Is open marriage a fast track to divorce?

Relationships, Divorce

According to some Hollywood sources, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have an open marriage. There’s also talk that Dolly Parton and her reclusive husband, Mo’Nique and Sidney Hicks, and Larry and Shawn King all have open marriages. These marriages seem to be working just fine, so maybe this means an open marriage doesn’t automatically spell disaster for a relationship, as many assume?

What the polls say

In Avvo’s recent survey of American attitudes about relationships, 22 percent of those who approve of open relationships think that marriage is an outdated concept, and 59 percent of them say they would date someone who is married. Yet 92 percent of these same respondents say that relationships are meant to last—identical to the response of those who oppose open relationships.

“The alignment or misalignment of these desires may lead to pursuing an open relationship just as readily as they could lead to deciding to start a family, formalizing a commitment in marriage, or even ending the relationship altogether,” says noted sexologist Pepper Schwartz.

All of which begs the question: Will an open marriage last?

Conflicting study conclusions

Different studies have resulted in conflicting conclusions about how open marriages actually function. One study says that 92 percent of open marriages end in divorce, supporting a common notion that marriage without exclusivity is doomed to fail. In contrast, data compiled by researcher J.K. Dixon indicate that 80 percent of wives in open marriages rate their compatibility with their spouse as excellent or good and 76 percent rate their sexual satisfaction the same way.

A study of same-sex male couples found that half of the open marriages studied among the group did not end in divorce. A New York Times piece examined this study and contemplated whether male same-sex marriages are better able to withstand open infidelity because the spouses enter into them with a better understanding of what to expect.

Can open marriage work?

The studies don’t provide a definitive answer as to whether open marriage is doomed to fail. Perhaps the success of an open marriage has more to do with the people involved and their mindsets than the practice itself. While an open marriage might sound fun and exciting to you, there’s a lot involved in making it work and avoiding divorce court.

Therapist Stephen J. Betchen, writing for Psychology Today, said that for an open marriage to succeed, a couple needs to have unquestioned love and commitment to each other and must have excellent communication and problem-resolution skills. “I would argue that a couple that partakes in an open relationship be close to perfect: Their love and commitment should be unquestionable; their ability to communicate and to problem-solve equally skillful,” writes Betchen.

Sexual safety

Another key to success in an open marriage is practicing safe sex. While you might predict that those in open marriages have a higher rate of sexually transmitted infections, a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that people who are in open relationships are more likely to engage in safe sex than those who cheat on their partners.

Tread carefully

Even if both partners originally agreed to an open marriage, if the relationship sours, adultery can be used as a grounds for divorce. “We humans tend to have trouble setting limits when we want something bad enough,” Betchen wrote in his article, “and when we’re angry, all those rules that were painstakingly agreed upon can be used as weapons to attack or destroy our mates.”

While all states now have no-fault divorce laws that don’t require a reason to file, in some states proof of adultery can skew your settlement or alimony decision, so it’s a good idea to tread carefully when considering this interesting—but potentially damaging—flavor of marriage.