When I Googled “Open Marriage” last week, guess who came up? Newt. That’s right, Newt Gingrich and his famous request to “open his marriage” while in the midst of an affair. As a person who practices ethical non-monogamy, I was offended. It’s like Googling “famous German doctors” and getting Josef Mengele–it’s just all wrong.
To even use the phrase “open marriage” in regard to what Newt did is completely erroneous. Newt’s request for an “open marriage” is the equivalent of a carjacker thwacking you over the head with a tire iron and then asking, “Mind if I drive?” In all ethical monogamy (and it’s called ETHICAL for a reason) one does not announce, “Hey, honey! By the way, I opened our marriage. Happy New Year!” There was clearly no discussion or negotiation or agreements. Ethical non-monogamous situations have all three.
Newt hijacked his marriage. But let’s take apart what he actually did, because there are so many clichés, misnomers, and misassumptions in this story. Let’s start with Marianne Gingrich, who stayed married to Newt for nearly two decades–and sister does her face show it. In video clips, she looks like you’d expect from someone who survived an 18-year marital interment with Newt. There is a ripped-off, even depleted look in her eyes. You don’t get the sense that Newt was rubbing her feet or asking “Babe, how you doing?” upon his return from the campaign trail. This was a black hole of a marriage.
This excerpt below is more evidence of how out of balance their marriage was. This is from an ABC News interview with Marianne Gingrich that aired on Nightline. Marianne Gingrich describes a conversation near the end of their marriage. She states: “I said to him, ‘Newt, we’ve been married a long time,’ and he said, ‘Yes, but you want me all to yourself. Callista doesn’t care what I do.'” Newt, who had already left Congress, was asking “that I accept the fact that he has somebody else in his life,” Marianne Gingrich said. “Oh, he was asking to have an open marriage, and I refused,” she said.
This is an ambush and a scenario that many Americans–in their fear of a failed marriage and their attachment to conformity–have latched on to when it comes to what “opening a marriage” looks like.
But what if Newt had approached his wife–without having an affair–and said, “I am drawn to another woman. Can I be sexual with her?” She may have dumped him, or she may have made new agreements with him about what was possible in their marriage. His request may have elicited a deeper conversation about what was not working in their relationship and set them on a path to more connection and love and a rebirth of their marriage. Or she may have said “Newt, you selfish narcissistic bastard, I am hiring a divorce lawyer faster than you can spell EGOTISTICAL SEXIST MORON!”
Who knows? My point is that when you preempt this conversation by having an affair, there is betrayal. It’s very hard to make agreements built on trust after a deception of this magnitude. Also, quite frankly, based on Marianne’s descriptions of her last years of being with Newt their relationship was in crisis, and that is never a good time to open a marriage. Yet, this is usually the type of example held up when the public tries to discern whether open marriage works. Another article written around the same time by Rachel Sussman, a therapist writing for the Huffington Post, states:
“I have worked with couples who endeavor to have an open marriage…. More often than not, requesting an open marriage means that the inquiring partner is interested in having an affair or continuing on with an affair…. So … do open marriages work? My answer is no, they generally don’t. Open relationships are simply too tricky to navigate and one or both parties end up getting badly burned…”
Now, I like therapists. And believe me, I’ve known and worked with quite a few of them. But therapists study pathology and, dare I say it, are sometimes not the most cutting-edge of people. Some of them are great. Some even have open marriages themselves. But don’t go paying Rachel Sussman your hard-earned money if you are looking for guidance in open marriage–because she clearly has no experience in setting one up.
Go find someone who does have experience. There are plenty of people who have successfully set up their marriages with varying degrees of openness. Polyamorous people have entire relationships with other partners as part of their lifestyle. I know people who are part of triads, quads, and so on. I also know people on the other end of the spectrum who have just a little openness in their marriage; they have agreed to be sexual or emotionally close with other people. For some people, sex is okay but they do not want their partner to fall in love, others don’t mind if they fall in love but don’t want sex involved. There are as many ideas and ways to set up an open marriage as there are marriages. Fortunately, Newt’s definition does not apply–at least not in my neck of the woods.