Tuesday, the light of one of the African-American community’s brightest stars was dimmed, leaving behind accomplishments and marks on history that will never be forgotten. Known for her major contributions to Broadway, film and the civil rights movement, Ruby Dee was a formidable force within Black culture, strong, bold and courageous in the pursuits of her desires. Dee will forever be noted for her influence on entertainment and humanitarianism. But likewise, her efforts within the arena of love and companionship should be applauded and studied by the numbers of African-American couples struggling through partnership.
During a time when open marriages weren’t common or even spoken about openly with acceptance, a very famous Ruby Dee—alongside her equally famous husband actor, Ossie Davis—decided to perform a bold experiment on their journey conquering love by agreeing to enter into an open marriage (something that Black people in the 1940s, as nowadays, rarely embrace).
In their joint autobiography With Ossie and Rubie: In This Life Together, Ruby and Ossie discuss their decision to enter into an open marriage and how it helped them to embrace and accept the realness of the love they shared. “From observation and reasoning,” both partners agreed that “extramarital sex was not what really destroyed marriages, but rather the lies and deception that invariably accompanied it.”
That rationalization about infidelity influenced this extraordinary couple to commit for a time to a lifestyle that, for many, is deemed impossible. It takes extraordinary strength, trust and open communication for two people who love each other to be aware of extramarital sexual relationships and still embrace each other without argument or fits of jealousy.
“We decided to give ourselves permission to sleep with other partners if we wished,” Ossie wrote, “as long as what we did was honest as well as private, and that neither of us exposed the family to scandal or disease.” Although she didn’t recommend this type of lifestyle for everyone, Ruby Dee expressed the benefits of being in an open relationship, stating that “going through this experience was like rediscovery of something from the beginning.” Through briefly opening their marriage to others, Ruby and Ossie were able to grow closer together by benefiting from a relationship technique many mark as a failure from the beginning.
An open marriage typically refers to a marriage where both partners give each other permission to enter into sexual relationships outside of their marital union. Within American society, these relationships comprise from one to six percent of all reported marriages. This type of marriage is less typical than the traditional, monogamous union because of the amount of envy that can potentially sprout within the relationship. Many therapists and relationship counselors see open marriage as a method to companionship that may create major issues for sexual intimacy and complications with communication that can possibly lead to separation or divorce.
Thanks to the Internet, we’re constant observers and purveyors of tension-filled love triangles and the infidelity of many celebrities who can’t seem to wholeheartedly commit to the agreement of monogamy. It seems that infidelity (and the scandals that follow it) is a staple characteristic of dating within the entertainment industry, and by extension, real life. For Ruby and Ossie, however, the ability to love freely and remain in a harmonious, long-lasting marriage was due in part to their brief moment of courageous commitment to an open marriage.
At the end of their open partnership experiment, Ruby and Ossie came to realize “they were very fortunate that, in all of the deep profound, fundamental ways, they really, really only wanted each other.” Monogamy prevailed over their desires to have sexual experiences with other people. But most importantly, the two gained a deeper sense of freedom within their relationship.
“Looking back, I’d say no matter what did or did not happen, we freed each other,” Ossie said, “and in doing that we also freed ourselves. Sex is fine, but love is better.” True love is what prevailed in the end for this daring couple, proving that being open, honest and accepting of opening their relationship to other people isn’t a death wish for marriage. They both agreed “extramarital sex isn’t something they recommend as a regular part of marriage,” but it did help them grow deeper in their love for one another.
For open marriages to work, jealousy has to be taken completely out of the equation and replaced with an unshakable trust. It’s been reported that a substantial minority of that one to six percent of couples participating in open marriages end in divorce because of the arrangement. The viability of an open marriage depends on the two people within the union, and their ability to set envious feelings aside and speak about the changes that happen during the course of the relationship. Open marriages work for some; for others they create more problems than it’s worth.
Ruby Dee did something I believe is one of the hardest things for any person to do, and that is to completely let go in her relationship with her husband and give him her full trust without letting jealousy cloud her judgment. She was able to negotiate the “relationship contract” with Ossie (something many couples don’t do), and revisit and amend the set agreements as the relationship evolved.
Ruby Dee will always be remembered for her artistic and activist contributions to the world. But the courageousness in her pursuits towards mastering love should inspire us all to be more accepting and understanding in our own relationships.