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17 April 2024

The perils of polyamory

Molly Roden Winter’s riveting, explicit memoir More makes the case for open marriage as self-help – but her logic is questionable.

By Sophie McBain

When Molly Roden Winter, a teacher and mother-of-two who lives in the yummy-mummy enclave of Park Slope, Brooklyn, receives a flirtatious text from Matt, a good-looking guy she met in a bar, her husband, Stew, is driven “crazy”. In a good way. He encourages her to sleep with Matt – provided she tells him everything and lets him start dating other people too. And so, Winter finds herself in an open marriage. Over the next four years, Winter sleeps with Matt only a “handful” of times, but she spends much time fantasising over him. So does her husband, who gets very turned on by talking about what Matt would like to do to her, and then treats her too roughly and calls her a c**t during sex, which she doesn’t like. Stew also starts sleeping around, something Winter finds extremely painful to think about. The most extraordinary thing about her buzzy memoir – a book that is being taken as evidence that polyamory has gone mainstream, and monogamy is fast becoming passé – is how unappealing she makes the whole enterprise sound.

Matt becomes, by Winter’s own admission, a “prop” in her marriage. He eventually dumps her, quite reasonably, after she accidentally sends him a text that was intended for Stew. It read: “Matt’s still here. But don’t worry. He has nothing on you as a lover,” which might be one of the most cringeworthy mistexts in modern history. After Matt, Winter has a lot of bad sex, and a lot of very good sex, with some very bad men.

At first, she meets them on Ashley Madison, the dating site for married people seeking affairs, where she calls herself “Mercedes Invierno” (“The twin sins of cultural appropriation and misrepresenting myself to men with Latina fetishes hardly seem important” in this community, she writes). She dates a financier called Laurent, who secretly removes his condom during sex (this is called “stealthing” and is recognised as rape in the UK) and who dumps her when she refuses to go to a sex club with him. She also dates Leo, a successful comedy writer, who keeps promising to watch her play guitar at an open mic night but never gets round to meeting her anywhere other than his bedroom. She has the good sense to break up with him after he gets too rough and she’s made to feel “like a Grubhub delivery to a ravenous man, devoured without even the civility of napkins or utensils”.

When she discovers that the dating site OkCupid offers options for non-monogamous couples – another sign of shifting sexual mores – Winter signs up there instead. She falls in love with a guy who seems almost perfect, until he pushes her to have a threesome with his girlfriend and then ghosts her. When she finally meets Scott, who she describes as the only man who doesn’t make her feel “objectified” and “undervalued”, she learns that he is holding out for her to break up with Stew, which she refuses to do. At no point, then, do any of the couples in this book end up wanting the same thing from their relationship. Someone is always left feeling hurt and disappointed, and it’s almost always Winter. When she complains to Stew about why he seems to be having such fun and she is having a miserable time on the dating scene, he observes that this is because men are awful – a fact they both apparently consider as unmovable as the laws of gravity.

You might have gathered by now that More is an absolutely riveting read. Winter writes with humour and glorious frankness, letting no embarrassing or graphic detail go unnoted. This is a book you’ll need all your friends to read, so that you can dissect it together. It requires boldness to write a memoir like this – not only to share everything you’ve learnt the hard way about butt plugs and pity blowjobs, but to offer up your sexual choices for critique. If only Winter’s admirable total honesty was accompanied by a greater curiosity about the politics of her decisions – or, more accurately, the decisions that were mostly made for her. “Don’t keep making me do this,” she begs Stew at one point. “It hurts too much,” she tells him. Sometimes she cries herself to sleep, often she experiences migraines she eventually attributes to repressed rage, and she spends considerable time and money on therapy to cope with her sexual misadventures.

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Even so, she concludes that opening up her marriage was the right thing to do. She believes it brought her closer to Stew and helped her reclaim her identity after motherhood. If you don’t do something like this, she argues, “you might get suffocated by your own sense of safety. You might wake up one morning and find yourself tucked inside the Tupperware with the leftover chicken and carrot sticks you packed for everyone else’s lunch.”

At the start of More, Winter’s children are young, and she is the resentful “Wiper of Noses, the Doer of Dishes, the Nag in Residence”. Meeting Matt revealed a “void in her life, a need for something that motherhood and marriage cannot fill”. She notices that after she has slept with him, she becomes a more patient mother and more attracted to Stew. Later, she describes meeting her boyfriend as an escape “from my roles. As a wife. As a mother.” She is hardly the first woman to have felt trapped by domesticity, felt her identity eclipsed by motherhood. But while she quotes Rachel Cusk once, she shows few other signs of having engaged with feminist thinking on care work. Winter does all the bedtimes, pick-ups, cooking, cleaning and laundry herself. No wonder she needs an out. As a writer in the Atlantic argued, isn’t what she really needed an equal marriage rather than an open one?

Winter acknowledges that she bears some responsibility for the gender imbalance at home. Like a lot of women, she pushes her husband away because she finds it hard to relinquish control over childcare. She treats motherhood as all-encompassing. At one point she describes what she eats on a typical day: “the rest of Nate’s scrambled eggs for breakfast” and “crusts of grilled cheese or hot dog remnants for lunch” and I thought: why does she only feed herself leftovers? She lurches between extremes.

Thanks to one of her therapists, she also walks around with a list of desires in her pocket that include “freedom from guilt”, “freedom from pleasing others”, “freedom to be my own priority”. No one should be excessively burdened by guilt, no one should try to extinguish their own desires and needs – but isn’t it also insane to demand freedom from the things that make us good people? The logic and demands of caregiving are often at odds with many of the things liberal feminists prize – freedom, independence, professional advancement – and I used to think these tensions were a problem to be solved, but now I wonder if they are simply a fact of living. There are ways to accommodate these contradictions, if you hold your overlapping identities lightly.

Yet this book is imbued with the very worst self-help mantras and a navel-gazing, individualistic philosophy. In a moment that Winter describes as “almost holy”, her mother shares her life wisdom with her. “Everything that happens in life is an opportunity to learn about yourself,” her mother says. “Nothing… is good and bad in and of itself. It’s all just an opportunity to learn and grow.” What offensive nonsense, I thought. Losing a child, watching your country being ripped apart by war, dying far too young, are all objectively, inescapably bad things, even if you manage to snatch some wisdom from tragedy. How privileged and self-absorbed you must be to believe otherwise. What, in any case, does Winter really learn from ten years of open marriage?

If by the end of her memoir Winter feels she’s reclaimed her identity and independence, I’d wager that’s nothing to do with her sex life and everything to do with her children having grown up. At the end of More they are teenagers and demand less of her, and she has taken up boxing and is performing music again. She still sees Stew as her emotional rock, her soulmate – and perhaps this is why she is reluctant to grapple with his obvious flaws.

In her conclusion, Winter observes that polyamory has made her a more loving person. “The secret is this: love begets love. The more you love, the more love you have to give,” she writes. This is certainly true for parental love, and platonic love, and if you are evolved or organised enough to have found a way to cultivate a romantic love that isn’t jealous and possessive, then of course go for it – share the love. What I simply don’t buy is the suggestion that non-monogamy is a way to resolve the contradictions of motherhood, that what frustrated, beleaguered mothers need most is not greater gender equality but more boyfriends.

More: A Memoir of Open Marriage
Molly Roden Winter
Ebury Press, 304pp, £18.99

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[See also: Open relationships won’t save you]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran