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An Honest "Celebration" [Tortured Account] of an Open Marriage

Dorothy Fortenberry at Commonweal. Caution: Reprobate content.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 / Unsplash
Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover, I Suppose
I know nothing about this book except what I read in this review. If the reviewer is honest, the publisher isn’t. Of course, the publisher is Doubleday, which is probably about as mainstream (corporate, legacy, establishment) media as you get, so it shouldn’t surprise me that its book cover appears

In 2002, Meredith Berkman sued the manufacturer of the nutritionally dubious snack Pirate’s Booty for $50 million because its label claimed it was “Good For You.” When pressed to defend its claims, the company’s founder insisted the snack bags were making a different assertion altogether: it’s not that Pirate’s Booty is good for you—but rather, hey man, “good for you!” for livening things up with some Pirate’s Booty.

I think about the difference between these two statements a lot when I think about polyamory.

To the friends who have confided in me or declared via social media that they are in open marriages, my response has always been “good for you!” If that’s what works for another person, if they are happy, then, as a member of a tolerant, pluralistic society, what else can I offer? As a religious person, a Catholic no less, I know that I am often on the receiving end of such tolerance, and I’m glad to reciprocate when given the opportunity. But, in our current moment of societal poly-curiosity, some advocates have turned to making the larger claim: that open relationships are broadly healthful, that they are, actually, good for us.

Into this climate comes Molly Roden Winter’s memoir, More, heralded as a “scorcher” (Washington Post) and a corrective to the idea that “mothers are not supposed to be sexual beings” (New York Times). One blurb on the back promises an exploration of “how nonmonogamy can be a powerful catalyst for living more authentically, breaking free of socially scripted people-pleasing roles, and having a more secure relationship with one’s self, family, and partner.” From its cover art (the solid-color cutouts of contemporary romance literature) to its media blitz, this book has been positioned as a sexy romp and societal corrective. In other words, Roden Winter’s open marriage was both good for her and also good for her!

So, I was genuinely shocked when I read the book, not by how graphic it is, but by how sad. For every one orgasm scene, there are three of sobbing fits. Molly’s, to be clear. Her husband, Stewart, is not a crier.

The book begins with a betrayal—logistical rather than sexual. Roden Winter is home with her small children as the full-time caregiver. Stewart has promised to be home early yet strolls in at almost 9 p.m. In what will be a pronounced pattern, she does not tell Stewart she is upset by his selfish behavior. Instead, she goes on a walk, finds a friend, and serendipitously meets a cute younger guy at a bar. When she returns home and confesses this, Stewart is aroused and encourages her to continue to see this guy, Matt, as long as she tells him about it. Which, because Roden Winter is very good at taking direction, she does. Stewart soon asks if he can also sleep with his ex-girlfriend Lena. Molly is not happy about it:

[T]he thought of them together makes me feel like I’ve fallen to the bottom of a well. “I’m not sure,” I say, still not looking at him. I’m afraid I’ll start to cry if I do…. “I guess it’s okay. I mean, it’s not fair if I’m the only one who gets to…you know…” “Cool,” says Stew, standing to go.

Stewart, gallantly, asks one more time if it’s okay, to which Roden Winter lies, “Yup,” and then asks, silently, “Doesn’t he know I’m lying?” Doesn’t he?

If Roden Winter seems at this point to be psychically tormented and terrible at asserting herself, wait until she meets a man on and performs a sex act on him while thinking “there is no way I can pretend I’m enjoying this.” The man doesn’t reciprocate, but then again, she doesn’t ask. “‘That was a lot of fun’ he says. ‘Yeah, it was,’ I lie,” is their final exchange, a synecdoche for much of the book.

Following a friend’s advice (I told you she was good at taking direction), Roden Winter starts seeing a therapist, Mitchell, to sort out her feelings about open marriage. In his office, she complains about how Stew is dating “like four different women right now.” And, with Mitchell’s encouragement, she vows, “I need to raise my standards, to find men who have something to offer me.” But this plucky promise only lands her with two boyfriends, neither of whom seem to treat her particularly well. One announces, upon sexual completion, “Oops! It seems I have forgot zee condom!” (he speaks French). The other sends her a list of sex toys to purchase (which of course she does), but after their encounters, she always feels “empty” and “like shit.” In therapy, she realizes that “It’s like I’m just reacting to what men want” and vows to work on her own self-worth. Meanwhile, she tells Mitchell, “from my vantage point, it seems like Stewart is having nothing but fun as he jaunts along the open-marriage path.” After having succumbed to her boyfriends’ pressure to remove her pubic hair and have sex in hourly motels, she finally reaches a breaking point, ends the relationships, and sobs alone into her pillow.

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An Open Marriage Manifesto?
Molly Roden Winter’s open-marriage memoir features unsexy sex, lots of crying, and a vivid portrait of emotional pain.