Monday, July 21, 2008

The One, The Only

I’m almost positive we don’t stink anymore. Except Simon. He totally does.

It’s not often that the ideas alone in a book stick in my craw and get me all bothered, but Jenny Block’s Open had that effect on me. To sum up from the last post: Open is about Block’s experience of, and her case for, open marriage.

I should say first off, that Block is a terrific speaker and she’s very good at capturing things like that heady feeling of first attraction. At her talk, she emphasized how an open marriage allows her and her partners to live honestly, instead of cheating—the deception and betrayal is the hurtful part of infidelity, in her experience, not the act of sleeping with someone else.

It’s interesting, I think, that only sexual stuff that leads people to an open marriage. Plenty of us who can’t get what we need from our spouses get it from other people—an appreciation of jazz, say, or a discussion of the kind of books we like. All in all, I have to believe that open marriage is definitely a workable situation for some people.

That said, it ain’t going to be me, babe. The most surprising thing about this book to me was how strong my own reaction was to it.

I should point out here that I believe that each marriage is a black box, knowable only to the people inside of it. I haven’t even had adult relationships. Brandon and I met when we were nineteen. I know our marriage well, but that’s it.

So I think part of my big issue with this book is when Block branches out from her own experience and makes assumptions about how widespread the problems that led her to open marriage are. One of her main arguments is that monogamy is unnatural and that men and women are biologically driven to multiple partners. “And if that’s how we’re wired, so be it,” she writes. It’s a frustrating argument. As Barbara pointed out in the comments, the whole “natural” v. “unnatural” is a losing game. I mean, one could make the case that we’re “wired” to hasten the deaths of our weakest newborns, say, but we don’t.

Worse, the us v. them thread put me on the defensive. Block writes: “Open marriage is not for the insecure. It is not for people concerned about what the Joneses think, or whose self-worth is inextricably tied to their partners’ faithfulness and attention … It is not for the dishonest, the close-minded, the naïve, the ignorant, or the incommunicative. It is not for people ruled by ego. It is not for the unimaginative or the unadventurous.”

I know. I know Block is tired of being thought of as some sort of promiscuous sexual deviant, but jeez. Do we really have to break it down into the polyamorists—brave, honest, and true to themselves—and the monogamists? The Snoozy McDimwits?

There aren’t any good statistics on how many of us marrieds cheat, so Block and anyone else who writes about monogamy or infidelity becomes instantly susceptable to what journalist E.J. Graff calls the my-friends-and-me method of journalism. Block suggests that it’s possible that upwards of 80% of marriages involve some infidelity. If that were true, I do believe I’d need my smelling salts.

For most of my friends and me, monogamy works fine. For me and Brandon, I know it does. And it does for a lot of the reasons that Block scoffs at. Yes, part of my self-identity is wrapped up in Brandon because a lot of my history is wrapped up in Brandon; we’re inter-dependent and introducing anyone else to this dynamic, for us, would be dangerous and stupid. I don’t get a charge out of seeing anyone flirt with Brandon, much less have sex with him. And if I want something else while making the whoopee, I ask. (Granted, this is not difficult since I’m hetero; if I wanted a pair of lady breasts to nuzzle, it’d be another ball game.)

What do you think?

10 comments:

jenontheedge said...

I couldn't agree more with what you're saying.

Libby said...

I haven't read Open, though I've read bits of it (and, full disclosure, I know Jenny, though not at all well). I haven't read the book because I, too, have a reaction like yours. I *completely* agree about marriage as a black box, and I also find arguments from nature a bit silly--I mean, if nature were the be-all, end-all, we wouldn't be writing now, would we? So while I can (um, sort of) see how it works for some people, I'm not at all convinced that it's the future--or the past!--of marriage.

attiton said...

I, too, met my husband before the age of twenty. I recognize that this skews my perspective on marriage, but then again, whose perspective on marriage isn't skewed either by the experience of it or lack thereof.

What irritates me here is that there is (ever so slightly) a suggestion that those of us not looking outside our marriages for excitement are unadventurous or uncommunicative.

She is welcome to be happy, of course, and follow her dreams to her heart's content, but she is not particularly welcome to judge my behavior on her personal standards.

attiton said...

I, too, met my husband before the age of twenty. I recognize that this skews my perspective on marriage, but then again, whose perspective on marriage isn't skewed either by the experience of it or lack thereof.

What irritates me here is that there is (ever so slightly) a suggestion that those of us not looking outside our marriages for excitement are unadventurous or uncommunicative.

She is welcome to be happy, of course, and follow her dreams to her heart's content, but she is not particularly welcome to judge my behavior on her personal standards.

Elizabeth M. said...

I agree that Jenny Block's personal presentation of the material comes across better than it does in the book. In her appearance at WriterHouse she talked about the tension in the book between memoir and standard nonfiction -- her editor pushed her for more research, less personal revelation. I think the opposite formula would have made the book stronger -- I would have liked to know more about Block's personal experience of open marriage and her struggles with it. The research sections were pretty mundane stuff.

My suspicion is that Block doesn't really think so little of monogamy. I think she inadvertently set up a straw man monogamy in the book the better to knock it down in favor of open marriage. Her argument for polyamory would be much more convincing if she had given monogamy its strongest argument rather than a weak one. The "biological imperative" argument just doesn't work.

Jenny B said...

Hi-

I just wanted to say thank you for bringing up my book and for starting this discussion. It's great to see even the idea being discussed in great forums like this one!

I don't advocate open relationships - just honesty. And I really don't have any problem with monogamy. At all. I absolutely respect the fact that there are people who have happy, healthy, honest, monogamous relationships. The thing that gets under my skin is hypocrisy. I hate to see people unhappy, dissatisfied, and living deceitfully. It's just not good for anyone.

Open marriage works for us. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to share my story.

Wishing you all the best,
Jenny Block
Author of "Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage"

www.jennyonthepage.com

Gina said...

I lived in Northern California for 15 years, in an area with a large polyamorist community. I never personally saw a relationship last for long, once it was opened up (though I guess it must work for some people, somewhere!). I have friends who had the strongest, most honest relationship I've ever known, who decided to try polyamory. Within a couple of years their relationship had crashed and burned, and now both are in committed, monogamous relationships with other people, with absolutely no desire to dabble in polyamory again. Even in the best of circumstances it's a huge risk to take.

Call me insecure, I don't care. The fact that my man and I are exclusive makes our intimacy special, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Anjali said...

I haven't read the book yet, but after reading your review, Jennifer, I'll probably pick it up.

Based on Block's comment, though, I'd have to disagree with the basic assumption that one who is in an open relationship isn't hypocritical or dishonest. One can be "open" and still be living deceitfully. Just as one can live honestly in a monogamous relationship.

I guess what I really don't get, is if one is Open, why get married to begin with? If you reject one aspect of the institution of marriage, why not reject the institution altoghter? After all, one can be in a committed relationship without marriage.

Sorry for the length. I should have just read it and written my own review!

Julianne said...

I agree with Anjali that the assumption that dishonesty and hypocrisy can only take place in a monogamous relationship is not accurate. When feelings become involved, doesn't it become dishonest, regardless of whether your partner knows about the sexual relationship?

I'm going to have to read the book now.

Tracy said...

I have a great story about Open relationships: I bonded with my future husband over this topic.

We were co-workers, and we both happened to each have close couple-friends whose relationships were falling apart from the very Open-ness Gina's talking about: on the one hand, making non-Open sound loser-like, but on the other, they were all breaking up, yo!

We analyzed those relationships over the course of several Bombay-and-tonic after-work non-dates, and I'm sure you can guess the rest...18 yrs later, we still mull over the world on a Friday night with imported alcohol at hand (bad us), and we're still apt to take a pass on the wonderful world of Open relationships.

Glad they work for some ppl, and sure glad it ain't us.