Open marriage relationship

Relationship maintenance comprises behaviors partners perform in order to maintain satisfaction and extend the duration of a relationship.

The impact of open marriage on relationships varies across couples, yielding positive, neutral, and negative outcomes. Some couples report high levels of marital satisfaction and have long-lasting open marriages. Other couples drop out of the open marriage lifestyle and return to sexual monogamy. Still other couples experience serious problems and report that open marriage contributed to their divorces. Scientists do not yet understand why some couples respond positively to open marriage while other couples respond negatively.

Positive outcomes

Many couples have positive experiences with open marriage. This does not mean couples never experience problems with open marriage. It simply means some couples enjoy open marriages and also maintain high levels of marital satisfaction and stability.

A national study of sexuality conducted by Hunt found that relatively few people engage in swinging style open marriages. Hunt attributed the low number of people in open marriages to various social, psychological, and practical problems. Yet, some of these people "confirmed what the advocates and enthusiasts have claimed--namely, that marital swinging can provide physically intense experiences, that it can be immensely ego-gratifying and that it is a temporary release from confinement and responsibility and a brief chance to live out one's wildest fantasies." (pages 273-274)

Open marriages can challenge couples with various problems, but open marriages can also offer couples extremely satisfying experiences. Couples may view the satisfying experiences as well worth the efforts spent managing the problems.

Some studies show that couples in open marriages can maintain satisfying relationships. Rubin observed no differences in marital adjustment between couples in open marriages and couples in sexually monogamous marriages.

Rubin and Adams reported no differences in marital satisfaction between couples in open marriages and couples in sexually monogamous relationships.

Gilmartin likewise found no differences in marital satisfaction between sexually open and sexually monogamous couples.

A study by Bergstrand and Willams found couples in open marriages had higher levels of satisfaction than couples in the general population.

Some couples in open marriages report high levels of satisfaction with their relationships. A study conducted by Wolf found that 76 percent of openly married couples described the quality of their relationships as "better than average" or "outstanding."

Dixon found similarly high levels of marital satisfaction in a study of 100 bisexual and heterosexual husbands in open marriages.

In another study, Dixon observed that 80 percent of wives in open marriages rated their marital compatibility as "excellent" or "good," and 76 percent of the wives rated their sexual satisfaction as "excellent" or "good."

Buunk has also reported high levels of satisfaction in openly married couples.

Some couples feel open marriage has increased their marital satisfaction. Bergstrand and Williams collected online questionnaires from 1092 people involved in swinging style open marriages.

Among those people who said they were "somewhat unhappy" or "unhappy" with their marriages before swinging, around 80-90 percent said they were happier with their marriages after they started swinging. Nearly half of people who said they were "very happy" with their marriages before swinging claimed to be even happier with their marriages after swinging. Open marriage can in some cases increase marital satisfaction.

Thus, open marriage can have a positive impact on many couples. These couples are able to enjoy open marriage while maintaining satisfying and stable relationships with one another. Levels of marital satisfaction for these couples are often quite high. Some couples even feel open marriage has improved their relationships.

Neutral outcomes

Couples sometimes drop out of the open marriage lifestyle and return to sexual monogamy. In a 5 year study of bisexuals, 80 percent of whom initially had open relationships, Weinberg, Williams, and Pryor observed a definite shift towards sexual monogamy over time.

When first interviewed, a majority of these bisexuals preferred sexual non-monogamy as their ideal form of romantic relationships. Five years later, around 60 percent had changed their views, and most of those who changed their views said sexual monogamy was their new ideal. Some of these changes were motivated by the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. Monogamy was seen as a way to avoid getting HIV/AIDS. But, for many, the shift to monogamy was due to a genuine change in what they sought in relationships. Their desire to be sexually monogamous had nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic.

Couples who try open marriages and decide to return to sexually monogamous marriages may be left with different feelings about open marriage. Some may have negative feelings about their open marriage experiences.

Others may continue to "see nonmonogamy as possibly good for others but not for themselves." Overall, open marriage has a relatively neutral impact on these couples.

Negative outcomes

Some couples report serious problems with open marriage. A number of these couples may even divorce as a consequence of open marriage.

Couples in open marriages expose themselves to the potential for conflicts caused by jealousy. Couples in open marriages appear to experience jealousy more frequently than people in sexually monogamous marriages.

Studies have shown that 80 percent or more of couples in open marriages experience jealousy over their extramarital relationships.

Jealousy with its roots in open marriage can lead to serious conflicts. For example, attempting to interfere with a rival relationship may make a partner angry. Insulting or berating a partner may provoke retaliatory responses. Demanding greater commitment may ignite arguments. Indeed, many studies have reported that conflict occurs during episodes of jealousy.

The conflicts caused by jealousy can seem overwhelming and damage relationships.

Even when jealousy is not an overwhelming problem, open marriage may cause other complications. For example, a five year study of bisexuals observed a shift from open relationships to sexually monogamous relationships in many participants because they "felt that nonmonogamy was too time consuming, took too much energy, or was too complicated. They also thought that it got in the way of developing love, trust, and more intimate relationships with a partner." (Weinberg, Williams, & Pryor, 1995, page 262)

Numerous authors have argued that open marriages disrupt relationships by interfering with intimacy and provoking insecurities.

Some couples report that open marriage contributed to their divorces. Janus and Janus asked divorced people to list the one primary reason for their divorces.

Approximately 1 percent of men and 2 percent of women listed open marriage as the primary reason for their divorce. This seems like a small percentage. But keep in mind that only 1 to 6 percent of the population have open marriages.

Open marriage is perceived as a primary cause of divorce in a substantial minority of the 1 to 6 percent of people who have open marriages.

The extent to which open marriage actually contributes to divorce remains uncertain. Blumstein and Schwartz note a slightly higher risk of divorce among couples who engage in extramarital sex, even if the couples agree to allow extramarital sex.

However, Rubin and Adams did not observe any difference in the risk of divorce for couples in open marriages and couples in sexually monogamous marriages.

Open marriage may contribute to divorce for some, but not all, couples.

Open marriage can thus have a negative impact on some couples. It can cause serious problems with jealousy, and it can interfere with intimacy and security between partners. Some people report that open marriage contributed to their divorces, though the extent to which open marriage actually causes divorce remains unclear.

Maintenance behaviors

Scientists cannot yet explain why some couples respond positively to open marriage while other couples respond negatively. Nor can they predict which couples will respond positively or negatively. Consequently, all couples involved in open marriages may want to pay attention to their relationship maintenance behaviors.

The topic of relationship maintenance behaviors is far too broad to cover in a single article. The strategies for maintaining relationships described below are simply a few examples. Readers should be aware there are many strategies for maintaining healthy and happy relationships other than the ones mentioned here.

Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg list six ground rules for managing conflict and maintaining good marital relationships:

The Speaker-Listener technique is a strategy for making communication more emotionally safe. It consists of three sets of rules. Rules that apply to both the Speaker and the Listener are:
The next set of rules apply to the Speaker:
The final set of rules apply to the Listener:
Using the Speaker-Listener technique in the context of the six ground rules can help couples maintain happier and longer-lasting relationships.

Gottman and colleagues have discovered the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions strongly predicts divorce.

Couples who maintain a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction are likely to remain together. Couples who do not maintain this 5:1 ratio are likely to get divorced. Moreover, couples are more likely to stay together if they follow certain patterns of communication during conflict:

"We conclude that the marriages that wound up happy and stable had a softened start-up by the wife, that the husband accepted influence from her, that he de-escalated low-intensity negative affect, that she was likely to use humor to effectively soothe him, and that he was likely to use positive affect and de-escalation to effectively soothe himself. The alternative to the active listening model suggested by these analyses is a model of gentleness, soothing, and de-escalation of negativity (negativity by one spouse is followed by the partner's neutral affect)." (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1988, page 00)
These patterns of communication differ from the Speaker-Listener technique, but the goals are the same: stop the escalation of negativity during conflict and take steps to make a safe space for open and honest discussion.

Gottman has also identified a particularly harmful pattern of communication that begins with criticism and ends with stonewalling.

The steps of the pattern include:

These steps occur in a cascade. Criticism leads to contempt; contempt leads to defensiveness; and defensiveness leads to stonewalling. Couples who go through this cascade of destructive communication usually get divorced.

The main message of these strategies for maintaining relationships is to take time to enjoy positive interactions and fun activities with each other and, when conflicts or issues do arise, take steps to prevent negative interactions from spiralling out of control. Couples in open marriages may want to use these and various other strategies for maintaining satisfying relationships with one another.

See also

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