It’s wedding season and young twenty- and thirty-somethings all over America (or at least along the Acela corridor and Silicon Valley) are jetting off to see their college friends tie the knot. There will be bachelor parties in Vegas and bridal showers in the well-adorned homes of their parents’ friends. There will be time spent complaining that there is nothing left in a reasonable price range on the Pottery Barn wedding registry and much lamenting about the color of the bridesmaid dresses. For the most part, however, weddings are cause for celebration.
Indeed, the institution of marriage is alive and well among the well-heeled. As Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project wrote in the New York Times:
After succumbing temporarily to the marital tumult of the 1970s, college-educated Americans have been getting their marital act together in recent years. For this demographic, divorce is down, infidelity is down, nonmarital childbearing still remains an exotic activity (only 2 percent of children born to white, college-educated women today are born outside of marriage) and the vast majority of children are fortunate to grow up with both their mother and their father.
One wonders, then, what to make of the recent spate of articles exploring polyamory. The most recent one, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend, “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” has earned much of the attention, but New York magazine also ran one this week called, “How Researching the Science of Boredom Prepared Me for Marriage.”
Both pieces are exercises in wishful thinking by reporters with conventional romantic lives who just can’t help but wonder what their relationships would be like without all of the silly constraints conventional romance demands. In New York magazine, Mary Mann writes, “A year ago, I got engaged to a man I love. We’d been together for several years, and I was looking forward to getting married, but I was also terrified that we’d end up like one of those couples sitting silently across from each other at dinner, idly scrolling on their phones, barely acknowledging the other person’s existence.”
But rather than simply ask some girlfriends how to keep things interesting, Mann’s first impulse is to interview people about the benefits of polygamy. She quotes “polyamory expert and author of Love Without Limits Deborah Anapol,” who explains that “at some level everyone needs novelty.” Mann explains, citing Anapol, that “This might mean polyamory or experimenting within monogamy, but whatever the scenario, if you want to avoid the dread choice between infidelity and unhappiness, ‘talking about sex really helps.’”
It’s a big leap to go from talking about sex to experimenting with polyamory. But in the New York Times Magazine, Susan Dominus wants us to believe it’s not a big leap after all. She tells the story of going to a conference and then going out to dinner with a man who is not her husband. Though it didn’t go anywhere near infidelity territory, and she had no intention that it would, she lied to her husband about it. Why had she lied, Dominus wondered aloud. “I was instinctively acting out a familiar, but also ridiculous, paradigm of marriage, one in which we collude in the fiction that no one of the opposite sex ever draws our interest.”
I have no idea whose paradigm of marriage this is, but for most married people it’s precisely the opposite. The other sex does draw our interest, but marriage prevents us from acting on it. And it’s easier to stick to that plan when we deny ourselves the opportunity to act on it. (Mike Pence, please call your office.)
But Dominus and Mann seem to want to engage in this exercise because they are slightly embarrassed by their own conventionality. They are supposed to be twenty-first century empowered feminists. Why are they just settling into this patriarchal institution without putting up a fight? As Dominus writes, “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.”
Of course! The folks sleeping with multiple partners are just more enlightened than the rest of us.
The upper class readers of these magazines don’t really want to give up all the trappings of real marriage—the nice weddings, the long-term love and stability, the better financial outcomes, the superior environment for bringing up children—but as these stories show, they’re evidently eager to suppress their bad feelings about being so conventional by indulging in some polyamory fan fiction.