Lessons from Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith – could an open marriage work for you?

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Will Smith recently opened about his marriage to Jada and their unconventional ways of making it work.
Will Smith recently opened about his marriage to Jada and their unconventional ways of making it work.
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Does entering the type of marriage that says "I choose to be with you – and only you – till death do us part" ruin relationships?

That's what many people seem to believe, with research showing that as much as 20% of married couples divorce within the first five years of marriage, according to Fatherly

Choosing to spend the rest of your life with someone is highly influenced by individual values, religious background and the kind of relationships you grew up witnessing. But what if you'd like to explore the possibility of falling in love with other people?

Read more | Soweto woman on having two partners and looking for a third – ‘If men can do it, so can I’

Although still a taboo, there are many couples who choose to be in open marriages or polyamorous relationships in order to make their marriage work.

A couple famous for their unconventional marriage are actors and producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. The Hollywood power couple have previously said that they have sexually engaged with other people and revealed that this has helped their marriage.

In a recent interview Will confirmed that this set-up is absolutely the right thing for him and his wife.

“Jada never believed in conventional marriage," he recently told GQ magazine. "Jada had family members that had an unconventional relationship. So she grew up in a way that was very different than how I grew up. There were significant endless discussions about, what is relational perfection? What is the perfect way to interact as a couple? And for the large part of our relationship, monogamy was what we chose, not thinking of monogamy as the only relational perfection."

In the interview, the Gemini Man star is candid about the liberty he and his wife have given each other to explore other sexual relationships outside of their marriage.

“We have given each other trust and freedom, with the belief that everybody has to find their own way. And marriage for us can’t be a prison. And I don’t suggest our road for anybody. I don’t suggest this road for anybody. But the experiences that the freedoms that we’ve given one another and the unconditional support, to me, [have allowed] is the highest definition of love.”

According to Men’s Health, it’s currently estimated that 4 to 5 percent of people living in the United States are polyamorous or participating in other forms of open relationships, while 20 percent of people have at least attempted some kind of open relationship at some point in their lives.

Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Nevern Subermoney says that open marriages, like any other, still fail or succeed based on the fundamentals of marital life.

“What we see with polyamorous couples is that the consideration they have in the open marriage doesn’t seem to last long term," says the Varsity College lecturer.

"There is usually some reconsideration later on and they choose to settle down with one unique partner. The ways to make it work will still rely on the fundamentals on marriage which is communication about people’s feelings and being very clear about the negotiation of roles. A lot of relationships end because there is difference in expectations."

These days more people are openly shifting from pursuing marriage to declaring that they're exploring the option of a lifelong partnerships minus the nuptials.

“Religions are declining and that is allowing people to live independently from religious structures of marriage and relationships," Subermoney explains.

"They no longer have obligations to religion, therefore the consequences of divorce have declined and the need for  conventional marriage has also declined.”

However, there is a difference between a polyamorous relationship and an open marriage.

Read more| The first 5 years of marriage are the hardest – this is how you can survive them

In a polyamorous relationship you build relationships with other people outside your main relationship, and the purpose isn’t only sex but also emotional connection and support.

In an open relationship, however, you have one primary partner with whom you have a sexual and emotional relationship. But you are allowed to have sexual relationships with other people outside of the relationships that do not develop into romantic relationships.

“It’s a very hard thing to ask someone to expand themselves for a single person  for the rest of their lives and for them to share the same values," he tells Drum.

"Because of the unrealistic nature of romantic love, being in open relationships and polyamorous relationships can be healthier so people can explore new ways of making relationships work."

"People need to have the option of choosing what works for the relationship without being obligated to stay with one person. [Monogamy] could also be unhealthy in the sense that there would be less opportunity for people to find the right partners. There will be inequality in sexual opportunity.”
Nevern Subermoney – Psychologist

Three reasons why people choose to be in open relationships and polyamorous arrangements

  • Outsourcing unmet needs to a different partner: Polyamorists face this same problem that monogamists do in their primary relationship. But rather than abandoning their spouse for a fresh face, they outsource their unmet erotic needs to a different partner.
  • Transparency: Couples get to be transparent with their partners about the relationships without the fear of infidelity.
  • Compersion: This is the idea that you can experience joy when someone you care about is happy, even if you’re not the source of that happiness. In non-monogamous circles, compersion tends to mean feeling happy when your partner has a good time with another lover.
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