ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL—Last week, Marianne Gingrich, the second ex-wife of former Speaker of the House and current GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, went public with the not entirely surprising news that she had received an ultimatum just prior to their divorce. What was surprising was that Marianne used the phrase "open marriage" to describe what Newt wanted from her.
The mainstream media is repeating the term as though it were an accurate description of what the couple discussed, with some going so far as to unsuccessfully flash their hipster credentials by referring to it as "polyamory."
Meanwhile, those who actually have open or polyamorous relationships are wondering what to make of the situation. On the one hand, it's great to have the entire country talking about the way that some real people have real relationships... and how those real relationships often don't match the cultural mythology. On the other hand, it's being discussed largely by people who haven't got a clue about the real world relationship alternatives that have been employed throughout history or how those who crave an ethical non-monogamy are customizing them to satisfy the unique needs of their individual households.
When Goldie Taylor, an otherwise rational pundit, becomes so overcome with disgust by the topic that she could do little more than sputter and wave her hands during an MSNBC discussion on "The Last Word" with fellow guest Lawrence O'Donnell, you know there's a very hot potato being tossed around.
So, what is an "open marriage" and was Newt actually "asking" for one?
LoveMore.com, a social and educational lodestone for the responsible non-monogamy community, defines open marriage as: "A marriage of two partners that is not sexually exclusive, but permits either or both partners to have other lovers outside of the primary relationship within the marriage."
While Gingrich was technically proposing a marriage where he would have had a partner outside of the legally recognized relationship and Marianne would probably have been offered the same (but apparently unwanted) option, the spirit of the definition is not met by his actions or, most likely, by his intentions.
As sex expert Loraine Hutchins concisely phrases it, "You don't lie about an affair for six years and then ask permission. Well, you can, but it has nothing to do with open marriage and everything to do with trying to hold the wife hostage, rather than creating an atmosphere of mutuality and consent."
Unfortunately for Marianne, mutuality and consent were two elements not involved with the Gingrich conversation. While a surprising number of couples find themselves struggling with how to handle an unexpected and unauthorized crush, infatuation, or genuine love, the success or failure of their efforts hinges on the health of the relationships and individuals involved – and the true intent of the person proposing to open up the relationship. A successful open marriage places great value on honesty, especially concerning each partner's needs and desires. Given that the Gingrichs had begun spending extended periods of time apart within three years of their 1981 marriage, chances are good that these virtues were not high on the couple's to-do list.
For comparison, consider some celebrities who are truly in open marriages: cartoonists Robert and Aline Crumb, actress Tilda Swinton and the multi-talented John Byrne, talk show host Larry King and singer Shawn Southwick, and performers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. None of these non-monogamous partnerships are perfect, but no relationship is and these include levels of trust and communication that many monogamous couplings could benefit from.
Books including The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, Love in Abundance, Redefining our Relationships: Guidelines for Responsible Open Relationships, and Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality provide advice, insights and support for those who seriously want to nurture and maintain multiple simultaneous sexual and/or romantic connections.
While no one can know for certain what was in Newt Gingrich's heart and mind when he finally confessed his six-year affair with the much younger Callista Bisek, his actions do not suggest a sincere desire for a loving and respectful open marriage. Just as he had proposed to Marianne while still married to his first wife, Gingrich had already asked for Callista's hand before he suggested divorce to Marianne in May 1999 – while his wife was at dinner with her 84-year-old mother.
By August 2000, Gingrich had a third wife. He has never interacted with Marianne since the divorce was final.
If Newt Gingrich offered his second wife an open marriage, it was likely with the understanding that Callista would be his primary emotional contact and he was willing to allow Marianne to remain and serve as a respectable public face for his political career.
It's not surprising that she turned down the opportunity.