Open marriage is a neoliberal pathology

Disclaimer: I didn't read the latest New York Times cover story, "Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?." Actually, I skimmed it—so you don't have to. Skimming, as it turns out, more than sufficed to confirm all of my original suspicions about the piece, and about articles of this ilk in general.

For one, that the liberal media just loves to pass off its half-assed anecdotal e-mail journalism as Sociology with a capital "S." 

Secondly, I kept coming back to that famous Fran Lebowitz line about happiness: "We live in a world where people think happiness is a condition, but it's not; it's a sensation." The obsession with "happier" marriages does violence to the reality that relationships are work and that people won't always be happy. Of course, being in love is a wonderful state, perhaps, the best, most special, most spiritually fortifying state known to man. But also, loving someone isn't all holding hands and walks in the park, it's being there in the depressing, mundane and inconvenient moments that you didn't sign up for.

Last but not least, why is it that anyone who has ever advocated for open marriage or polyamorous relationships or any other form of "nontraditional" coupling invariably seems possessed by the quiet rage and lack of interpersonal charm of that astronaut lady who drove cross-country in an adult diaper to break up someone else's marriage?

Mostly, though, it was just boring. Turgidly, onerously, mind-numbingly boring in a way that writing about juicy sexual matters shouldn't be but too often is. (In case you're like me and don't feel like wading through 2,000-plus words of warmed-over romantic psychodrama and barely concealed mutual contempt, I suggest you read this stellar Zaid Jilani Twitter thread for the CliffsNotes.)

But anyway, because I can't ever seem to keep my dick in my pants when it comes to the liberal media's pseudoscientific warblings on love and sex, here's my unpopular opinion: the marriage institution is in some ways preferable to the sexual gig economy of neoliberal hookup culture because, if nothing else, it frees people from the tyranny of choice and forces them to subordinate their will to others, both of which are essential parts of becoming an adult.

Open marriage, on the other hand, is a uniquely modern pathology in that it appeals to those who resent having to conform to a standard but for whom the existential terror of not conforming to any standard is too great. Like so much of our culture—co-working arrangements, the self-help and self-care industries, service apps, etc.—it encourages people to dwell in a state of perpetual adolescence, enjoying all the comforts of the old way of doing things while discarding all of the inconveniences (which are repackaged as, in the trendy, millennial market lingo of Silicon Valley, as "inefficiencies").

As all the best observers of the human condition from Erich Fromm to Quentin Crisp have noted, one of the most natural of human tendencies is to foist responsibility for your life onto someone else. Economic arguments aside, this is probably the best social or moral critique of traditional marriage. But what is open marriage if not the foisting of responsibility for your life onto someone else while conveniently avoiding your responsibility to them?

In the end, then, it's not an improvement or, even, a variation on an imperfect and obsolete tradition but, rather, a radical failure of the political imagination. The problem is that you can't reject an existing order unless you're prepared to replace it with an alternate, equally viable value system; otherwise people start to go insane (see: cultural neoliberalism).

This, as The Last Psychiatrist says, is what Nietzsche meant by "God is dead." Not: "God is dead, so we should all get face tattoos and septum piercings and fuck everyone in sight." But: "God is dead, so the onus is on us as a society to devise a workable code of ethics in the absence of a supreme authority." To put it in plainer terms, all this socially progressive talk of embracing sex positivity and putting an end to gender roles is only liberating if the underlying structural conditions that perpetuate misery and inequality are addressed! If not, it becomes just another marketing strategy of late-stage neoliberal capitalism.

So, in the meantime, if marriage isn't for you, maybe try not doing it? In any case, don't ruin a perfectly fine and functional thing for the rest of us.