Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have been in the headlines a lot in recent years, and not because of their movies. They’re either on the verge of divorce or they have an open marriage; I’m not sure which horrifies people more.
I can understand why people might be concerned about them divorcing; they have two kids, Jaden, 14, and Willow, 12, and everyone worries about parents facing divorce (unlike childfree couples, for some reason). But I can’t understand the big deal being made about their alleged open marriage, which everyone is assuming is true because of what Jada told HuffPost Live:
“I’ve always told Will, ‘You can do whatever you want as long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and be OK.’ Because at the end of the day, Will is his own man. I’m here as his partner, but he is his own man. He has to decide who he wants to be and that’s not for me to do for him. Or vice versa.”
Are people upset, thinking perhaps that it’s morally wrong? Are they jealous? Are they curious in a “I’ve always wanted to do that but don’t know how to bring that up with my partner” kind of way? Are those who are in an open marriage pleased that there are more of their kind? Are there former pro-open marriage types who’ve been burned by it now shaking their heads while saying, “It will end soon, and ugly”?
I don’t know, but I have to imagine this — whether they work forever or not, open marriages are a lot more honest than many marriages in which one or both of the spouses are cheating.
So how many people are cheating? It’s really hard to know because it’s self-reported, so who really knows how many are being honest and how they’re defining cheating. If we’re to believe recent research, 33 percent of men and 19 percent of women admit to getting some on the side.
Many more might cheat if they knew they wouldn’t get busted; fewer than 2 percent of women said they’d be”very likely” to cheat on their partner (and in this survey, just 5 percent of women admitted to having cheated) while more than 5 percent of men would be “very likely” (and in this survey, fewer than 3 percent of men admitted to straying).
Why is the idea of an open marriage so threatening?
I’m guessing it’s not the kind of conversation people can easily bring up with a loved one. I don’t know how many people talk about monogamy before they get into a relationship or marriage. Being monogamous is an assumption we have once we get serious romantically; oh, we’re a couple now so we won’t sleep with anyone else.
I know I never talked about monogamy with my boyfriends or my husbands (yeah, husbands; I’ve been married twice). But since my second divorce, when I was willing to shake free of the “relationships look like this” pattern, I had an openish relationship or two. We were free to do whatever we wanted, no questions asked, as long as we were practicing safe sex.
Would I want to do that in my current relationship? Probably not.
But I wonder why more couples don’t talk openly about monogamy. Why aren’t we asking each other whether it’s been hard — or not — to be monogamous (even if he or she has never strayed) and why.
It’s a topic Susan Pease Gadoua and I bring up in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers.
When I spoke with Eric Anderson, an American sociologist at England’s University of Winchester and author of the provocative book, The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating, he said people are afraid to be honest about things like their sexual needs and desires that monogamy doesn’t allow, and because of that they often start cheating:
monogamy is culturally compelled, so the decision has been made for us. For example, how much of a chance would a man stand to have a second date if on the first date he said that he was interested in an open relationship? But equally as important, at the point men enter into relationships they too think they want monogamy. It’s only after being in a relationship for months or years that they badly want sex with others. But by this point, they don’t want to break up with their partners because they have long standing love. Instead of chancing that love by asking for extradyadic sex, they cheat. If they don’t get caught (and most don’t) it’s a rational choice.
Since we know that’s what already is happening for many couples, is that better than what Will and Jada have, an open marriage — if they have it, that is? I don’t think so.
As Anderson says, it’s better to have “open and equitable sexual relationships. When both in the couple desire this, when both realize that extradyadic sex makes their partner happy, and they therefore want their partner to have that sex, a couple will have moved a long ways to ward facilitating emotional honesty, while simultaneously withering at jealousy scripts, which can be very damaging to a relationship.”
Jada is clear on what her marriage is based on — a deep friendship and a commitment to making it lifelong:
“I don’t think it’s easy to be married to anyone. I think that you have to go into a relationship knowing — especially when you’re dedicating yourself to someone for the rest of your life — this is a life partnership. He’s my best friend. He’s been by my side through some of the most difficult parts of my life. And so that’s something you can never take away.”