About Last Night

11.19.11

Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Open Relationships, and Divorce

Cheating seems to have ended Kutcher and Moore’s marriage, despite rumors they had an open relationship. Tracy Quan on the difficulties of navigating those nonmonogamous waters.

As a life-long student of infidelity, I believe we can learn a lot from Demi Moore’s decision to divorce Ashton Kutcher—and the murky spin surrounding their recent troubles. It’s hard to believe a woman as accomplished as Demi would end her six-year relationship over a casual misadventure—given that Demi recently told Fox News “we all live in the gray” rather than the black and white.

“We’ve all been the victim, and we’ve all been victimizer,” suggests that Demi has no wish to portray herself as a stereotypical wronged wife.

Sara Leal’s plodding account of her night with Demi’s husband—hot tub, bureaucratic bodyguards, postcoital exchange of astrological wisdom—contains no discernable sizzle, no hint of wit or irony. That’s the big difference between party sex and a compelling extramarital romance.

It’s been alleged that Demi and Ashton had an open relationship, and whether they did or not is less important than how this is defined. The Kutcher-Moore union is not about them, it’s about us. Because of Demi’s earning power, not to mention their combined income, we’re tempted to think of them as a larger than life über-couple existing on some sort of Olympian plane. Dollar amounts are a huge distraction from underlying truths.

Actually, the everyday themes running through their high-profile relationship dominate our own lives: two equally important careers (in middle-class lingo, two equally necessary careers); a high-earning wife; and lots of blended family dynamics. Like Demi’s children, I (and perhaps you) had a groovy stepdad who got along well with the primary dad. (I never called him “my other dad” as Demi’s three kids are said to call Ashton, but one of my brothers certainly did.) In middle-income households, there’s nothing unusual about a mom who, like Demi, earns as much as or more than her male partner.

About that rumored open relationship: Recently, Brittney Jones (who alleged a 2010 dalliance with Ashton) spoke to TMZ: “Ashton told me that both he and Demi had an ‘open relationship’ and that he was not in fact cheating.”

I can’t think of a more middle-class way to describe what used to be the province of rock stars, bohemians, and Hollywood personalities. But the most intriguing aspect of the rumor is that nobody knows what an open relationship is. We can’t define it, but we all know someone who’s having one.

The open relationship is the white picket fence of the 21st century, something we aspire to because we think it makes us look good. And sometimes it does. Just as often, the “open relationship” can make us look like we’re trying too hard, protesting too much, or covering up a problem.

Open relationships can be idealistic, cynical, natural, negotiated, beautiful, or abusive—just like monogamy.

In some circles, “open relationship” is seen as a hokey formality. It’s not the straying that is frowned upon—it’s the god-awful flag-waving. Perfect couples who claim to be open are just as cloying as other perfect types. Why not aspire to something more nuanced? Then again, “open” is a label that helps some of us put into words what we’ve always known at a visceral level.

“Open relationship” can mean two independent soulmates who deeply respect each other’s individualism, privacy, and freedom. These are the DADT (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) heroes, true believers who bravely tough it out when “open” gets messy.

“Open” can also be a superficial definition of freedom, masking our loss of independence while we look away from bothersome guilt feelings. Many “open” couples insist on disclosing each time they step out—that’s one of the rumors circulating about Ashton and Demi.

“Open” can be taken for granted when two likeminded people fall madly in love at first sight—a romantic style that puzzles my monogamous friends, but I assure you that such things have happened. In some cases, though, one party needs the openness, while the other goes along with it reluctantly. Open relationships can be idealistic, cynical, natural, negotiated, beautiful, or abusive—just like monogamy. They can also be as hypocritical as traditional monogamous partnerships.

Helen Fisher, author of numerous books about infidelity and love, most recently Why Him? Why Her? summarizes the problem: “Open relationship might mean one thing to one person and another to her partner.”

You don’t know which kind of open relationship you have until you’re in the middle, testing your own limits, as may be the case with Ashton. But why would Demi care about a night spent with someone like Sara Leal?

“Everywhere in the world both sexes care,” says Fisher. “Both men and women do what academics call mate guarding. A woman in Demi’s position is pouring a lot of metabolic energy into a man who’s pouring his metabolic energy into somebody else. From a Darwinian perspective, that’s not terribly adaptive, so it can make you mad.”

Even if Demi had an open relationship with Ashton, “this is an individual who provides not only sex, intimacy, and companionship,” Fisher explains. “He’s now the social father to her children. From a financial perspective, she probably never needed him, but from an emotional perspective people want a partner to help them raise their DNA. If she stands to lose that, she feels undermined.”  

Cheating on your partner in the context of “open” is often more exciting and transgressive than cheating on a traditional marriage. Any form of sex outside the home seems like cheating to a monogamous couple, but open relationships give birth to arcane and highly creative definitions of infidelity. Sex without a condom (alleged by Leal) might be seen as cheating, while sex with protection isn’t. (Some use a condom outside the marital bed and not at home, but the canniest philanderer makes sure to use condoms with everyone.) Sex with a friend of the family is betrayal, sex with a stranger a nonevent. Girl on girl is OK with some husbands; girl meets boy not so much. For many of us, involvement with a bimbo or a boytoy doesn’t really count—with your partner’s intellectual equal or professional peer, you enter treacherous terrain.

No matter how you manage the all-too-human need for variety, the bottom line—as Fisher points out—is how undermined your mate feels. At the end of the day, whether male or female, famous or anonymous, mono or open, you’ll pay a price for that.