Open Marriages Aren't Wrong–Newt Gingrich Is

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz

It's safe to say that Newt Gingrich is one of the worst husbands of all time. He's a notorious philanderer. In his three marriages, he's established a habit of leaving a sick wife for a younger mistress. He abandoned first wife Jackie while she was hospitalized to get with his second wife, Marianne. He left Marianne after she was newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis to get with his current wife, Callista. Now, Marianne's wrath has come back to haunt him in an ABC interview revealing that after confessing to his affair, Gingrich asked Marianne for an "open marriage."

Progressives are salivating at his hypocrisy (paired with his political history of attacking cheaters like Bill Clinton, this doesn't look good). Meanwhile, conservatives seem to be keeping their cool, presumably out of loyalty—if this were happening to a Democrat, you can expect they'd be outraged by the moral turpitude. On the internet yesterday, Newt Gingrich was a "human" at best, a moral calamity at worst—or else a snarky Twitter punchline.

Yet, I feel bad for the guy. I think it's a real shame, for him and for us, that he's catching so much flak for the one instance he did reveal a conscience.

For a fleeting moment—among all the lies and deception and humiliation—Newt Gingrich chose honesty. He expressed interest in attempting to navigate a marriage outside of the prescribed and dated monogamy model, which seldom works to the satisfaction of both partners and clearly hasn't worked for him. I found myself agreeing with Rush Limbaugh when he said that being honest with his wife showed "character," at least more character than Gingrich has shown during any of the other disasters (sexual or otherwise) he's created.

Of course, I'm fairly sure Gingrich wasn't proposing an open marriage in the hopes of flouting repressive traditions: He was just seeking permission to continue a moral lapse he'd grown comfortable in. His strategy of choice—popping the question over the phone at Marianne's mother's 84th birthday—was tasteless, to put it mildly. And not only did Gingrich ask for an open relationship retroactively, after carrying on an affair for six years, I'm willing to bet he wouldn't have been cool with Marianne having her own dalliances, either. Newt Gingrich is by no means the poster child for healthy open marriages.

He is, however, the poster child for the messy, miserable life people can have if they're stuffed into rules they weren't built to follow. He's the poster child for how our sexist and repressive culture can hurt relationships. Gingrich was raised in, and now advocates for, a world that sets up incredibly narrow parameters for sex and love, and shames people who don't adhere to those standards. He's also part of a culture that often gives a chuck on the chin to a straying husband (unless he's a political opponent) while branding a female cheater with a scarlet "A"—of course he wouldn't feel comfortable with his wife doing her own thing. Even if Gingrich were to desire an egalitarian, functional open marriage, he wouldn't have the tools, the script, nor the cultural context to live in one openly. Considering the subject's taboo nature, neither would most of us.

The thing that most irks me about this "scandal" is that, with Newt at its center, it gives the term "open marriage" a worse reputation than ever. It doesn't help that Marianne responded to Gingrich's request by telling him, "That is not a marriage." Open marriages are just as real as monogamous ones, if the parties involved are comfortable with the terms. I wish, just once, that a controversy like this could inspire discussion about the many ways to approach matrimony, rather than the requisite scorn and outrage. After this is over, all that will stick is a stronger association of unconventional relationships with the lying, betrayal, and downright cruelty of a certified slimeball.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Gage Skidmore