The New York Times flies the flag for 'open' marriage

Nicole M. King
May 25, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story: Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?

In an exceptionally long and detailed narrative, Susan Dominus argues for the benefits of so-called "open marriage" (what used to be called "adultery") in the New York Times Magazine.

The feature followed the stories of several "nonmonogamous" couples (apparently the couples prefer that term to the more complicated-sounding "polyamorous") in their journeys to "opening up" their marriages. What most of the relationships have in common is that somehow, sex outside of the marriage makes the marriage stronger, as long as "transparency" and rules are in place to keep anything going "too far."

But research that reveals that, no matter what you call adultery, it still kills marriages.

(Sources: Susan Dominus, "Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?" The New York Times Magazine, May 11, 2017.)

The New Research: Open Marriage, No Marriage

Since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, sexual revolutionaries have been attacking the ideal of marital fidelity, urging their fellow Americans to make their unions "open marriages" that allow for extramarital adventures. But a new twenty-first-century study indicates that such radical theorizing remains irrelevant to the way marriage actually works: extramarital affairs, it turns out, are still marriage killers.

Completed at Bowling Green State University by sociologist Alfred DeMaris, this new study of extramarital affairs draws on data collected between 1980 and 2000 from a randomly selected sample of 962 adults who were at least 18 in 1980. In DeMaris's simplest treatment of the data, "the occurrence of EMS [extramarital sex] was associated with nearly a four-fold risk in disruption." When he reassesses the data using a statistical model that takes into account "demographic factors such as race, education, [and] income," DeMaris find that extramarital sex still means a two-and-a-half-fold increase in the risk of marital disruption.

In further analysis, DeMaris establishes that extramarital sex raises the likelihood of marital disruption by two-thirds even when he statistically adjusts for differences in marital quality. In other words, "regardless of how well-adjusted the marriage appears to be, extramarital sexual involvement extracts a cost on marital stability."

DeMaris acknowledges that he started his study "anticipat[ing] that wives' EMS would have a stronger effect on disruption than husbands.'" But that is not what the data show: "It does not matter who the perpetrator is; the elevation in the risk of disruption that ensues is the same." The data do reveal that extramarital sex is especially likely to disrupt the marriages of "very religious" couples, a statistical linkage that DeMaris explains as the result of "the elevated sense of desecration experienced by the religious regarding the breach of such a strongly held moral principle."

On the other hand, the likelihood that extramarital sex will disrupt a marriage was statistically "weaker when the wife was in the labor force." (Could it be that wives' employment makes couples somewhat more insouciant about the violation of marriage vows?)

Still, DeMaris identifies the study outcome that is the "greatest surprise" for him to be the statistical isolation of "so few factors . . . [that] condition the effect of EMS on [marital] disruption. . . . Regardless of how satisfactory the marriage had been, how long the couple had been married, how disapproving of divorce the respondent was, whether outside counseling had been received, or whether there were young children in the household, the damaging effect of EMS was the same."

The idea of an open marriage may once have appealed to emancipated sexual revolutionaries. But in the real world, it appears that "extramarital sexual involvement [still] has the potential to be very destructive to marriages and families."

(Source: Bryce Christensen and Nicole M. King, "New Research," The Family in America 29.1 [Winter 2015], p. 104. Study: Alfred DeMaris, "Burning the Candle at Both Ends: Extramarital Sex as a Precursor of Marital Disruption," Journal of Family Issues 34.11 [2013]: 1,474-99.)