Why “Open” Marriages Don’t Work. This article is a bit insidious and I find it disturbing. The basic allusion is that anyone who wants to be poly is damaged somehow and might actually have Schizoid Personality Disorder. I deeply disagree with many points in her article. Where there’s not an armchair diagnosis, she seems to find open relationships male-driven and female tolerated. As you can imagine, I find really weird. In fact, I’d say that she’s not interacted much with the polyamory community to have this point of view!
I would like to encourage the polyamory community to respond to this by going to Psychology Today and giving some feedback. However, a caveat: I don’t think the author knows many poly people. The letters she gets are going to be the face of polyamory to her. You will be the face of polyamory to her. Keep that in mind and be a credit to your kink in your responses.
Update: Well, it seems the aforementioned article has been taken down. Interesting. I hope that she’s reconsidering her opinion due to thoughtful, intelligent feedback and a desire to do some research.
21 thoughts on “The Anti-Polyamory Press is at it Again”
I sent her an email directly (instead of using the PT feedback page):
Dear Ms. Rettenberg,
I read your article on the failure of open marriages with interest. I wonder if you know that there are open marriages out there that didn’t start from infidelity, or one of the partners chafing at the bit. Some were open from inception, and not out of mental illness, but out of a more generous and less jealous concept of romantic and sexual love.
You suggest that our need to feel special harkens to childhood, where special attachment to caregivers was necessary to our survival. I’m sure you’re not suggesting that families with more than one child, or twins and other multiples, are less likely to have successful parent-child relationships, normal attachment, or survival.
You later write, “People who attempt ‘open’ relationships end up with multiple attachments, confusion, and/or jealousy.” But are multiple attachments necessarily a bad thing, if the roots of our desire for attachment are in the earliest family relationships? Maybe sibling rivalry is as inevitable as jealousy. But does that directly imply that families with more than one child are (mostly) doomed to failure?
There are successful open marriages out here. Perhaps you see only the ones that have one partner in therapy, or issues of infidelity. In that case you probably see the subset that includes the saddest and most impressively explosive of what you call “open marriages.” It’s a bit disingenuous to call them that when the idea of openness is approached as an emergency “fix” for infidelity or a last-ditch effort at saving a relationship that is lacking in many areas. I encourage you to reach out to the quieter set of people in open marriages which are rooted in trust, communication, generosity, and individual and shared growth.
I’ve been in such a marriage for 17 years. I’m not the only one who has. I encourage you to learn more about successful marriages that aren’t “normal” before outright deciding that the “abnormal” aspects will doom a marriage.
@Meg This is an awesome response. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
She wrote back with questions! There wasn’t much else to her reply, so here are her questions (marked by >) and my answers, as I sent them back to her:
I’m glad you wrote back.
> The sibling-sibling relationship is fundamentally different from the parent-child relationship.
> The infant-caregiver relationship I described is about an infant-caregiver relationship…not about relationships in later childhood.
Agreed. My point about siblings was not so much what happens between
or among them, but the parts of their interaction that might look like
jealousy caused by “divided” parental affection. There are plenty of
situations in which even infants must share caregiver attention, and
certainly many toddlers and most older children must. Also, in
societies (past and present) where the nuclear family is not the
dominant family structure, infants are often cared for, even nursed,
by more than just the mother. I recognize that attachment is
important, that its patterns are somewhat established in childhood,
and that relationships (all relationships) fundamentally connect pairs
of people. I just don’t think that any of those ideas implies that
exclusive attachment is superior or preferable to multiple
attachments, whether filial, parental, sexual, romantic, platonic,
commercial, academic, or anything else.
> I’m curious how your children feel about your open marriage?
Our children know that we don’t consider one romantic partnership as
precluding all others. They do not necessarily know our other
partners, or know which of our friends we are closer to. Nor do they
know exactly what we do when one of us is out for the day or traveling
for a week with friends. We generally answer any questions they ask,
and occasionally we bring up a subject to clarify our position (gay
marriage, bullying, etc.). When they ask us about other partners, we
will answer thoughtfully and truthfully.
We have friends in stable triads, and the children have known them
essentially since they were born. They seem to take their
relationships as just another way of living. They have asked more
about gay relationships than about poly ones, and they know that we
support all sexual orientations and family lifestyle choices as a
matter of course. We also have very many normal, monogamous friends,
unmarried, married, and sharing custody as divorced parents. They’ve
expressed a lot more concern about divorce and dysfunction within
relationships than about variations in functioning relationships.
> I’m also curious–are your other partners themselves married, and if so, are they practicing honesty as well? Or are their spouses in the dark about their other activities?
We aren’t open to romantic or sexual relationships with people who are
cheating on someone. Any element of dishonesty is a red flag, even if
it doesn’t involve us or secret spouses. Everyone lies (Bella
DiPaulo’s blog taught me that!), but even that idea rankles with me.
We have excluded potential partners because of honesty and trust
issues evident from their other relationships (not just romantic —
cheating in business relationships is also a showstopper). I’ve been
accused of holding honesty too dear, and of being too honest. Ah,
well. I’d rather have no extramarital partners than start up a
relationship with someone I can’t trust.
> Do you practice safer sex? If so, are you aware that it doesn’t protect against HPV?
We are old enough that we aren’t eligible for HPV vaccination because
(“they say”) most people our age have already encountered an HPV
strain (or various of them). I would love if there were better
information out there on HPV vulnerability, and I would get the
vaccine if it weren’t so expensive and out-of-pocket. (My children are
covered for it.) “Safer sex” isn’t a standard enough term for me to
address where it fails to protect against HPV. We do know that HSV
(herpes) can be transmitted despite fastidious condom use. We have had
fewer lifetime sexual partners than most people we know who have
practiced serial monogamy. We openly communicate with our partners
about STD concerns, sexual history, and health status; and we get
> Is alcohol ever involved in your sexual activities, either your own use or that of your partners? Are there some people you sleep with who always seem to be on drugs or alcohol at the time?
No. We don’t drink very much at all, never binge drink, and haven’t
used recreational drugs (or been with anyone who did) since we have
We are just quietly open. At the moment only one of us is maintaining
an outside (long distance, years-long) relationship with an otherwise
“single” person. That person has a history of both monogamous and
ethically non-monogamous relationships. There have been years when
that partner was romantically unavailable, and there probably will be
again. It’s a fundamental element of the relationship, accepted by all
parties, and it doesn’t create drama or resentment.
We are both open to new partners, but we’re not furiously in search of
them. Open marriage can be so boring — certainly more boring than
serial divorce or marriage with infidelity. Ah, well. We’ll take our
boring open marriage. 🙂 I guess I should point out that many of our
friends and family don’t even know we have an open marriage. If anyone
asks, we answer truthfully, but we don’t advertise. I suppose one day
one of our mothers will ask, and that will be an interesting
Thank you for your curiosity and interest. I hope my answers are helpful.
Thanks for posting this.
Meg, those are lovely responses. As I struggle to understand my own open marriage (and I’m the one with the outside relationship!), I appreciate the calm, careful, compassionate, and firm voice of those like you from whom I could learn so much more.
Thank you so much for posting your conversation here.
I also wrote to the author, and am sharing it here because my perspective is a little different, but perhaps of interest to other readers of the site. In re-reading, I wish I’d edited it for clarity. Ah, well. Too late!
I’m writing with regard to your article on open marriages. I wanted to share a different perspective than yours, because I think it’s important and I felt my perspective wasn’t addressed in your article.
I’m in an open marriage and have been for 9 years. By open, I don’t mean sleeping around – I mean that I have one long-term and very dedicated relationship with another partner (who is long distance). She plays a role in my everyday conversations with my wife, there is nothing hidden, and we’re pretty happy with the way things go. I am supportive of my wife having other relationships (she’s not interested, though), and I get a kick out of how happy she is when someone besides me flirts with her. Basically, she’s monogamous and accepting of my non-monogamous existence.
She’s always known this side of me, the one that is dedicated to multiple people in deep, passionate ways. For a long while, as we were still rather young adults, she was not someone I dated, but the best friend who knew of everyone I was dating. As we moved toward a romantic relationship, there was a period in which I did not have other romantic interests, but she recognized the signs in me when my “other” relationship was in its infancy. She teased me about my crush, back when it was still a crush. She’s known of other crushes that haven’t developed into relationships, and that’s fine for both of us, too. I do enjoy her teasing when I have a new zing in my life; she enjoys my teasing about her zing moments, too.
Our relationship is strong, and gets stronger as we investigate the different levels of our marriage. Total and utter openness is our hallmark, and through that openness we can have this open marriage. We spend more time talking to each other than most couples, and thank god for that! I like her too much to not want to be aware of what we’re doing as we do it. We’ve found that the frank conversations you call for don’t change a person’s desires. Also, restraining one’s activities doesn’t seem sensible or reasonable when nobody is being harmed. All marriages have hard times, ours included, and moments of senseless jealousy and idiotic behavior exist in all situations. I’m no slut, and she’s no doormat. Neither of us is perfect. We work things out. Together.
She’s my best friend and turns me on and I never want to leave her. I don’t understand the serial monogamy of some people. How can you just leave someone you love behind like that? I don’t get it.
I don’t think you see people like us in your therapy practice. I’ve found that infidelity comes after the damage to the marriage has already happened, not the other way around. I suspect there’s a lot more out there in the world of polyamory to explain successful relationships like mine.
For the record, my other partner is also married. Her husband knows about everything, as well. I like the guy. I have no desire for her to leave her relationship. I’d love to have the four of us live closer together, but that can’t happen. We live on separate coasts. I’m deeply in love with her, too, in case that’s not clear.
Thanks for listening, and perhaps you could write a follow-up article in which you share more of the world of polyamory in a way that accepts the lives we lead and presents us with the same compassion that we give each other in our relationships.
Great letter, Michael. I think it’s plenty clear. 🙂
@meg: wow! way to answer informatively and non aggressively!
Dear Ms. Rettenberg,
I read your post on Psychology today about open marriages. I am entering the eleventh year of a marriage that has been happily non-mopnogamous for three. We do not refer to it as “open,” both because we are primarily interested in long-term commitments with other partners and because we don’t privilege our relationship over our other relationships, but consider ourselves polyamorous.
I was the first to start seeing someone other than my husband, with mutual agreement. We did not take this step out of a crisis or a desire to “fix” something that was wrong with our relationship, but in order to be truer to ourselves. After several years of discussion, research, and spending time with other people in healthy non-monogamous relationship, I began seeing a good friend of my husband’s, and fell in love with him. The relationship ended after about two years because of incompatibilities between the two of us and an inability to compromise on certain key issues–the same reasons many monogamous relationships end. I currently am not with anyone other than my husband, but this is due to choosiness on my own part, not lack of choice or opportunity.
My husband now also has two other partners, whom he has been with for about two and a half years. They are an important part of our lives, and I consider both of them friends. I am grateful for the happiness and growth they bring into both our lives. Each of his partners also have other long-term partners, all of whom we have both met.
My mother knows my ex-boyfriend as well as both my husband’s girlfriends (we call them my “metamours”). They’re even friends on Facebook! My metamours were present last year, along with their other partners, at our 10-year vow renewal ceremony. They met the rest of my family there, and we were open about their relationship to us. One of my metamours has two teenage daughters, whom we are close to. I got one of them an internship at the company I work for. My other metamour eventually wants children with her other partner, and when she has them, she expects us to be an important part of their life.
It takes work, of course it does. So do all relationships. It takes less work than you might think, though, because we treat every connection–my relationship with my husband, our relationships with our other partners, and our relationships with our metamours–as the distinct, individual relationships they actually are. There’s more work to do, of course, when anything changes: a new partner is added or a relationship ends or changes. We communicate, own our feelings, and work through it, and sooner than you might think, things stabilize and become routine again. In fact, we’re all so stable right now (not to mention, for most of us, career-focused) it sometimes seems downright dull! We’ve had about the same amount, if not somewhat less, conflict and drama in our lives over the last three years of being polyamorous as we did during the previous eight of being monogamous. And the bottom line is, we are all happy.
I have many friends who live in stable, long-term polyamorous configurations, sometimes under one roof, sometimes not. Some of them have been in three- or four- or more-person groups for a decade or more. Overall, they have no more and no fewer problems in their relationships than my monogamous friends.
The people you see in your practice come to you because they’re having problems. They may already not be communicating, and there may already have been deception, and they are probably considering opening the relationship for the wrong reasons: not because of a deep, inner yearning for insense connection with more than one person, but because of incompatibility or as a desperate attempt to fix a broken relationship. Of course these attempts won’t work. How can you make multiple relationships work if you can’t make one work?
I hope that you’ll take some time to learn about happy, healthy, stable polyamorous relationships. They should be easy to find in New York City. A Google search of “polyamory new york” turns up lots of resources.
Thanks for listening,
@Pinkie: I agree. I was really bristling at all the judgment and assumptions buried in those questions. Meg handled them beautifully.
She wrote back one more time to ask if I’m in a straight or gay relationship(s). I answered that I’m a woman, and both my spouse and my long distance partner are men. I added that my spouse and I are both in our “first” marriage (not to imply a second in the future), and our kids were born within that marriage. Not that these things seem important to me, but if gender and/or orientation matter to her, I thought those details might as well.
I wrote to her as well:
I understand you have been receiving a handful of responses to your article on open marriages. I am sure that most of what I have to say will be repeating previous writers, but I felt it important for you to hear another voice on the side of polyamory, a subset of open marriages.
1 – Open Marriages: Openness to non-monogamy is not all the same. My experiences range from infidelity to ethical non-monogamous relationships, and include my current polyamorous structure, a subset of “open marriages.” Please do not judge all by one. I have a feeling a lot of monogamous couples would feel the same way, if suddenly monogamy was on the judgement block because of the divorce rates in the world today.
2 – Open marriages are male-promoting sexism: Not in my experience, though I am sure there are subsets of non-monogamous couples where only the male has outside rights. But in today’s world, and in the relationships I know, the women have the far better end of the deal. It is easier for women to get attention on sites such as ok cupid, easier for a woman to get a date, easier for a woman to develop a relationship or get what she wants in terms of physical connection with another partner. Good luck finding a large number of men who have had many interested parties reach out to them.
3 – “People who desire open marriages often don’t think about how they would feel knowing their partner is sleeping with someone else” And this is a problem. But I argue “not thinking about all of the consequences” is a larger problem than just in open relationships. How will I feel if I finish that extra large slurpee? How will I feel if I don’t go to the gym this morning? How will I feel if I don’t tell my partner I didn’t like that dinner, and it becomes a stand-by meal for the rest of my life? Think about what you want, about what you don’t want, and make it known. Communicate.
4 – “…an “open” marriage, a term that connotes that each member of the couple has sex with whoever [sic] they want outside of the relationship.” That is NOT what the term connotes, at least not in the open relationships I have experienced. It means that other relationships are up for discussion and decision, and that rules (which should be established before the relationship is deemed open) will be followed.
5 – “People who attempt “open” relationships end up with multiple attachments, confusion, and/or jealousy.” Yes, they do. So do parents with more than one child, friends with more than one bestie. Multiple attachments are not something to be feared. If they were, wouldn’t we all be hermits? I would much rather live my life fully, embracing love, and learning to deal with the downsides of life responsibly and gracefully. My open marriage has helped me to learn to fall with dignity, has learned to pick myself up and brush off the dirt. My marriage is nearing its tenth anniversary, and “open” has nearly always been a defining piece of it.
6 – The key to an “open” relationship is a frank discussion with your partner about your differences and how to manage them while respecting each others’ needs, concerns, and desires. (My suggestions for a re-write.)
@Orange: Excellent and intelligent points!
I’m so grateful to all of you who are opening a respectful and thoughtful discussion like this. I’m glad you’re being realistic and not glossing over the real issues of poly as well. You guys rock.
I’m curious as to why Meg is the only person she’s responded to so far. Was it something about her letter, or was it just that Meg was the first one, and she’s gotten so many responses now that she doesn’t have time to respond to them?
@Eve It’s entirely possible that she’s responded to others and Meg is the only one that has publicized the fact.
Though I expect the author is getting rather an avalanche of letters. The article has certainly made its rounds amongst the more prolific poly writers and activists.
Rettenberg’s questions are typical of general society:
What about the kids?
What about STD’s?
Are you drunk and high when you screw other people?
Her questions are stereotypical of how we and our lifestyle are viewed by others. We simply have to be better than that, which most of us are, and eventually we will become accepted in the mainstream as being different, but overall okay.
It’s worth pointing out that Psychology Today is not peer-reviewed, and often they will post pop-psych articles that not only fly in the face of all available research but also turn out to be busted on multiple levels. One should not take PT seriously as a source of information, although those of us who find our lives erased or minimized by PT articles should definitely do what we can to reverse that trend with honesty and compassion.
Yes. I’m glad you agree that compassion is important. I really do want the face of poly to be not only honest and accurate, but as kindly as possible.
It is deeply encouraging to see members of the polyamory community respond to Rettenberg’s article in nonviolent ways. Good job to you all.
It is unfortunate (and absolutely not the fault of anybody here) that Rettenberg’s article was taken down. This action did not cause Rettenberg to reconsider her views about open marriage. It caused her to feel like she had been censored, that her speech had been attacked by an unknown group of pro-open marriage activists. Not only did the removal of her article fail to change her mind about open marriage, if you read comments from Rettenberg’s fans in her follow-up article, the removal of her article likely instilled suspicions about pro-open marriage activists in them, too.
Had the nonviolent spirit of your responses here won the day, we might have seen a peaceful rebuttal article rather than the removal of Rettenberg’s article, and Rettenberg (along with her fans) might have been feeling inquisitive rather than defensive. It’s all water under the bridge now.
I hope, however, that you all stay with your non-violent approaches. It’s the way to win true respect and acceptance for polyamory in the long run!
Just to clarify, when you use the term “non-violent” and suggest that something other than a “non-violent spirit” was used by some in response to the article, what actions are you referring to? Or is “violent” here being used as a synonym for “confrontational”?
Just wondering if I missed something.
Sorry for the delay in responding, Meg.
I’m referring to passive violence. I don’t think anybody responded with threats of physical violence. At least, I have no evidence for that. But I have reason to think some people resorted to passive violence.
First, I consider censorship to be an act of passive violence. One way that being forced into a closet injures people is that it censors them. People who feel forced into closets feel like they can’t talk about their lives with others. They have to keep quiet about their lives. Censorship injures people, whether it is the censorship of a closet or the censorship of someone who has power over you (e.g., an editor). Anne felt injured by being censored. It was the actions of poly activists that directly led to the censorship.
Second, Ann reports other acts of passive violence. She mentions angry phone calls directed at the Psychology Today editors and hate mail directed at her. I agree with Marshall Rosenberg that anger is violence-provoking thinking, and I have little doubt that some unknown number of people expressed their anger in aggressive, passively violent ways. Hate mail is even more clearly an act of passive violence. Anne specifically said she felt “attacked.”
Third, I saw examples of moral disengagement on a poly list devoted to professionals who are trained in critical thinking. People engage in strategies of moral disengagement to keep themselves from feeling bad about harming others. Some strategies of moral disengagement include:
* moral justification (it was done for a greater good)
* advantageous comparison (others have done worse things)
* euphemistic labeling (it sounds better if you call it something else)
* minimizing, ignoring, or misconstruing consequences (it wasn’t that bad)
* dehumanization (it was done to one of “them”)
* attribution of blame (it was what they deserved)
* displacement of responsibility (we did what we were told to do)
* diffusion of responsibility (everyone was doing it).
I saw people on the poly list engage in moral justification, euphemistic labeling, minimizing, ignoring or misconstruing the consequences, and attribution of blame. I did not see anyone engage in dehumanization, but I did see people define Anne as outside their moral in-group (i.e., moral exclusion). Moral disengagement is then combined with the anonymity of social media activism. No one really knows who does what, resulting in a deindividuation that allows people to feel freer to harm others. It’s not suprising that some people engaged in passive violence such as hate mail. It’s lucky that no one was so taken in by the situation that they ended up resorting to physical violence.
The thing that most disappoints me is that passive violence was not necessary. Anne mentioned that she received a number of nonviolent emails:
“…mostly I received long emails from people who wanted to tell me about how they managed their polyamorous relationships. I appreciated these emails, since I always enjoy hearing people’s personal stories. In fact, I was considering writing a follow-up post based on these stories, but now I will not do so. I’ve decided that free speech-a cornerstone of our democracy-is a more important topic that the diversity of the polyamory community.”
She responded positively to emails sent with the intent to educate her and win her over to the idea that poly relationships can work. She even considered writing another post as a corrective to her first post. But the actions of the people that made her feel attacked won out…and she decided against a corrective post. I personally asked Anne if she wanted to co-author a new post, reaffirming some valid points she made, while acknowledging that other types of open marriage can work. She said it was tempting, but that she felt burned out by the whole situation. An approach using methods of integrative nonviolence might have had a much better outcome–winning Anne over to the idea that poly relationships can work and, from her own pen, a new post stating as much.
And we need Anne to be a poly ally. She already sees poly people in her clinical practice. That’s not going to change. We therefore want her to be well educated and friendly towards poly people and towards the poly lifestyle.
That’s where I’m coming from…others are free to disagree.