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Close Relationships

Bride price
Ground rules
Open marriage
Platonic love

The lack of social acceptance for open marriage deals with the generally negative attitudes toward open marriage in Western societies, the reasons for those negative attitudes, and the consequences of those negative attitudes for couples in open marriages.

Surveys show large majorities of people disapprove of extramarital sexual activity. A few studies show people specifically disapprove of open marriages. Critics have put forward moral, medical, and psychological objections to open marriages. The lack of social acceptance places pressure on couples to hide their open marriages from family, friends, and colleagues. This may limit their social support network, resulting in a loss of psychological and physical health benefits.

Evidence of disapprovalEdit

Surveys show consistently high disapproval of extramarital sex. Hunt briefly mentions three surveys conducted in the 1960s in which large majorities disapproved of extramarital sex under any conditions (see page 255 of his book Sexual Behavior in the 1970s). [1] More recent surveys show that 75-85 percent of adults in the United States disapprove of extramarital sex. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] Similar levels of disapproval are observed in other Western societies. Widmer, Treas, and Newcomb surveyed over 33,500 people in 24 nations and found 85 percent of people believed extramarital sex was "always" or "nearly always" wrong. [7] However, disapproval of extramarital sex does not specifically imply disapproval of open marriage, since open marriage does not always involve extramarital sex.

A few studies have shown more direct disapproval of open marriage. In a national study of several hundred women and men, Hunt reported that around 75 percent of women and over 60 percent of men agreed with the statement "Mate-swapping is wrong." [1] A study of several hundred men and women living in the midwestern United States found that 93 percent would not consider participating in swinging. [8] Yet another study asked 111 college women about various forms of marriage and family. [9] These young women viewed open marriage as one of the least desirable forms of marriage, with 94 percent saying they would never participate in a marriage where the man has a right to sex outside the marriage, and 91 percent sayings they would never participate in a marriage where the woman has a right to sex outside the marriage.

The evidence thus shows strong social disapproval of open marriage. Very large majorities of people in Western societies disapprove of extramarital sex in general, and substantial majorities feel open marriage is wrong even when the spouses agree to it. Nine out of ten people say they would never consider open marriage for themselves.

Religious objectionsEdit

Some critics object to open marriages on the ground that open marriages violate religious principles. For example, open marriages clearly contradict traditional Christian doctrine. Open marriages do not conform to the one-man-one-woman theology of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, a theology which establishes the sacredness of human sexual relationships. Open marriages also violate the prohibition against adultery in the Ten Commandments. The Jewish and Islamic religions hold similar values as Christianity in these matters. These doctrines have lead some people to reject the legitimacy of open marriage as a lifestyle option.

The perceived validity of these objections depends entirely on individual faith. Arguments about faith, faith and rationality, and belief systems lie outside the scope of this article.

People in open marriages tend not to be very religious. Jenks, in a review of the literature on swingers, writes:

"Bartell reported that the majority of his sample did not attend church regularly. Fully two thirds of the respondents in the Jenks' (1985b) study had no present religious identification. This finding also is consistent with other studies. Gilmartin's (1975) figure for the swingers was 63%. When asked if they had been raised in a religious home over 68% said yes. Although a little over 70% said they did not currently attend church services in a typical month, the most frequent response concerning church attendance when growing up was every week. Thus, swingers were raised in religious home but, somewhere along the path to adulthood, a majority gave up their religion." (Jenks, 1998) [10]
It is not known whether people give up religion before considering an open marriage, whether they give up religion because they cannot reconcile it with their open marriage, or both. In any case, the low religiosity of people in open marriages suggests they would not be strongly influenced by religious objections to their lifestyles.

Health concernsEdit

Engaging in sex with a greater number of partners increases the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Since open marriages increase the number of sex partners by allowing extramarital relationships, open marriages increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. This has led some people to reject open marriage as a legitimate lifestyle option.

Interestingly, people in open marriages themselves worry about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. One study found that 33 percent of male swingers and 10 percent of female swingers feared catching a sexually transmitted disease. [11] In another study, sexually transmitted diseases topped the list of disadvantages of swinging, and 58 percent of swingers expressed some fear of catching HIV/AIDS. [10] [12] Some couples have decided to drop out of open marriage lifestyles and become sexually monogamous in response to HIV/AIDS. [12] [13]

The risk of sexually transmitted diseases can be greatly reduced by practicing safer sex. However, the percentage of people in open marriages who practice safer sex remains hotly disputed. Anecdotal observations range from claiming no one at an event practiced safer sex to claiming everyone at an event practiced safer sex. A survey of swingers found that:

"Over 62% said that they had changed their behaviors because of the AIDS scare. The two most frequently mentioned changes were being more selective with whom they swung and practicing safer sex (e.g., using condoms). Almost 7% said they had quit swinging because of the AIDS epidemic. Finally, one third said that they had not changed any of their habits, and, of these respondents, more than a third said nothing, not even AIDS, would get them to change." (Jenks, 1998) [10]
Although a majority of swingers reported changing their behaviors in response to HIV/AIDS, some chose to become more selective in choosing partners rather than adopting safer sex practices. Greater selectivity in choosing partners is not a reliable means of reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Many people are not aware they are infected, and no outwards signs of infection may be visible. One psychological study suggests people may not be particularly good at detecting lies about HIV status. [14] Remarkably, one-third of swingers flatly rejected the idea of changing their behaviors in response to HIV/AIDS. These finding suggest people involved in open marriages may indeed be at somewhat greater risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

It is worth pointing out these health concerns do not apply to open marriage alone. The same health concerns also apply to serial monogamy (i.e., marriage, divorce, and remarriage). Serial monogamy allows the spread of sexually transmitted diseases to multiple partners as infected individuals move from one monogamous relationship to the next monogamous relationship. The numbers of people who engage in serial monogamy are far greater than the numbers of people who engage in open marriages. Around 9 out of 10 people in the United States get married at some point before 50 years of age. [15] Nearly half of these people divorce, and the majority of those who divorce eventually remarry. [16] This means a large segment of the general population has multiple sex partners through the practice of serial monogamy. In contrast, only 1 to 6 percent of the married population engage in open marriage. [1] [10] [17] [8] It is possible that serial monogamy has a bigger impact on the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the population as a whole than does open marriage.

Psychological concernsEdit

Several authors consider open marriages to be psychologically damaging. They claim sexual non-monogamy proves too difficult for most couples to manage, and their relationships suffer as a consequence:

  • "Any number of sexual innovators, over the past 60 or 70 years, have argued for a third alternative--a combination of permanence with permissiveness:that is, permanent adherence to the marriage, for the sake of child-rearing and social stability, combined with freedom for each partner to have additional emotional and physical relationships outside the marriage, But thus far, all variations upon this theme have proven disruptive to the marriages of most of those who have practiced them, and too threatening to the majority of those who have not to be seriously tried out. Relatively few people, even today, manage to make permissive marriage work at all, let alone work better than exclusive marriage. For although marriage no longer has the structural support of religion, community, law, or practical necessity, today there is something else that makes exclusivity, or the appearance of it, immensely important--namely, the loneliness and disconnectedness of modern life, which creates a deep need in modern man and woman to belong, and to have a binding emotional connection to someone else. And since for most people sex is so closely bound up with deep emotions, extramarital sexual acts are severely threatening to the emotional identity and security that marriage seems to offer." (Hunt, 1974, page 239-240) [1]
  • "Images of 'open marriage' to the contrary, an extreme commitment to such a relationship can do more to weaken rather than to strengthen marital attractions. If one partner becomes immersed in relations that consciously exclude the other, the fullness of marital interaction may be threatened—depending, of course, on how the other spouse interprets the action. A jealous partner can perceive even a mild detachment as threatening. Some spouses may not be at all disturbed by their partner's withdrawal or alternate affairs, but such extreme tolerance is rare. A key question is whether the externally involved spouse will eventually prefer the alternative enough to desire a rupture of the present relationship." (Levinger, 1979, pages 42-43) [18]
  • "It is not that I feel any deep-rooted moral objection to a lack of sexual exclusiveness in long-term relationships. It is rather that I am increasingly aware of the difficulties that the vast majority of humans have in coping with it. The ideal of the open marriage seems to me to be a fine one. In addition to the central primary relationship, it recognises other less permanent, sexual or non-sexual relationships, which may in themselves be mutually rewarding and self-fulfilling. But few primary relationships can survive such apparent if unintended challenges. The essential security of the dyad is weakened, and further undermined by the ravages of jealousy." (Bancroft, 1989, page 10) [19]
  • "Proponents feel that an open marriage does not substitute new regulations for old ones; rather, it suggests ways in which couples can learn to communicate openly with one another in order to arrive at a fully understood and mutual consensus for living. An open marriage encourages trust, freedom, and open communication, both within and outside the boundaries of marriage. If so desired, partners are free to engage in other sex friendships and even in extramarital sex —although the latter is a controversial area. All points considered, this nontraditional lifestyle is not practical for most couples since it is likely to promote feelings of insecurity, resentment toward outside parties, and sexual jealousy." (Turner, 1996, page 312) [20]
  • "Even if the problem of fairness can be solved, at least theoretically, by both spouses agreeing that each will have an affair, simple equality of extramarital sex is not a reliable solution: it only works if both spouses want the same mix of novelty and predictability in their sex lives. Often they don't. The traditional claim that men crave variety in sexual matters more than women is looking increasingly shaky. Between the era of Madame Bovary and today's covers of Cosmopolitan, many woman have become much more comfortable noticing and acknowledging an interest in sexual novelty. Still, the problem of a mismatch between two individuals married to each other is not resolved by invoking the average desires of men and women. The strategy of equal numbers of lovers for both spouses also assumes that jealousy disappears just because an arrangement is fair. Despite the sunny optimism of a phrase like 'open marriage,' real-life experiences are usually a lot messier." (Olds & Schwartz, 2000, page 40) [21]

These authors contend that sexual non-monogamy provokes jealousy in couples. This disrupts couples' sense of security in their relationships and interferes with their sense of intimacy. Consequently, these authors view open marriage as a "failed" lifestyle.

In fact, the impact of open marriage varies across couples. Some couples report high levels of satisfaction and enjoy long-lasting open marriages. [22] [23] [24] Other couples drop out of the open marriage lifestyle and return to sexual monogamy. These couples may continue to view open marriage as a valid lifestyle for others, but not for themselves. [13] Still other couples experience problems and report that open marriage contributed to their divorces. [25] Investigators do not yet know why couples respond differently to open marriages.

Loss of social supportEdit

Due to strong social disapproval of open marriages, people in open marriages frequently try to hide their lifestyle to family, friends, and colleagues. [10] [26] [27] Blumstein and Schwartz note:

"Openly non-monogamous married and cohabiting couples often feel they are thought of as bizarre or immoral by the rest of their world. They have to work out their sex lives in opposition to the rest of society. They may have an understanding with each other, but they usually keep it secret from family, friends, and people at work." (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983, pages 294-295). [26]
Keeping their lifestyles secret reduces the amount of social support available to people in open marriages. Numerous studies have shown that social support carries many psychological and physical health benefits. [28] [29] [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] Thus, strong social disapproval of open marriage may lead to a loss of psychological and health benefits for couples in open marriages.


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