Dear Bintel Brief:
In 1995 one of my six daughters, married for the first time. We thought at the time that she was truly getting married, and I liked her young man. For maybe a dozen years before her marriage she had been leading an unconventional, “new-age” lifestyle in the San Francisco Bay Area, perhaps in rebellion against her conventional, Midwestern upbringing by her mother, my ex-wife.
Some time later, the two of them confided in me and my wife of 50 years that she and M___ were in an “open” marriage — meaning that each of them was free, with the other’s knowledge and consent, to take lovers. My wife and I didn’t say anything at the time, which my daughter and her husband interpreted as acceptance. On more than one occasion, they thanked us for our being so understanding.
In private discussions between us, my wife and I weren’t so understanding, and we agreed that this so-called “open” marriage was nothing more than a holding pattern until one or the other of them found in a lover someone more pleasing than their spouse. And so it has turned out; the husband jumped ship.
Subsequently, my daughter’s life has settled down. Curiously, she continues to socialize and spend holidays with, apparently without rancor, M___ and his new wife.
All of this sets background for the reason for this letter. To wit: In discussing her future with my daughter, I have on more than one occasion gently (I hope) suggested that she seek out a more conventional relationship. The last time I did so, she reacted with some heat, asking me not to raise the subject again. She defended her “open” marriage, declaring that statistics show that an “open” marriage are no more prone to end in divorce than conventional marriages, in which the which the taking of lovers is often carried out in secret and is truly a betrayal.
So here, finally, are my questions for Bintel Brief: 1). Is my daughter’s claim about statistics about “open” indeed true? And 2) If I should ever raise this matter again with my daughter, is there anything else of a non-moralistic nature that I could adduce to the benefit of a conventional marriage?
P.S. My mother, of blessed memory, used to quote in Yiddish an example from Bintel Brief. The translation went something like this: “Dear Worthy Editor, I write to you not with ink, but with blood from a mother’s heart.”
Wow, six daughters and one of them is choosing a non-traditional marriage, and you wish she could see the wisdom of the old ways? Mind if I call you Tevye?
Sure, you’ve got one girl more than the milkman, but still: Your beloved daughter is intent on making a match that seems meshuge to you, especially since the first time she tried it, it didn’t even work! The one advantage to open marriage, you’d think, is that at least a couple can stay together forever: Why divorce the cow when you can get the milk from all the other cows, too?
But that’s just the problem, says Hara Marano, author of a book all about young people falling apart, “A Nation of Wimps” (Broadway, 2008). When you keep consorting with everyone else, one of you is liable to fall in love. And even if this doesn’t lead to divorce, it usually leads to jealousy, which is about one millimeter away on the misery continuum. (Right next to incurable itching and a spouse who listens to the TV too loud.) Nearly inevitable jealousy is a straightforward argument against open marriage that you could make.
Except that your daughter seems to have emerged unmiserable and unjealous enough to still like her ex and the replacement wife and want to try it all again. So maybe an open marriage can make sense, at least for her.
Having written that line with zero conviction (if you’re Tevye, I’m Golde), I called Richard Woods, an author who lectures about open marriage — including his own. First off, he said, there are no statistics to give your daughter, because there are no hard numbers to base them on. Open marriage isn’t something you check off on your census.
Moreover, he said, the reason it’s not on the census is that open marriage “is the new gay.” Like homosexuality just a generation or two ago, most of the people practicing it don’t talk about it for fear of public censure. In fact, if it weren’t so taboo, Barack Obama might not be president today! Remember that Illinois Sen. Jack Ryan was uncovered as a “swinger” (a particularly unappealing one), leading to his resignation, leading to a young state senator winning his U.S. Senate seat, leading to a run for the White House and … you know how the story ends. A story that in itself began with a coupling many once found taboo: A black man and a white woman.
When you think about open marriage as an option that has been around for a while, quietly working for some people, it stops seeming quite so strange and starts becoming just another point along that long line of previously unthinkable liaisons that gradually became more and more accepted: Choosing Motl the tailor over an arranged marriage. Choosing a Bolshevik. Choosing intermarriage. Choosing someone of a different race. Or the same sex.
And even if it that kind of arrangement doesn’t make sense to you, Tevye, in the end it’s not up to you anyway. It’s up to your daughter. And maybe the sweep of history.
Lenore Skenazy, a former columnist for the New York Daily News and the New York Sun, now writes a syndicated newspaper column and hosts a topical humor contest that runs in The Week magazine. She is the author of “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry” (Jossey-Bass), published in April, and “Who’s The Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know – But Can’t Remember Right Now” (Penguin), published in June.