The New York Times profiled a couple in an open marriage in its Weddings section yesterday: "The Secrets To An Open Marriage According to Mo'Nique." The Oscar-winning actress and her husband are double rarity: not just a straight couple who aren't in the closet about their open marriage, but a famous straight couple in an openly open marriage.
Tammy La Gorce's lead is kinda idiotic:
From the outside at least, the actress Mo’Nique and her husband of 11 years, Sidney Hicks, would seem to be in the middle of a rocky marriage. Both have had sexual relationships with other partners for years—and continue to do so. And each is well aware of the other’s escapades.
Mo’Nique and Hicks' marriage would only "seem" rocky to those who regard monogamy, successfully executed, as the sole measure of stability, love, and commitment. I don't wanna jump too far down La Gorce's throat—it's mostly hopeless romantics who read the NYT Weddings section, after all, and most probably conflate "sexually monogamous" with "stable and committed." Crafting her lead around the presumed knee-jerk reaction of the assumed readers of the Wedding section is lazy, if understandable. But for the record: Just as monogamy by itself isn't proof a marriage is stable and loving (a couple can be monogamous and unkind, neglectful, emotionally abusive, physically violent, etc.), non-monogamy by itself isn't proof a couple is unstable or unloving.
Anyway, back to Mo’Nique and Hicks:
But, the couple insist, the relationship is actually quite stable and they are quite happy. In fact, it has been a decade since Mo’Nique revealed in an Essence magazine article that she and Mr. Hicks, an actor and producer, were in an open marriage. Now they have begun a podcast that plays on their unusual partnership. In “Mo’Nique and Sidney’s Open Relationship,” which is on Play.It, the CBS podcast network, the couple explains how the so-called polyamorous lifestyle works for them.
When Mo’Nique and Hicks came out as married but non-monogamous—in that article in Essence more than a decade ago—the reaction was swift and furious. "People didn’t understand," Mo’Nique told La Gorce, “People lost their minds and the criticism has never let up.”
La Gorce gets a few quotes from someone who comes across as pretty sane about open marriages—Douglas LaBier, a psychologist and the director of the Center for Progressive Development—but La Gorce pretty much hands the rest of the piece over to someone who has clearly lost her mind: Helen Fisher, author, "biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute" (RIP Kinsey Institute), and shill for a dating website, where Fisher has been doing important research on the best strategy for getting a second date (take 'em out for sushi) and what it means when a person uses a lot of emojis (they're horny as fuck).
Here's Fisher on open marriages and open relationships:
Among the critics of open marriages is Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute and the author of “Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray,” which was updated and reissued in February. “People have had open marriages forever, because a lot of us would prefer to have more than one relationship,” she said. “But they never end up working long-term.” (Dr. Carr said it may be impossible to quantify just how many couples are in open marriages; people answering survey questions on such a topic may be inclined to lie or avoid answering, because of the stigma attached.)
The reasons open marriages don’t work are biological, Dr. Fisher said: The parts of the brain involved in romantic love are next to areas that help orchestrate thirst and hunger, she said. “Thirst and hunger aren’t going to change anytime soon,” she said, and neither is the pair-bonding instinct we recognize as romantic love. “It evolved so our forebears could focus on one person and begin the mating process.”
Dr. Fisher said that couples in open marriages establish all kinds of rules for what is and isn’t allowed. “They may say you can’t have dates on Friday nights, or you can’t have someone call at the dinner hour, when the children are around,” she said. “They’re people who want it all: to preserve their deep attachment to one partner and have romance with others. And they want to be honest about it. But what they don’t tell you is that our brains don’t do that very well.”
Dr. Fisher is unconvinced that what goes on behind closed doors is quite so rational.
“If you could get her to talk about how she feels or how her husband really feels,” she said of Mo’Nique, “you might find that beneath all this talk about how, intellectually and cognitively, they understand what they’re doing and it seems to make sense, emotionally the human animal has a very hard time with it. My guess is that they’re not terribly different.”
Where to start?
With Fisher's insulting claim to know better than Mo’Nique and Hicks about how the Mo’Nique and Hicks really feel about their marriage? (They only think they're happy, those deluded human animals!) With Fisher's yanked-from-her-ass assertions about evolutionary pressures that supposedly endowed all modern humans with genes that allow for just one type of romantic "bond" (only pairs, always sexually exclusive!) and just one successful "mating process" (only pairs, again, and it's all about the kids!)? With Fisher's assertion—offered without any data to back it up—that open marriages "never end up working long-term"?
Let's start with that.
"Just because there is a lack of good data on the longevity of open relationships does not mean that 'they never work out,'" said Dr. Debby Herbenick, a research scientist at Indiana University. "Saying 'they never work out' goes beyond any data she has; I would ask her to prove it. Where are her data? I know of none to support that."
Dr. Herbenick has data that contradicts Fisher's "they never work out" and "all people in non-monogamous couples are secretly miserable" bullshit.
"Similar proportions of men in monogamous and open relationships say they are happy in their relationship and sexually satisfied," said Dr. Herbenick, citing ACTUAL FUCKING DATA from the IU School of Public Health's 2014 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. "For women, more women in monogamous relationships say that they are happy in their relationship and sexually satisfied. But that doesn't mean none are happy or satisfied, as plenty are."
The takeaway: straight couples in non-monogamous relationships need to work on closing that relationship-and-sexual-satisfaction gender gap. But it's demonstrably untrue—THERE IS DATA—that everyone in open marriages is miserable or that open marriages "never end up working long-term."
On a personal note/anecdote: my husband and I recently celebrated out 21st anniversary and our marriage has been open for 17 of those years. We're 1/10 of the way through our third decade together. I'm happy, Terry's happy, and I'd like to think we qualify as a long-term success. Or, hey, maybe Terry and I need Helen Fisher to swing by the house and explain to us how we're really secretly miserable, just like Mo'Nique and Hicks, and then we'll finally do the right thing (by monogamy, not each other) and break up.
Fisher's bizarre theory of brain adjacency: the chunks of our brainz involved in romantic love are located near the chunks of brainz that "orchestrate" thirst and hunger and that's why there's no such thing as a successful open marriage. CASE CLOSED!
That sounded like complete bullshit—and not just to me.
"It is a rather odd claim to say that the reason a phenotypic trait will operate the way it does is because a particular brain region responsible for it is adjacent to other brain regions which do something else," said Dr. Qazi Rahman, King's College London. "That kind of model of brain-behaviour relationships would generate all sorts of very odd predictions which most neuroscientists or neuropsychologists would find strange. But then all behaviour and mental activity is 'in the brain' and so I'm not clear making these sorts of claims does any useful explanatory work for behavioural scientists."
"There is an entire network of the brain involved in romantic love," said Dr. James Pfaus, "from the prefrontal/orbitofrontal cortex to insula to anterior cingulate, to limbic structures like amygdala and septum, to striatum and basal ganglia, to the part of the hypothalamus where oxytocin and vasopressin neurons are…. The paraventricular nucleus in the anterior hypothalamus has OT and AVP parvocellular neurons that project axons to other brain sites. That site is NEAR (as in 2-5 mm away) to feeling systems in the lateral and ventromedial hypothalamus. And as far as neurons go, that would be like saying that Wall Street in NYC is NEAR the Treasury Building in Washington DC. [Fisher] doesn’t get it. She has never gotten it. Her view of the brain is a neurochemical phrenology."
Maybe Fisher just isn't that smart about brainz—or genes.
"I spoke with Helen at a conference once," a researcher who did not wish to be identified told me in an email. "Helen said there is a single gene that will determine whether a man cheats or not. We carefully explained why this couldn't be so.”
Fisher, like so many other hacks in the love-and-relationship racket, wants sex and love and marriage to work in a certain way—they insist it only works this one way—and this monogamist bias informs and distorts Fisher's work.
"I enjoy Helen's stuff, but think she's blind to her cultural bias on this one," said Dr. David Ley. "I'd be interested in whether she truly thinks monogamy 'works' long-term, given divorce and infidelity rates. I think the most damaging piece of Fisher's approach is her generalization of her beliefs to all humans. The valuable thing about modern relationships is the ability to individually negotiate a relationship, based upon each partners' needs, strengths and deficits."
Shorter Fisher: "Open relationship failed? Proof that open relationships never work out! Monogamous relationship failed? Try, try again!"
Monogamy is right for some people, and it's right for some couples, but it's not right for every person or every couple. People in open relationships aren't failing at monogamy. Many of us attempted to be monogamous—we made monogamous commitments we strived to keep—but we couldn't do it. But, again, we didn't fail monogamy. Monogamy failed us.
Insisting that monogamy is the ultimate/best/only proof of love and devotion—and insisting that all non-monogamous marriages are doomed to fail (unlike those bulletproof monogamous ones)—doesn't magically create stable monogamous marriages. Quite the opposite. People who shouldn't be making monogamous commitments wind up making monogamous commitments they cannot keep. Because they want to be good people, because they want to have love in their lives, because they don't want their relationship to fail.
We should encourage people to know themselves, to figure out who they are, what they want, what makes them happy, what they're willing to settle for and what they're not willing to settle for. But sex-and-relationship hacks like Fisher choose instead to bully people into making monogamous commitments they cannot keep.
Those relationships are truly doomed to fail.