The idea of an open marriage is not a new one, but has been gaining a lot of traction in the media, and is also becoming a more socially acceptable practice within American society. We have all heard of Tinder, match.com, and OkCupid. Websites that help singles find other singles looking for relationships, dates, or sexual intercourse. Now there is even a site that offers online dating geared towards married or involved individuals looking for relationships outside the traditional monogamous marriage, called openminded.com.
A functional anthropologist studies how a society and their cultural system work together to meet universal human needs. Malinowski discusses seven basic needs of humans including health, growth, movement, safety, bodily comforts, nutrition, and reproduction. A monogamous marriage supports functionalism when a families needs are met. An example is the traditional american family. One partner known as the breadwinner brings home income to support their family, while the other partner stays at home, feeding everyone and meeting their emotional needs. For a functional anthropologist this is the ideal situation, but functionalism is synchronic and cannot account for conflict or change, which is inevitable in a family system. If two partners in a marriage are unhappy in their situation, their basic human needs are not being met.
Functionalism theory falls apart when we analyze the dynamic marriage structures in society. Family structures continue to change and push social norms but still manage to function. In the case of an open marriage, a couple’s sexual needs are not being met, therefore their marriage might benefit from having partners outside the marriage, thus allowing their sexual needs to be met. If a couple’s sexual needs are being met, they will be more content and better able to fulfill their roles in other parts of their family structure. These needs being met will bring happiness or fulfillment to the couple, thus allowing them to focus and be successful in other parts of their family structure.
Unlike functionalism, the anthropological theory structural functionalism, focuses on social structures and can account for change and conflict within a society. A structural functionalist would study open marriages and analyze the social structure within the community and family. By studying the social structure an anthropologist can not only see the benefits, but also flaws that come with an open marriage. We can examine a couple living in an urban area with no kids. The husband’s job requires him to travel three weeks out of the month and his wife, Natalie, is left lonely and bored at home. The social norm in this area is for married couples to spend most of their time together or with other married couples. This contrasted with singles who spend time going out looking for other single individuals to connect with, thus leaving Natalie out of their social system. If Natalie and her husband were in an open relationship, her husband would still be able to travel for work and provide for his wife, while Natalie would be able to participate in social norms of single individuals, rather than sitting alone for three weeks out of the month. This arrangement would keep Natalie satisfied in her marriage, and result in the couple staying together.
The success of a marriage or family structure varies across couples, and there is not one thing the can ensure how well a family functions or their level of happiness. Malinowski may be right that humans do have basic universal needs that a society meets, but conventional marriages do not always fulfill these needs. So it is possible that open marriages can be the future for America Families.
 Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, September 16, 2015.