Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Another Hired Non-Expert

Marriage and family therapist Dr. Dan Gottlieb recently discussed on NPR's Morning Edition the subject of non-monogamy in the context of findings in the General Social Survey that men and women of all ages are unfaithful. Brenda, the interviewer, references Jenny Block's book Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage. Like clockwork, Gottlieb, yet another hired expert marriage and family therapist like Dr. Diana Kirschner whose lack of awareness on the subject of open marriage I comment on in this post, declares: "... a lot of younger couples when they do have these internet flirtations [believe] that it enhances the romantic and sexual relationship. Well, it does, in the short run, and it does in the moment." So he gets that variety in one's love life can be beneficial. But then he continues by saying "... in the 70s we tried open marriage and we tried swinging and all that stuff. Doesn't work, period. It can't work in the long run, being unfaithful, because ultimately relationships are about trust."

He's right - they absolutely are about trust. Where his arguments break down is where he fails to get that trust is not broken when monogamy is absent from the relationship agreement by mututal consent. Also, common wisdom from a variety of fronts says that we already know free love doesn't work because we tried it in the 1970s without success. I can see why some think that's proof enough, but what they don't know is that free love back in the day was fraught with problems because its practitioners lacked the relationship/communication skills and in most cases the integrity to conduct their relationships in ways that work for all involved. As I am fond of saying, polyamory and open marriage today, with their increased awareness of what works and what doesn't, are Free Love 2.0.

Newsflash: It's not the sex/love with others that damages a marrage, it is the violation of the promise *not* to enter into other sexually intimate relationships that is guaranteed to damage trust. Seems entirely feasible to me for a reasonably savvy therapist to intuit, but the ones I hear speak to the subject don't fulfill that hope.

We have so much work yet to do to educate these therapists as to the truth. Some of that can be accomplished with information campaigns, and some of it via peer-reviewed studies. Clearly, and understandably, even those therapists who are so highly regarded as to be hired to speak on radio and TV don't have experiences that demonstrate that it is entirely possible to maintain trust while conducting an open marriage or poly relationship. Not only is it possible, but I and my partner, T, are happily making it work, as are hundreds of other polyfolk I know.

I agree with Gottlieb, to a degree, when he goes on to say, "I think there is another factor, Brenda, with infidelity. There is ample research that we have fewer intimate friends. There is a longing for human contact, whether we are aware of it or not. As a result of our increased isolation, we have more and more expectations on our partner. They have to be our lover, our best friend, our soulmate, the one who understands us - it's not reasonable for one person. And when they don't meet all of those needs, we think there is something wrong in the marriage, we get angry and disappointed, and many go outside to try to get those needs met."

He's right, of course, that it is very difficult to be all things to one person. What he is implying is that developing emotionally (but not sexually) intimate friendships are the solution. I'm sure Gottlieb is a lovely and knowledgable man, and with a little more vision and understanding of the dynamics of successful open relationships, he may be a potential convert.

1 comment:

Lucius Scribbens said...

I agree, Gottlieb half-gets it. Although he's a therapist, he seems to also be living under the fallacy, or seems to place more emphasis, on the idea that affairs are about sex. Some are, but most are not. Most affairs are about people trying to find that emotional bond with another person after the fairytale image of the "one and only" has been shattered. The emotional bond they find sooner-or-later also progresses to sex.

To say you'll develop an emotionally intimate relationship with someone and not have a huge chance of it developing to a sexual one is simply burying your head in the sand.

I think many therapists toe the line when it comes to such controversial issues as open relationships, or what they see as "cheating with permission". They error on the safe-side so as to not rock the boat, too much.

Therapists also only see people who's relationship in trouble. Happy couples do not spend $100+ an hour to talk to a therapist about their happy relationship. So the only cases of open relationships a therapist sees are the bad ones; those that have used open relationships, swinging, polyamory, etc. to try to "fix" a relationship harmed by many years of neglect and selfishness.

I think if they stepped-back and studied, or at least looked for happy couples with open relationships of many kinds, their opinion would start to be swayed toward a positive view of them.