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'Open marriage' isn't a license to cheat, experts say

11:13 PM, Jan 20, 2012   |    comments
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The words "open marriage" may evoke the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s, when free love and wife-swapping were a part of the societal vocabulary.

But now, as those words receive new attention amid the GOP presidential contest, the experts say it's important to note that among couples who practice open marriage, they don't consider it a license to cheat.

"The spouses do not consider themselves cheaters," says Pamela Haag, whose 2011 book Marriage Confidential included discussions with couples in open marriages.

"Spouses in open marriages agree to non-monogamy before-the-fact," she says.

That's not necessarily what happened in the case of Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, who has denied that he asked his second wife, Marianne, for an open marriage or divorce so he could continue his affair with Callista, now his wife. In a television interview, Marianne Gingrich said Newt Gingrich told her he wanted to remain married but also wanted to have an extramarital relationship. His ex's allegations so angered the former House Speaker that he used the podium at the South Carolina debate to blast the media for reporting what he termed "trash."

Historian Stephanie Coontz, who has researched the history of marriage, says in certain cultures around the world, extramarital sex for one or both partners is accepted.

"The problem in America is that the so-called 'open marriage' has usually been somewhat one-sided. To be a real 'open marriage,' it has to be a mutual decision," she says. "For most of history, men had open marriages and women didn't. Men had affairs and women had to put up with it."

"Newt Gingrich's wife didn't want it to be an open marriage," says Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "To the extent he was trying to impose that against her will has nothing to do with openness. It has to be mutually desired - not mutually extorted."

For her book, Haag surveyed 1,879 men and women from an online panel representative of Internet-using adults in the USA. She asked them about the viability of monogamy and whether they "agree or disagree" that "It's unrealistic for a marriage to be monogamous forever." She says 69% disagreed with the statement and believe a marriage can be monogamous; 14% were neutral and 16% agreed with the statement. She also asked whether "non-monogamy could work, if the couple agrees to it beforehand," and found that 22% agreed and another 19% neither agreed nor disagreed, totaling 41% "who at least think it might work."

Dossie Easton, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, says she's been practicing polyamory (multiple and simultaneous sexual relationships) since 1969. She's written about it and advises couples interested in exploring such relationships.

Easton says open sexual relationships require the parties to be honest, have mutual consent and a willingness to negotiate how it's going to work and make sure that people's feelings are acknowledged.

"It used to be considered that if you had a mistress, it was almost your ethical job to make sure your partner didn't find out because anything else would be totally disrespectful to your partner," Easton says. "In many cultures, there was that kind of tacit permission for men to have partners as long as they are discreet. But in this day and age, no one can be that discreet."

Coontz says couples should discuss their feelings about monogamy.

"Do they want to make it a 'make or break it' thing or build in certain leeway so it does not seem like betrayal if it happens," she says. "I'm not advocating one way or another, but it's a conversation couples should have about what their commitment to each other is."

Haag, of Baltimore, says estimates suggest about 5% of all marriages meet that definition of "open."

"We do know they exist," Coontz says. "But in the context of Americans in particular - with a very strong identification of sexual fidelity with love - it's the exceptional couple that works this out."

 

 

 

 

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

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