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What Americans Think About Open Marriages

In a long piece for The New York Times, Susan Dominus asked the question, “Is an open marriage a happier marriage?” [1] The article presented a flattering portrayal of non-monogamous relationships, and suggested that the taboo against such arrangements is eroding. 

Unsurprisingly, many social conservatives were horrified by the normalization of open marriages. According to Rod Dreher [2], “This kind of thing means the dissolution of family and eventually of society.” I am not qualified to weigh-in on whether the end of monogamy will mean the end of the world. But I can say a few words on whether monogamous marriages are actually becoming an anachronism.

On a personal level, I find the idea of an open marriage repulsive, and cannot imagine asking for, or acquiescing to, such an arrangement. I am skeptical that such marriages work as well in practice as Dominus’s article suggested. But since my inclinations are often out of sync with the contemporary Zeitgeist, I cannot assume my attitude on this matter is widely shared. The General Social Survey [3], however, can give us some additional insights into this question.

Since the GSS was first conducted in the 1970s, it has consistently asked the following question: “What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner—is it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?”

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It turns out that we have seen a surprisingly small amount of fluctuation on this question, and the trend has been toward less tolerance for infidelity. In 1973, about 70 percent of respondents described extramarital sex as “always wrong.” In 2016, this percentage was actually higher—about 76 percent.

One may suspect that the aggregate numbers provide a misleading portrait. That is, maybe there is a yawning generation gap that on this subject, with devoted, steadfast Baby Boomers on one side and decadent, sex-crazed millennials on the other. This is also not the case. Among GSS respondents under 30-years old, about 74 percent claimed that adulterous sex was always wrong, only slightly lower than the overall percentage.

Perhaps attitudes are the wrong variable to look at. Since actions speak louder than words, we may want to know the prevalence of actual extramarital affairs. Once again the GSS can give us some insights, as it also asks, “Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?” In this case, we must consider a shorter period of time; the GSS did not begin asking this question until 1991. But two and a half decades is still a long time, given the speed at which cultural changes seem to be occurring.

Once again, we see very little change. Among married (or formerly married) GSS respondents, about 15 percent reported having sex with someone other than their spouse while married. In 2016, this percentage increased to about 17 percent—a difference within the margin of error.

We can be reasonably skeptical about these percentages. There is nothing that precludes GSS respondents from lying about their sexual behaviors when completing a survey. And since we know that respondents lie about things as harmless as voter turnout, we can be confident that some people are unwilling to divulge their extramarital affairs, even in the context of an anonymous survey. 

However, even if we think the actual percentages are higher than those presented by the GSS, we have no reason to suspect that rates of dishonest responses have systematically increased over time. That is, the degree to which these numbers underestimated the truth was probably consistent over the entire time period. In fact, if we believe that taboos against non-traditional sexual practices have been waning, we can reasonably argue that people were more likely to lie on this question in 1991 than in 2016.

It is possible that beliefs about monogamy within marriage are about to undergo a revolutionary change, but there are reasons for skepticism. Aggressive efforts to normalize polyamory are not new, and there is little reason to believe that a new batch of articles on open marriages will have a greater long-term impact than the free-love movement of the 1960s, or the rumors about “key parties” a decade later.

None of this is to say that American society has not undergone revolutionary changes in its attitudes toward sex. Although Americans’ feelings toward extramarital affairs have not changed, Americans are much more approving of premarital sex; in 1972, about 36 percent of respondents said sex before marriage was always wrong, compared to about 20 percent in 2016.

I am not arguing that all is well with Americans’ romantic relationships. Conservatives can be concerned by the rising median age [4] at first marriage, as well as the increasing rates of cohabitation. There is also a troubling and growing divide in marriage rates along class and racial lines [5], which may be further entrenching social inequality.

Cultural traditionalists can justifiably decry all of these developments. You can count me among those who are disturbed by trends in American families [6]. But if your capacity for outrage and panic is exhaustible, I recommend you forget about open marriages.

George Hawley (@georgehawleyUA) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism [7], White Voters in 21st Century America [8], and Making Sense of the Alt-Right [9] (forthcoming).

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24 Comments To "What Americans Think About Open Marriages"

#1 Comment By William Dalton On May 16, 2017 @ 12:07 am

While the acceptance of married persons having extramarital affairs has not grown over the decades, the acceptance of people living together and having children without first getting married is increased significantly. The question to ask may be how prevalent is the practice, and acceptance, of children’s parents, even those who live together, having sex with other partners.

#2 Comment By John_M On May 16, 2017 @ 12:12 am

I am old enough to have read the hoopola about open marriages 50 years ago. And watched the divorces that resulted from the various n-on-m matchups as people tried out their newfound freedom from unintended pregnancies and easily cured STD’s. It didn’t work well then. I see little reason to believe it will work any better now.

Actually there was a wave of divorces for a generation or so and then the educated population realized that divorce hurt kids – Surprise! Just what the old farts and religious types had been telling them. But they did learn it and it seems that marriages among the educated are overall quite monogamous and supportive for children.

I see little reason to believe that the newest propaganda attempt for open marriages will be very successful.

#3 Comment By Fazal Majid On May 16, 2017 @ 12:55 am

“devoted, steadfast Baby Boomers”

I don’t know what planet you are living on, but it is precisely because Gen X and Millennials have witnessed firsthand the toll the narcissistic, self-indulgent Boomers’ promiscuous lifestyle causes that their attitudes are more puritan in many ways.

#4 Comment By Liam On May 16, 2017 @ 7:29 am

Actually, the NY Times piece was not nearly as flattering as it may have seemed on a casual read. And the comboxes for the piece are filled with comments from folks not obviously conservative who saw the piece as fundamentally much more ambivalent.

#5 Comment By Harper On May 16, 2017 @ 8:54 am

> “What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner—is it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?”

That’s not really the question to be asked in reference to open marriages.

The basis of an open marriage is communication. If a person is having sex outside of marriage without the spouse’s knowledge and consent, the person is having an affair and is a jerk (to put it nicely.) If the person starts the affair and then wants an open marriage, that person is still a jerk.

Open marriages only really work if both spouses are willing to communication before, during, and after everything.

Personally? Yuck, but I don’t care if people in my social circle decide that this is the way they want to live. The ones who were successful at it were successful because of honest communication, which is (not coincidentally) why many marriages are successful.

So that original question needs to be in two parts: the first is if the spouse knows, and the second is if the spouse do NOT know. That would be an accurate reflection on the attitudes towards open marriages.

#6 Comment By Devinicus On May 16, 2017 @ 8:54 am

A fair point as far as it goes.

That being said, I wonder if “open marriage” is the best way to think about present and future alternatives to monogamy in the United States. Gallup regularly polls Americans’ [10], and here we see a remarkable rise in support, from 7% in 2003 to 17% in 2017.

A [11] found that 25% of Americans believe that polyamorous relationships were “morally acceptable” while only 56% found them to be “morally wrong”.

#7 Comment By KD On May 16, 2017 @ 9:39 am

Dr. Hawley seems to underestimate the Media’s capacity to hawk and normalize perversions to an unsophisticated public. It only takes about 30 years of propaganda to accomplish full cultural subversion.

#8 Comment By Andi On May 16, 2017 @ 10:48 am

When most people are asked this question: “What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner—is it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” most people are going to jump to having an affair which is usually secretive and furtive and they will do that because most people aren’t even familiar with poly or open relationships as an option. So, I believe that you’re mixing apples and oranges with your analogy. You’re using information about affairs and applying it to poly/open. This is not accurate journalism.

#9 Comment By Robert On May 16, 2017 @ 11:13 am

You’re comparing apples and oranges. Infidelity represents a betrayal. There’s a victim. Of course few will support it. Polyamory, though, is being argued for with the language of choice, freedom, and mutuality. “Is it always wrong for a couple to mutually agree to be non monogamous?” would get far less than 76% agreement, especially among the young.

#10 Comment By Slugger On May 16, 2017 @ 11:29 am

My reading of literature makes me think that infidelity has probably had the same incidence (i.e. 15%) as our present age. Some depictions were sympathetic such as the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, but most literature details tragic consequences as in Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Our age does accept more crossing of the line by public figures such as actors and even political leaders. The appointment of a person who conducted an extramarital affair as ambassador to the Vatican would have surprised previous generations.

#11 Comment By O.O. Babarinsa On May 16, 2017 @ 11:58 am

Speaking anecdotally, Marriage and monogamous partnership are still largely the order of the day among my arch-liberal cohort. The number of people I know who seriously entertain polyamory is in the single digits and ironically enough skews *older* (all of them are in their mid to late 30s, context : I’m a ripened 24).

Honestly, I’m not sure who even has the energy for managing that many deeply involved relationships.

#12 Comment By susan faccone On May 16, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

Gay marriage, open marriage, poly marriage, conservatives all want to blame these kinds of things on the breakdown of the family and the breakdown of society, blah blah blah. You don’t need a survey to know what the causes the breakdown of the family and of society. It very simple. DIVORCE. Gays who want to marry, want to be in the relationship of marriage, as well as those who have open marriages and poly marriages. 50% of all heterosexual couples get a divorce. It is simply a statistic. I know that conservatives would like to blame everyone else for the ills of society but they have the market cornered on divorce. Add in alcoholism (although they would like us to believe it is drugs that are destroying society) but it’s alcoholism, domestic abuse, cheating and work alcoholics, and there you go. That is what breaks down the family and society. It is high time they stop pointing fingers at everyone and look at themselves.

#13 Comment By Olga On May 16, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

If people really want to learn about open marriages and polyamory there are books and websites you can read. However, it will always be a very tiny percentage of the population that is interested in such a thing. Even if you don’t have an instantly negative view of it, it is a lot of emotional work, and most people don’t want to work that hard.

A lot of people are anti-relationship entirely because they have had bad experiences or grew up in homes with poor marriages.

Waiting to get married until you are older is a good thing. Being older than 25 for your first marriage makes the likelihood that marriage will be successful almost 50 percent greater than if you are younger.

Rather than focus on marriage as a duty. Relationships require skill. Teaching young people the necessary skills to successful in a relationship would be helpful.

In the US serial monogamy is common. My ex-husband’s aunt was married 5 times. Not sure is waiting for marriage necessarily has the intended result. A famous belly dancer in Egypt was against pre-marital sex, but was married 14 times. How is this morally better?

Relationships are hard. So more people divorce now. In the past people stayed together in misery. I know my grandparents were not happy, they just stayed together out of duty.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 16, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

It’s nice to know that for most people they have a line that values traditional relationships. Since I am single, there’s a lot I can imagine. My housemate and I were watching Twister or some part of it. She gets a kick out my girlfriend list, of Helen Hunt is a member, along with a list of others growing shorter by the month – benefit or curse of singleness.

But it’s hard not think of Mr. Bill Paxton without thinking of the “Show Big Love”. From the perspective of my lean in faith and practice for all practical purposes, that was an open marriage. And while it is intriguing, it just looks exhausting. If one could jump the moral hurdle, the demands of such a relationship taxing.

When I last taught interpersonal dynamics the research then was clear. The best marriages as to emotional psychological and financial health and family stability were those in which:

1. couples ha abstained from relations before marriage

2. the couples were faithful in marriage

3. sought to meet and get their needs wants and desires met that included the each other (not that every need is met by the other, but tat the two confided in one another)

Marriage has most likely passed me by, but if that opportunity presented itself, I would have to reject the anyone who even suggested an open arrangement. It’s also nice to know that the younger seems to value and embrace monogamy if not celibacy.

Still,

celibacy is not a death sentence and despite its difficulties, I suspect that marriage monogamy isn’t either.

All the great “ball and chain” jokes aside.

#15 Comment By Andy g On May 16, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

As a thought experiment, let’s rephrase the question like this: Given the choice between a discreet and consensual affair versus breaking a family, which is the ethical choice?
Divorce for any and all reasons has become mainstream, and serial monogamy is our default lifestyle because of our unwillingness to look at other possibilities. The infamous French often have affairs BECAUSE they value family so highly- by contrast an American couple will divorce and move on, regardless of the damage to the family.

#16 Comment By ChadR On May 16, 2017 @ 5:58 pm

“Open marriage” is an oxymoron. By definition, a marriage is to be monogamous for life, and the proper term for violations of that monogamy is “adultery.” It doesn’t matter whether the cheating spouse has the permission of the other spouse. It’s still adultery and an act of “treason” against the marriage covenant which is far more than “just a piece of paper,” a derisive phrase I hear used by younger people these days.

If someone wants to continue having multiple sex partners throughout adulthood, then marriage is simply not for him/her.

#17 Comment By Anthony On May 16, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

The only people I know who practice open marriage of some form (including swinging) are 50+ with no kids in the house, like my parents. No idea how you manage that with kids included… seems like way too much work.

The only big shift I see among my generation is more openness about sex before marriage. That’s a real change and it’s not just a liberal coastal thing. It’s just normal and doesn’t seem to affect how people do marriage/kids within my social group at least.

#18 Comment By Adriana I Pena On May 16, 2017 @ 8:09 pm

I can tell you that the Unitrarian Universalist Fellowship in State College is a strong believer in monogamous marriages.

There was a crisis not too long ago when a staff member had an affair with a married man. Originally it was solved quietly (the parties being told to cut it off). Then came a power grab in which this was used to discredit the current leadership for being too lenient….

There was a divorce a few years ago. A husband dropping his wife for someone younger. The husband is nowhere to be seen at the Fellowship, while the rejected wife is an active and well respected member of it.

No relaxation of morals there.

And their support of gay marriage is based on the desire to enforce monogamy on gays the same way.

#19 Comment By TR On May 16, 2017 @ 9:11 pm

KD: The media tried to hawk what you call a “perversion” 40-plus years ago. It didn’t catch on. The only people who can afford this kind of fun (see how you can call it something else) are working far too hard to have the time for it.

#20 Comment By Alton On May 17, 2017 @ 2:42 am

The GSS Survey that Hawley quotes misses in capturing what the NY Times piece was about.

“What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner—is it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?”

I think across all relationships and age groups, most would believe this is wrong. However, we might see a lot more acceptance of this if the question was worded as follows:

“What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner, as long as both people in the marriage communicated and gave clear guidelines that it was okay?”

The point of the NY Times piece was how communication was key to these open relationships. It was cheating when done in secret. That is universally considered wrong. But when they approach it as adults and the idea of adding more love to their life, you might find a larger percentage of people that agree.

I have no issues with Hawley’s personal opinions. I share his skepticism and revulsion of the idea of an open marriage. Where we differ is that the NY Times piece made me think about my relationships and why I believe the things I do while he left outraged and disturbed.

This simply reminds me of the type of outrage over gay marriage or the idea that a man can be a nurse. These are things that have no bearing on my life or anyone outside of the relationship.

I do wish the American Conservative would have more thoughtful arguments on why a traditional marriage is so important to the foundations of society. I read about Daniel and Elizabeth

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 18, 2017 @ 3:44 am

“This simply reminds me of the type of outrage over gay marriage or the idea that a man can be a nurse. These are things that have no bearing on my life or anyone outside of the relationship.”

I was so delighted this never saw the light of day.

Te problem wit a societal support of same sex behavior is that it is a dead end relationship. It’s societal benefit is nil. And marriage is to double down for support for a practice that provides no potential for anything beyond self “whatever.”

Because marriage is a public as ell as private construct. The community has some say over whether said constructs as to behavior warrants the status marriage.

What you and whomever do in the privacy of your home is none of my business, but when you contend that I adopt or accept said behavior as a norm and condone/support a marriage arrangement . . .

I must bow out.

The societal issue with “open marriage” is that it invites people who are affected who are not married or whose arrangement is entirely different. And as much as many like to contend otherwise, marriage is and remains a construct in which fidelity is the expected norm. Not merely fidelity but mutual ownership. And in such cases, having relationships outside of that bond is a cheat, even if one is granted permission to do so. If in fact responding to one’s desires at will is the choice, then marriage is a moot agreement, except as some manner of tax dodge or the other benefits.

Why not choose to be great friends and do as one will. Because for some people fidelity takes work and they’d rather not bother the effort so a cornerstone of marriage as fidelity is irrelevant.

And families that model fidelity remain of value to society at large. Because they foster a future.

#22 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On May 18, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

As noted above, the GSS and the New York Times article are talking about two entirely different things here. An open marriage / polyamoric relationship is one in which both partners involved seek other sexual / emotional partners with the full consent of their spouse. That doesn’t have much to do with what most people think of when they hear ‘extramarital sex’ (i.e. a covert affair without the spouse’s consent).

As Robert says above, with an affair there is a betrayal and a victim: in the case of open marriages, there’s no betrayl and no victim. I really doubt you would find 75% of younger people arguing that open marriages are always wrong (although who knows, Americans are in some ways surprisingly conservative).

#23 Comment By LFM On May 18, 2017 @ 8:16 pm

Like some others who have commented, I’m old enough to remember – as a child at the time – the puff pieces in praise of ‘communal marriage’ and ‘open marriage’.

I’m also old enough to remember that even the most passionate advocates of ‘openness’, in the sense of being honest with one’s spouse, nearly always failed to live up to their ideals when something threatened their marital stability. To take some of the more famous, older examples: Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West both believed in openness and tried, sort of, to practise it. All the same, they lied to each other continually, especially she to him. The book about their marriage was a huge hit in the 1970s, but few people took in its real lesson, which was that open marriage can only be sustained by a good deal of lying. Fittingly, it was also one of the most dishonest books ever written about any marriage. Written by their son, it managed to conceal the fact that the act that precipitated his mother’s infidelities was the discovery of his father’s infidelities – by means of an STD which he had to report to his wife.

It’s all a load of tripe. Pay no attention.

#24 Comment By Pamela On December 22, 2017 @ 11:53 pm

First of all that 50% of all marriages ending in divorce is false.
second of all, any marriage other than the one created By God is in fact a fake marriage and God will never acknowledge it even if fools of this world do.
Of course ignorant godless fools try to diminish the significance of so many people acknowledging that adultery is always wrong. Well,Duh! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. God wrote his laws on our spiritual heart so we ALL know that cheating on a spouse is always wrong but some fools decide that they know best and so they stupidly try to substitute what works with some sleazy, irresponsible behavior that ends in divorce or even murder.
Galatians 6:7:
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.
So what does the adulterer sow? Well, for starters they sow:
anger, jealousy and hatred.
And those that cheat are regarded as: irresponsible,sleazy, untrustworthy, immature, selfish, ignorant, sneaky and as a liar.
So what kind of garden would these seeds produce?
All kinds of plants with thorns and poison and it would be filled with all kinds of ugly weeds that would flourish and choke out anything beautiful in such a garden.
Now the seeds a faithful man or woman sows is:
happiness, kindness, love, joy and stability.
And they are regarded as:
Kind, smart, decent, trustworthy, responsible, mature, caring, reliable and honest.
It’s almost ironic that fools babble about feeling unfulfilled in their marriage. I’m betting they’re NOT Godly people. Meaning they don’t attend church regularly and that they stupidly believe all the garbage from their single friends about how “great” their lives supposedly are when most of them lie in order to make their friends jealous because THEY’RE JEALOUS of happily married couples. No Lie! Many secretly or not so secretly envy what they have and wish they had it too but since they’re probably too big of a loser (at least at that current time) to obtain a spouse of their own they resort to all kinds of underhanded tricks in order to sow seeds of discontent within the happy couples marriage. Not much of a friend, I know. smh
Besides, who but a total moron fails to grasp something as simple and basic such as you CAN’T have a commitment when there is no fidelity! Commitment equal fidelity and fidelity equals commitment! DUUUH!
It can’t get anymore simple than that!
Suppose you made a commitment to work for a bank. I know for a fact that ALL banks forbid their employees from working for a competitor bank at the same time! Why?! Because there would always be the possibility of sharing one bank’s information with the other. So if someone were caught working for two different banks they would be fired for being disloyal! So in this regard, everyone seems to understand the need for making a true commitment to one bank and to one bank only. Yet! When it comes to marriage some half-wits can’t seem to see the tree for the forest and stupidly seem to think that they can be committed and still cheat! No you can’t! The minute one cheats (even with some morons permission) there is automatically an emotional space created between the Husband and wife.
So do yourself a favor and if you want to get married make sure you don’t have your head shoved up your rear-end at the time and think an open-marriage would ever work.
I don’t know why some celebrities are so mentally and morally incompetent but if I were to marry one he’d HAVE TO undergo some serious counseling with a Christian counselor before I’d ever marry him! Period!