When Susan Dominus set out to write a story about relationships and romance for The New York Times Magazine, her initial assignment had her talking to couples who have experienced, and recovered from, infidelity. The relationship therapists she spoke with pointed her in a different direction: couples who had opened their marriages.
“I went from thinking, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ to thinking, ‘I don’t want this, but what’s wrong with me?” And that was surprising to discover.”
Those conversations were the spark of more than a year spent reporting and writing about open relationships. Dominus embedded with couples at every stage of the open relationship, from the beginners struggling to acclimate to a married couple who lived with the wife’s boyfriend. Yes, you read that right. Along the way, Dominus danced with her own visceral reactions to the subject matter, creating an internal monologue that she wove into the larger narrative, creating a revealing, emotive and intimate portrait of a new kind of romance.
In our conversation, Dominus, a staff writer for the magazine, talked about why she focused on the couples she did, why she included her own reactions and what she thinks about the incensed comments from readers.
This is a topic that anyone in any kind of long-term relationship has probably thought about, however briefly, at one time or another. What made you want to approach the story at all, and then in the way that you did?
Well, the story started out when my editor wanted me to look into how a couple who has experienced an infidelity recovers from that, and how they rebuild trust in a relationship. They wanted to do a really close look at one couple and follow their story. I reached out to a couple therapists in the hopes of meeting such a couple, but couples who have dealt with an infidelity are actually very ashamed, often, both the perpetrator and the victim of the affair. They didn’t really want to talk. But in the course of these interviews with the psychologists, one of them said, “You know, sometimes what these couples decide to do is open their marriages after they’ve had an affair.” And I thought, from a pure narrative point of view, I’d be really curious to see what that’s like, as a couple takes these risks for the first time in their lives, going out and meeting other people and coming back and reporting to each other about it. So I pitched it to my editors and everybody went for it.
Very quickly, I found couples who were not only open already, but I was able to find a couple on the brink of opening it for the first time, and were willing to let me come with them on that journey from a journalistic point of view. I was surprised that that was something I was able to find, but I did.
So is that why you started the story with Daniel and Elizabeth, who were undergoing this process in real time, and made them such an integral part of it? You must’ve spent a lot of time with them, as well, to elicit this level of detail.
“One thing I would say is that people who have complicated emotions don’t usually feel compelled to write something in the comments.”
Exactly, that’s why I worked with them, and yes, I spoke to them often on the phone, I visited them, I met their children. I’m going to meet them for dinner next week, so I always had a feeling we would keep in touch. They’re really wonderful people.
There was another couple that was about to open their marriage when I met them — near the end of the piece, there’s that couple that ends up divorcing? I had literally been there in their apartment as they were writing each other’s Tinder profiles. They were really gearing up for it. But there were things that were problematic about their relationship beforehand that made me think the openness was going to be a Band-Aid that wasn’t going to fix it. I was surprised, because for a while things were going very well between them, but ultimately their differences and attitudes towards monogamy were what broke them up.
Could you have written this story from a strictly objective point of view? Did you always plan to include yourself and your own existential crises and hang-ups in the piece?
I think it could be done, of course every story could be done that way and be done really, really well. I just felt that because I was taking readers so far out of their comfort zone, it might connect them to the material to have someone who herself was kind of on this journey, and starting out in one place and ending up somewhere else. Which is not to say open to open marriage, but I wrote those sections really quickly and naturally, and they felt really fun to write and my editors really liked them, so we kept them in.
Looking back now, did you find that ultimate value, in the final story, of making yourself a character to help the reader along?
I mean, yes and no, I guess. It’s hard to know, because the comments were so vitriolic, for the most part. What was really fascinating to me about the comments was how taboo the subject matter was. Even how people in my life responded to me, being subtly or overtly kind of hostile to me when speaking about it, as if I had been proselytizing for this rather than simply writing about it. I think it just kicks up a lot of emotions for people and makes them feel uncomfortable in ways they’re not even aware of.
It seems that where our country cannot locate consensus on anything from abortion to guns to mass incarceration, the NYT comments section can at least agree that what these couples are practicing is ridiculous, impossible, a bridge too far even for progressive-minded couples. Does that kind of vitriolic reaction affect your approach as a writer?
One thing I would say is that people who have complicated emotions don’t usually feel compelled to write something in the comments. There were probably a lot of people who read the piece and thought: “You know, I don’t know what I think. These people do seem kind of crazy, but on the other hand, monogamy does seem kind of repressive. And also, they do seem kind of happy. Huh!”
“Reporting this story, I did suddenly think that my marriage is one of the best things I have in my life, and yet I don’t appreciate it, we don’t really rejoice in it, we don’t dedicate ourselves to it, we don’t spend enough time making it better. I did really feel like I was coasting, rather than being really present in my relationship.”
Those people don’t post. The people who post want to feel good about whatever moral stance they’re taking and feel like they’re exercising their moral muscles and patting themselves on the back for having really strong convictions. The comments don’t necessarily reflect the range of reader experiences; they reflect the extreme reactions most people do have to open marriages.
I was particularly struck by the Zaeli Kane and Joe Spurr (and Blake Wilson) anecdote, as it seems you were. They seem to have reached the enlightened plane that every couple that embarks on an open relationship is looking for. Reading it, I felt, like you did in the piece, a mix of disgust, at myself for my own reactionary conservatism, and admiration for what they were doing. Were you intentionally trying to push readers to explore their own thoughts on relationships, or were you just telling your sources’ story?
As I said, I feel like the entire piece was taking the reader on a journey. You know, here’s a kind of suburban married couple, and one of them is seeing someone outside of their relationship, but it’s a committed, loving thing. In some ways that seemed like the easiest jumping-off point, and then I wanted to end the piece with the hardest concept to grasp, which was that these three people are living together, two are kissing each other in front of the other partner, and then to sort of admit and recognize, about myself, that there’s a limit to my open-mindedness. It was a good way of getting at that as open-minded as I am about the idea, there’s something visceral, maybe primal, in me that rebels at the concept of that.
Where did you ultimately end up on this topic? And is it normal for you to be affected by a story on these emotional levels?
I would say the story had a more visceral effect on me than most, but the thing that I admired most about these couples is that you may not like the way that they were committing themselves to the idea of love, but they all took love incredibly seriously. They spent a lot of time thinking about what they wanted out of their relationships in life. I’m very, very happily married, but like many couples in which the parents work and there are two kids, sometimes you do coast on autopilot. And reporting this story, I did suddenly think that my marriage is one of the best things I have in my life, and yet I don’t appreciate it, we don’t really rejoice in it, we don’t dedicate ourselves to it, we don’t spend enough time making it better. I did really feel like I was coasting, rather than being really present in my relationship.
Where do you go from here? More relationship and romance stories, or something else?
I’m hugely relieved to have moved on from this topic. [Laughs] It was really interesting, and I really care about the people I reported on. I learned a lot, but it’s very hard doing that kind of intimate reporting. Also, to be honest, there is so much going on in the news and in the world right now that on the one hand, I think it’s important to acknowledge that our private lives are hugely significant and how we conduct ourselves in our homes is a big part of who we are, but it’s also nice to turn outward. And I’d like to do more of that.