Let’s imagine that one day, after many years of marriage, your wife comes to you and tells you that she’s deeply, profoundly dissatisfied. She’s lost any sense of her own sexuality, she’s losing connection with her “best self,” and she misses the thrill and intoxication of a new relationship. For the vast majority of married couples, a conversation like this would touch off an extraordinary crisis. It might be followed by the confession of a marriage-breaking affair, it might touch off a desperate effort to save the relationship, or it might launch a years-long cold war, leaving the couple to grind out their days together without solving their problems.
But a small number of couples settle on a different choice: They open the marriage. They become “non-monogamous” (the term preferred over “polyamorous”) and “explore their sexuality.” They thrill to new love and discover more about themselves. They embrace the benefits of security and liberty, keeping a home for the kids while reserving weekends away for their affairs. Isn’t this at least one valid path for consenting adults? Shouldn’t more couples consider this lifestyle? Are we still too trapped by tradition and our own petty jealousies to live what could truly be our best lives?
Their stories are both revolting and pathetic.
What’s revolting is the sheer selfishness of one or both of the spouses involved. Their obsession with a completely fulfilling and intoxicating sex life borders on the pathological. They seem to regard a boring marriage bed as a human-rights violation, as if they were absolutely entitled to thrilling sex. Here’s one wife describing her insistence on maintaining an extramarital relationship: “I really just felt like it was right, like it was important to my growth. It was like I was choosing to take a stand for my own pleasure and sticking to it. It was so strong, that feeling.”
Indeed, their morality is apparently so interesting and compelling that it made Dominus introspective and self-conscious. At one point in the piece, she seems to regard them as some kind of advanced tribe from a future reality:
As I talked to couples over the last year, I often found myself reflecting back on my own marriage. I started to feel less baffled by the boldness they were showing in opening up their marriages, and more questioning of my own total aversion to the possibility. In interview transcripts, I saw that I was forever apologizing for my own conventionality. I felt, at times, that I was a rusty caliper, trying to take the measurement of some kind of advanced nanotechnology.
Sorry, but hedonism and self-obsession aren’t “advanced nanotechnology”; they’re sins as old as mankind. And the more Dominus writes, the more apparent it becomes that these old sins still have the same familiar consequences. Interestingly, she found that the open marriages she studied were typically initiated by the woman, and the resulting picture wasn’t so much exciting as pathetic and sad. The wife enjoys her new relationship while the husband, desperate to both save the marriage and equalize the arrangement, creates online-dating profiles in the hope that someone will take the bait.
Moreover, the open marriages frequently fail, flaming out in a tangled web of jealousy, sadness, and bizarro-world sexual practices. Here’s one sad tale of a wife who wanted more and better sex with more and better lovers and a husband who tried to make it all work:
And so it began. For Jamie, an endless series of dates; for Rich, one lost weekend with a woman he thought he could love. There were several nights of three-ways involving them both; relationships that flared then fizzled for each of them. Their own sex improved. And then, this April, one year after they opened their marriage, Rich asked for a divorce.
Even the “successes” aren’t always models of transparency and consent. In one of the profiled marriages, the wife has a long-term “happy” relationship with a married man who’s concealing the affair from his wife. So much for honesty. So much for all relevant parties consenting to the relationship.
Even though Dominus obviously found the open marriages fascinating — and she confesses to feeling attraction for one man she met during her research — at the end of the day she doubles down on her own monogamy. It may be fine for others to explore new relationships, but it’s not best for her:
Occasionally, my reporting would inspire me to turn to my poor husband: Why don’t we work more on our marriage? But more often than not, I felt protective of what we had, more certain of its beauty, its cosseted security. I imagined our marriage transpiring within a genie’s bottle, all silk and luxurious hangings in a protective cocoon, a warm, private world in which transformation could occur; the nature of the surrounding boundary providing enough safety that we could feel confident in taking risks. Breaking out of that cocoon would be an act of needless destruction, its violence transforming the retreat into a hornet’s nest.
Here is where Dominus gives the game away, showing us exactly how America’s progressive elite has poisoned our culture. Human beings have always been tempted toward hedonism and self-indulgence, and we always will be. A thriving culture needs leaders who don’t just live the right values, but work diligently to advocate for them against our baser desires. Cultural leadership isn’t just about walking the walk; it’s about talking the talk, too.
A thriving culture needs leaders who don’t just live the right values, but work diligently to advocate for them against our baser desires.
Among the many fascinating findings in Charles Murray’s seminal book Coming Apart is the reality that our secular elite speaks blue, but largely lives red. In other words, our wealthy, progressive, urban centers are hardly hedonistic enclaves. They’re chock-full of intact families, featuring moms and dads who waited until marriage to have children, value education immensely, and work hard to make sure that their kids make the same choices they did.
When it comes to actually arguing for the traditional family values they practice in their own lives, though, liberals are silent. They wouldn’t dare go so far as to pass moral judgment on those who live differently. No sir. Instead, you can count on them to simply consider their chosen lifestyle as just one among many valid lifestyles, including polyamory, cohabitation, promiscuity, or anything else that consenting adults can imagine and enjoy. Indeed, they may even take great pleasure in embracing the few “transgressive” couples in their orbit as living symbols of progressive tolerance.
In the meantime, those who actually act as if all choices are equally valid, fidelity is optional, and a lifelong faithful marriage is no more “right” than serial group sex, fall into a cultural and economic abyss. Lift taboos, and people will indulge in those taboos. The misery from their mistakes will reach across the land.
What’s that you say? Open marriage is still frowned upon? Adultery is still unpopular? Well, friends, that can change. And heaven help us when it does.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.