The New Cult of Self-Fulfillment

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Written By Pinang Driod

The chattering class has a new fixation: polyamory. What began as a trickle of discourse a few years ago—as shows including Succession and Scenes From a Marriage streamed open relationships into our living rooms—has become a veritable flood. The past weeks and months have seen stories ranging from wide-eyed to prurient in The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Financial Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal.

At the center of the recent discussions is More: A Memoir of an Open Marriage, by Molly Roden Winter, an unsparing account of a polyamorous life—at least, a polyamorous life as lived by a white, wealthy, heterosexual Brooklynite.

More—and the present interest in polyamory more broadly—is the result of a long-gestating obsession with authenticity and individual self-fulfillment. That obsession is evident today in Instagram affirmations, Goop, and the (often toxic) sex positivity of an app-dominated dating scene, but its roots go back decades. As the historian Christopher Lasch wrote in 1977, this worldview “assumes that psychic health and personal liberation are synonymous with an absence of inner restraints, inhibitions, and ‘hangups.’” And what could offer more liberation than throwing off the constraints of one of humanity’s oldest institutions, monogamous marriage? Indeed, the desire to discover her true self is Molly’s stated reason for engaging in “ethical non-monogamy.” When she prepares to go on one of her first extramarital dates, she thinks, “Who is my ‘self’ if not a mother and a wife? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps it’s time to find out.”

Despite the book’s slick marketing—which takes great care to cast the author as a “happily married mother”—Molly’s polyamorous journey toward self-actualization does not seem to bring her much happiness. It seems to make her miserable, while taking her attention away from the real issues: a husband who behaves like an asshole, an unbalanced division of household labor, an unorthodox childhood, a desire to please everyone no matter the personal cost. Her attempt at finding a “deeper truth” through sexual enlightenment not only provides little truth or enlightenment; it keeps her from seeing her problems clearly.

In this way, More is a near-perfect time capsule of the banal pleasure-seeking of wealthy, elite culture in the 2020s, and a neat encapsulation of its flaws. This culture would have us believe that interminable self-improvement projects, navel-gazing, and sexual peccadilloes are the new face of progress. The climate warms, wars rage, and our country lurches toward a perilous election—all problems that require real action, real progress. And somehow “you do you” has become the American ruling class’s three-word bible.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that, since at least the late 20th century, Western societies have been defined by “a generalized culture of ‘authenticity,’ or expressive individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, ‘do their own thing.’” Taylor describes a phenomenon that’s all too easy to recognize in today’s pop psychology and the maundering of wellness influencers, but his concept doesn’t quite capture the extent to which this relentless quest for self-optimizing authenticity has infused our social and even political sensibilities.

We might call this turbocharged version of authenticity culture “therapeutic libertarianism”: the belief that self-improvement is the ultimate goal of life, and that no formal or informal constraints—whether imposed by states, faith systems, or other people—should impede each of us from achieving personal growth. This attitude is therapeutic because it is invariably couched in self-help babble. And it is libertarian not only because it makes a cult out of personal freedom, but because it applies market logic to human beings. We are all our own start-ups. We must all adopt a pro-growth mindset for our personhood and deregulate our desires. We must all assess and reassess our own “fulfillment,” a kind of psychological Gross Domestic Product, on a near-constant basis. And like the GDP, our fulfillment must always increase.

Therapeutic libertarianism is ubiquitous. And bipartisan. Among the right, a new kind of reactionary self-help is ascendant. Its mainstream version is legible in the manosphere misogyny of Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, and Andrew Tate, while more eldritch currents lurk just beneath the surface. The Nietzscheanism of internet personalities like Bronze Age Pervert—who combines ethnonationalist chauvinism in politics and personal life with a Greco-Roman obsession with physical fitness—is only one of many examples of the trend the social critic Maya Vinkour has called “lifestyle fascism.”

On the left, what gets termed “wokeness” is indissociable from self-help. How should we understand superficial, performative expressions of “anti-racism” or preening social-media politics if not as a way for self-described good-hearted liberals to make grand public displays of pruning their moral shrubbery? Progressives blather incessantly about the need to “do the work,” a mantra which is invariably treated as a synonym for the self-improvement slogan “work on yourself.”

Polyamory, as More demonstrates, entangles many of these tendencies at once. Early on in More, Molly is given homework by her therapist: to create a list of things she wants freedom from (“pressure to be punctual,” “self-imposed obligations,” “guilt,” “pleasing others”) and lists of things she wants freedom to be or freedom to do (“spontaneous,” “imperfect,” “my own priority,” “things that are fun and just for me”). Molly carries these lists around with her everywhere, tucked safely in a pocket, as she navigates the at times fiery and frigid waters of ethical non-monogamy. What the author is trying to find in her open relationship is not sex, but self-understanding—what it means, how we get it, whether sex can provide it. And although the answers Molly arrives at are not cheaply won, they are cheap all the same.

Near the end of the memoir, the author’s mother provides the empty epiphany toward which the text careens. “Everything that happens in life,” her mom offers, “is an opportunity to learn about yourself. Marriage. Motherhood. Relationships. Even anger and illness. Nothing that happens is good or bad in and of itself. It’s all just an opportunity to learn and grow.” With this maternal revelation, Molly’s “skin starts to tingle.” She relates that the advice “feels almost holy.”

But though Molly may tell herself and her readers that she is on a journey of learning and growth, the ugly truth is that More feels like a 290-page cry for help. Molly does not come off as a woman boldly finding herself, but rather as someone who is vulnerable to psychological manipulation and does not enjoy her open marriage. I am not holding a magnifying glass up to the text in search of hidden signs of discontent. I am not paternalistically projecting my Protestant values or wintry Northeast prudishness onto the author. I simply read the book. And if it seems like Molly Roden Winter does not want to be in an open marriage, it is because she often lets us know that she doesn’t want to be in an open marriage.

She makes this clear to the reader, her husband, her psychiatrist, her marriage counselor, and herself again and again and again. Sometimes she wails it through tears and sometimes she shrieks it through the phone and sometimes she coats it in rough-edged irony, but the message remains the same. When a couples therapist asks the pair why they’re in counseling halfway through the book—prompted by a breakdown Molly experiences that stems from their marital arrangement—she explains: “We’re here because I don’t want to be in an open marriage anymore, but Stewart does.”

There are precious few sex scenes where Molly seems to be enjoying herself. When Molly is in the middle of a squirmy threesome she’s been dreading, she literally dissociates from her body, pretending that she is a director staging a scene in which her physical person is merely an actor. Molly describes how she performs her role with “a clinician’s detachment” and leaves the apartment rapidly so as not “to be pulled back into this scene.” After one of her dates repeatedly removes his condom without her consent—an act known as “stealthing,” which is considered a sex crime in a number of countries and the state of California—she contracts a series of urinary tract infections. Stewart’s response to the UTIs is not concern for his wife but irritation: “This guy is breaking all my toys,” he grumbles. When she gets upset that her husband keeps calling her a “cunt” and a “whore” during sex—something he professes not being able to help—Stewart does not change this habit. Instead they strike a preposterous bargain: “He will try his best not to scream cunt during sex, and I will do my best to ignore him if he does.”

But for all the unpleasantness she endures, Molly spends most of the book deluding herself that she’s in charge and having a grand old time. When a date treats her dismissively after she gives him a public blowjob: “Never mind,” she tells herself, “I’m having adventures. I am living.” When she’s uncomfortable about sleeping with a new partner in the apartment he shares with his fiancée: “This is what it’s all about,” she tells herself, like a lapsed Catholic repeating a catechism in which they have lost all faith. Winter is trapped in her therapeutic worldview, one imposed on her by an American culture that has made narcissism into not simply a virtue, but a quasi-religion that turns external obstacles into opportunities for internal self-improvement.

These obstacles include, in her case, profound gender inequality relating to Molly’s life as a parent to two sons, and a troubling family history. Molly’s mother joined a cult—and indoctrinated the author into it as a child—at the urging of a male partner in her own open marriage. The book makes tacit comparisons between Molly’s mother’s initiation into a cult at the behest of an extramarital partner, and Molly’s own initiation into an open marriage at the behest of her husband. It also seems to make a connection between Molly’s mother’s chronic illness (which the latter believes is caused by “repressed rage”) and Molly’s chronic headaches.

Indeed, throughout More, the dominant emotion Molly reports is not lust but rage—primarily at the deeply unequal child-care burdens that are placed upon her. “I think about all the years I’ve spent my night alone with the kids—the dinners, the bedtimes, the dishes, the loneliness of doing it all by myself—because Stew had to work,” she laments at one point. That Stewart is now spending late nights not working (if he ever was) but rather schtupping his endless reserve of mistresses pushes Molly further to the brink: “I feel my jealousy mingle with the resentment I’ve kept at bay for years,” she confesses. Then she adds, “But looking at my anger is like looking at the sun.”

Except in fleeting moments, she doesn’t look at her anger. Instead, Molly doubles down on her quest for self-actualization through the relentless pursuit of bitter novelty: new sexual experiences that she rarely seems to enjoy, new partners who rarely treat her kindly. “It’s like, as a mother, you’re supposed to give up your whole self, like you’re not allowed to have a self at all,” she remarks. But this misogyny feels unmovable, too culturally sedimented. The only solution Molly can imagine is to persist in an open marriage, rather than push for an equal one. Inward sexual revolution plainly feels more possible than a revolution in who does the dishes.

Reviews of More have similarly missed what the real problem is. For example, an article in The Washington Post reserves its criticisms for Molly, noting that the author’s open marriage got an “unethical start” because she slept with a man who was cheating. The reviewer complains that Molly spends too much time paying the “Mother Tax” in the memoir (i.e., talking about her children) but fails to mention that Molly’s husband and her various inamoratos have serious character flaws, or that Molly is perpetually disconsolate. The Financial Times review is also distorted, blithely referring to Molly’s emotional bruises as “genital waxing and its discontents.” And once again, her husband gets off the hook. When the reviewer described Molly’s husband as the “rock-solid center of her life,” I actually gasped.

Of course, even as memoirs belong to the nonfiction genre, there is always some storytelling at work. In interviews, and a recent op-ed titled “Why I Love My Open Marriage,” Molly makes her relationship seem stronger and happier than it does in her book. Where the truth lies is ultimately impossible to say, and it would be a mistake to assume that the “Molly” or “Stewart” who are represented in More exactly capture flesh-and-blood Molly and Stewart. But we can be sure that the characters we encounter in More do not present a flattering or ethical image of polyamory, no matter how much reviewers praise its titillating frankness.

In his 1978 best seller, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch argued that American narcissism should not be understood as simple self-obsession. Narcissism is a survival strategy: If we are fixated on finding fulfillment and endless self-reinvention, it is because our own inner lives feel like the only thing most of us have control over. The therapeutic cult of personal growth is a response to external problems that feel insoluble, a future that feels shorn of causes for hope.

In an earlier book, Lasch wrote about open marriage as the logical end point of a narcissistic, survivalist culture. “The fear and rejection of parenthood, the tendency to view the family as nothing more than marriage, and the perception of marriage as merely one in a series of nonbinding commitments, reflect a growing distrust of the future and a reluctance to make provisions for it,” Lasch claimed.

One doesn’t need to look far to find wellness nonsense in the current raft of polyamory coverage: It’s positively thick with it. New York magazine’s recent spread on open relationships—the cover festooned with an adorable quad of groping cats generated almost as much discourse as the issue itself—is redolent with therapeutic pitter-patter. “I feel deeply committed to the journey of the truth of my own soul,” a woman named Sarah explains in the feature story. “And I believe a lot in self-awareness and self-knowledge. That’s something that is always undulating and changing for me.” When her primary partner, Nick, grows uncomfortable with the lack of boundaries in her other relationships, she redirects him with dulcet psychobabble: “How can we get curious about what the psychological experience is for you?” Nick dryly remarks, “Sarah’s favorite activity for the two of us to do is couples therapy.”

The magazine’s “Practical Guide to Modern Polyamory” undulates with the therapeutic-libertarian ethos. A section titled “Should We Come Up With Some Rules?” treats boundaries as understandable but likely unworkable restraints on relationship growth that the successful poly pair should eventually discard. “If you had a set of rules, it would almost feel very strict, like monogamy,” says a woman named Olivia, sounding like someone doing their best Rand Paul impression. Like good libertarians, the elegant polyamorists mostly seem to believe that any intervention or imposition on personal freedom is an intolerable affront that must be deregulated.

My problem with all of this is not a moral one. Although I am happily, monogamously married, how two (or three, or four) other consenting adults want to live their lives is not simply no one’s business. It doesn’t strike me as a matter of right or wrong at all.

My issue with the new open-marriage discourse is not ethical but political, and my criticism is aimed not at polyamorists in general or Molly Roden Winter’s book in particular, but at anyone eager to valorize the latest lifestyle fad that is little more than yet another way for the ruling class to have their cake and eat it too. The Marxist philosopher Daniel Tutt has pointed out that a “new intimacy” has come to govern modern relationships: an intimacy that “has fused with market terms” and is “centered on protecting one’s self-worth, self-esteem and dignity.” But Tutt notes that even as modern relationship etiquette is dressed up in progressive pieties, its goods are primarily reserved for the elites. “The new intimacy based on self-worth is egalitarian seeming,” he observes, “but its promises are not widely experienced. Since the late 1970s and accelerating up to the present, the prospect of marriage and family have receded for many people, especially for the working class.”

There is something obtuse about the recent polyamory coverage, disproportionately focused as it is on trendsetters: The very class of Americans who most reap the benefits of marriage are the same class who get to declare monogamy passé and boring. The rich—who marry within their social class to combine their wealth, exacerbating inequality—enjoy the advantages of the double-income, two-parent household and then grow tired of these very luxuries. From their gilded pedestals, they declare polyamory superior to monogamy. Media reports rarely note these tensions, or explain that this brand of “free love” requires the disposable income and time—to pay babysitters and pencil in their panoply of paramours—that are foreclosed to the laboring masses.

Meanwhile, others have turned to ethical non-monogamy precisely because our society is not set up to their advantage. They practice it not as part of an individual journey of self-discovery, but as a way to have more support, materially and emotionally. In 2022 the writer and disability-rights activist Jillian Weise wrote a thoughtful essay, also for New York magazine, exploring the freedom polyamory provides to her as a disabled person. That piece did not generate the breathless coverage of either More or New York’s canoodling cats.

Open relationships really do provide some people—like Weise—the freedom that they want and need. But a quick tour through the voluminous polyamory Reddit forums, for example, also reveals the downsides of applying therapeutic libertarianism to our personal lives: Beautiful souls seeking absolute freedom may find only abjection. Look no further than Molly herself, who nods and breaks down into tears when her therapist asks whether she worries that “open marriage is giving you an illusion of freedom” rather than actual freedom. It is one of those fleeting moments when Molly seems on the verge of a breakthrough, only to have it slip away.

Tyler Austin Harper is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College.

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