A few weeks ago I posted an entry called “A Very Slippery Slope” about the dangers of expanding the definition of marriage to mean more than a relationship between one man and one woman. Unfortunately, the intervening few weeks have provided additional evidence that we are already slipping.
Newt Gingrich is running for president. Not surprisingly, that means that all of his dirty laundry is being aired publicly…which includes an examination of his past marital infidelity. According to the second Mrs. Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House asked her to go along with the idea of an open marriage so that Mr. and Mrs. Gingrich could remain married and Newt could continue his affair with his staffer. When the second Mrs. Gingrich said no, she says, a divorce resulted, and that staffer is now the third Mrs. Gingrich.
In and of itself this would likely have been an unfortunate and, depending on your point of view, disqualifying part of the GOP presidential race. However, the New York Times decided to make it more than that, and it is the Times that we must thank for revealing just how far we are already slipping.
The Times has an opinion section (as most newspapers do) and in the opinion section there is a recurring feature called Room for Debate. On January 20 the powers that be at the paper decided to devote this space to exploring the topic of open marriage. Referencing Marianne Gingrich’s assertion that Newt wanted an open marriage, the paper asked this question: “…[I]f her account is true, was he onto something? If more people considered such openness an option, would marriage become a stronger institution — less susceptible to cheating and divorce, and more attractive than unmarried cohabitation?”
I will set aside (for the moment) what seems to me the incredible idiocy of the very phrasing and background of this question–the presumption that marriages would be stronger if they were open–and look first at the responses the paper provided.
Dan Savage, editor of a Seattle newsweekly and author of a book on marriage, ended his thoughts on the topic by saying that an open marriage is “a better solution for those who are incapable of monogamous behavior, and a less socially harmful one, than an endless cycle of marriage, betrayal, divorce and remarriage.” Please note what Savage is saying: that there are people who are incapable of monogamy. Sound familiar? As I mentioned in the earlier post, if we start buying into the idea that people are not able to control themselves and therefore must engage in certain behavior, where do we draw the line? in fact, how do we draw a line? Who would get to be the arbiter of what behaviors can and cannot be controlled?
Okay, moving on… Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers are visiting professors of economics at Princeton University. They suggest that marriage vows should be negotiated and tailored like an employment contract. “This individual contracting lets you define the relationship that works best for both you and your boss. We should take the same approach to our romantic relationships.” And, they go on, this does not have to apply only to sexual fidelity; why not negotiate housework, location of residence, number of children, retirement age, etc.? “Marriage can be strengthened by shifting to individualized marital contracts that emphasize those things essential to making each relationship work.” This is, of course, exactly what those who want to redefine marriage are already arguing. Make marriage unique and specific to the individuals involved. If it works for you for it to be between one man and one woman then fine, but let someone else define it as between two men or two women if they so please. But again, how can we stop there? If it’s all about what works for me, how can you ever say no?
Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford and author of a book on African-American marriages correctly points out that most individuals who claim to want the freedom that an open marriage allows are not nearly as excited about allowing their spouse the same freedom. But he ends his response with this: “The paradox of marital satisfaction is that people would almost certainly be happier if they expected less. The surest road to discord, sexual and otherwise, is to expect your partner to complete you, to make you whole. If couples relaxed or relinquished some of their emotional expectations, marriages could better accommodate extramarital dalliances. But then, there would also be less need for them.” On the contrary, isn’t the need for completion the exact reason why God created Eve in the first place? But, Banks seems to say, if we didn’t expect our spouse to complete us we probably wouldn’t get so worked up when he or she did step out on us. All I can think to say to this line of reasoning is…”Whatever.”
W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project, could certainly be expected to defend marriage, though, right? Well, just barely. Wilcox asserts that open marriages do a disservice to women and are particularly dangerous for the well-being of children. He expounds on this by saying that more men than women engage in infidelity, so women are the ones most often hurt, and then cites a survey showing that children who live with “one parent and an unrelated romantic partner” are ten times more likely to be “sexually, physically or emotionally abused.” While no doubt true, I think Wilcox missed the point, because I am not sure anyone would advocate open marriages that include children being rotated among caregivers. (I probably should not go that far; let me clarify and say that no one I have come across is advocating such an arrangement).
Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins says that open marriages are not a trend we should move toward because of the danger of jealousy. However, it is perfectly fine, he suggests, to have any number of sexual relationships, so long as each one is monogamous for its duration. He calls this “serial monogamy.”
Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, not surprisingly, support the idea of an open marriage. And I say not surprisingly because they are the authors of a “practical guide to polyamory.” They suggest that successful open marriages are all about effective communication: “People who are generally open-minded about sex and who are aware of polyamory as an option will have an easier time than those who believe that the desire for an open relationship must mean that their spouse no longer loves them.”
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, authors of a book on sexual history, are perhaps the most blatantly in support of open marriage. Their response includes these statements:
“…[T]he configuration of the relationship (same-sex, open, swinging, poly, asexual, etc.) shouldn’t concern us, on personal or policy grounds. Conventional relationships are no happier or more durable than the alternatives. … For all the oft-repeated claims to the contrary, civilization doesn’t depend upon the sanctity of any particular form of marriage, but upon honoring the dignity intrinsic to any mutually respectful, mutually beneficial relationship.” Again, the basic idea is, whatever works for the individuals involved should be fine.
Bottom line…we’re already slipping.