Should We Be Closed-Minded About Open Relationships?

I am 20 years old, which makes me a member of what is arguably the most liberal generation in America. I live in New York City, one of the most liberal cities in a firmly blue state. In the last election, I voted for Obama.

I am also a marriage traditionalist.

All right, put away your torches and pitchforks. When I say “marriage traditionalist,” I don’t mean that I am anti-gay marriage. (I’m not.) No, in my opinion the real threat to “traditional marriage” has nothing to do with who marries whom, but rather with our collective unwillingness to actually work in relationships.

Wednesday, the Huffington Post published an article by Vicki Larson called “What’s So Wrong With An Open Marriage?” Inspired by negative backlash to speculation on Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s alleged open relationship, Larson encourages open-mindedness toward relationships, even marriages, in which there is no expectation of monogamy. They’re more honest than traditional ones, Larson claims, because even when both partners are faithful to one another, the desire to cheat remains.

“I have to wonder,” she writes, “why more couples don’t talk about monogamy.”

After all, infidelity is extremely prevalent on college campuses, and still others report that they would cheat if they knew they wouldn’t get caught. 

But most of the surveys Larson cites to back up these claims were conducted on college students. This is problematic for two reasons: the desire to be unfaithful may diminish with age, as does the desire for many other risky behaviors, and also because Larson is basing her ideas about marriage — theoretically an institution that lasts for the rest of one’s life — on the sexual preferences of college students. Even if the desire to be unfaithful continues with age, shouldn’t we want to grow up, to be capable of having a more mature, trusting relationship than what we had in college?

What’s wrong with open marriages, to answer the titular question of Larson’s article, is that they indicate that we’ve given up on our ability to be monogamous. That because fidelity is difficult, we give up on it entirely. But fidelity is valuable precisely because it isn’t easy. Marriage ought to be about making sacrifices for your partner and trusting that they would and will do the same. In a so-called “open marriage,” both partners admit that they are incapable of resisting an affair, and moreover, that they are unwilling to try.

Open relationships, in general, seem to me to be part of a greater trend within the milennial generation — the willingness to settle. Larson suggests that monogamy may be too much to ask of ourselves in marriage; the same could be said of the existing “hookup culture” at college. We milennials give it up faster and agree to “keep it casual” so messy emotions don’t get involved in our quest to hook up — even though a whole lot of people indicate that that isn’t what we really want. We’re tired of lowering our expectations, but we continue to do so, all the while lying to ourselves that we’re okay with it.

But to people in their early 20s, for whom the college hookup culture is basically ubiquitous, monogamous and functional relationships are rare — so much so that we’re afraid to ask each other for them. And if we let these open relationships develop into open marriages, we will always be afraid to ask.