Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What Americans Think About Open Marriages

They are not becoming more accepting of infidelity.

In a long piece for The New York Times, Susan Dominus asked the question, “Is an open marriage a happier marriage?” 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, “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, 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?”

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 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, 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. 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, White Voters in 21st Century America, and Making Sense of the Alt-Right (forthcoming).