by it now shaking their heads and thinking, "It will end soon, and ugly"?

I don't have the answers to those questions, but I have to imagine this -- whether they work forever or not, open marriages seem to be a lot more honest than many marriages in which one or both of the spouses are cheating.

How many people are cheating? It's hard to assess because the data is self-reported, so who really knows who's being honest and how he or she is defining cheating? If we're to believe recent research, 33 percent of men and 19 percent of women admit to getting some on the side.

More might cheat if they knew they wouldn't get busted. In another survey, two percent of women said they'd be "very likely" to cheat if there was no chance their partner would find out (just five percent of women admitted to having done so), while more than five percent of men would be "very likely" under those circumstances (and in this survey, fewer than three percent of men admitted to straying).

Why is the idea of an open relationship so threatening, especially when it's clear that many are having nonmonogamous relationships anyway while pretending they're monogamous?

Perhaps because it's not the kind of conversation most people can easily bring up with a loved one. Being monogamous is an assumption we have once we get serious romantically --Oh, we're a couple now so we won't sleep with anyone else. But since a lot of romances end because of cheating, I have to wonder why more couples don't talk openly about monogamy. Why aren't we asking each other whether it's been hard -- or not -- to be monogamous? Why aren't we making honest and ongoing discussions about sex, fidelity and monogamy an important part of our relationships? Susan Pease Gadoua and I address that in our forthcoming book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers.

When I spoke with Eric Anderson, an American sociologist at England's University of Winchester and author of the provocative book, The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating, he said that people are afraid to be honest about things like monogamy and our sexual needs and desires. So instead, many cheat:

(M)onogamy is culturally compelled, so the decision has been made for us. For example, how much of a chance would a man stand to have a second date if on the first date he said that he was interested in an open relationship? But equally as important, at the point men enter into relationships they, too, think they want monogamy. It's only after being in a relationship for months or years that they badly want sex with others. But by this point, they don't want to break up with their partners because they have long-standing love. Instead of chancing that love by asking for extradyadic sex, they cheat. If they don't get caught (and most don't) it's a rational choice.

Is it better to turn a blind eye to possible infidelity in our relationships than to have an open marriage? I don't think so. So then why the shock and judgment?

Jada is very clear on what her 15-year marriage is based on: a deep friendship and a commitment to making it lifelong:

"I don't think it's easy to be married to anyone. I think that you have to go into a relationship knowing -- especially when you're dedicating yourself to someone for the rest of your life -- this is a life partnership. He's my best friend. He's been by my side through some of the most difficult parts of my life. And so that's something you can never take away."

Why does being monogamous trump that?

A version of this appeared on Vicki Larson's blog, OMG Chronicles.