December 19, 1977 12:00 PM

George O’Neill, 56, and wife Nena, 54, celebrated their 32nd anniversary in April. They rarely disagree about anything more serious than whose turn it is to vacuum. Nena is so convinced of the value of traditional marriage that she has written a new book about it, The Marriage Premise.

Hmmm. Those with even short memories may recall that five years ago the O’Neills coined the expression “open marriage” with a book of the same name—a runaway best-seller that seemed to urge bored husbands and wives to spice up their lives by playing around. How could the O’Neills still be together?

The fact is that Open Marriage was widely misinterpreted. The “open” in the title referred more to figurative doors of marital communication than to literal ones through which extramarital partners would parade.

The O’Neills’ own marriage has always been the best example of what they were trying to say. It is so stable that a friend once sent them a picture of a dodo bird with the inscription, “To George and Nena, who prove every day that married love is not extinct.” (Friends’ problems, not the O’Neills’, were the main inspiration for Open Marriage.) It took success—3.5 million copies sold in 14 languages—to make them need their own advice. Being a couple—on TV talk shows, at workshops and in interviews—became a job in itself. “We were pressured into being together all the time, the very thing we were preaching against,” Nena says. “When we wanted to appear separately, people immediately asked, ‘What’s wrong with your relationship?’ ” They solved the crisis by following their own suggestion that a husband and wife spend at least two hours a day not talking to each other.

Open Marriage did contain a cautious, three-paragraph endorsement of extramarital sex, and even today the O’Neills are still asked if they’ve experimented themselves, if only in the name of anthropology. They always squirm out of answering. “If we said we do, we would be trying to justify the portion of the book in which we said it’s possible,” Nena says. “If we said we don’t, people would say we don’t practice what we preach.” (All questions about their present sex life, in fact, are met by Nena’s firm response, “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business.”)

The O’Neills now sound a little sorry that on page 259 of Open Marriage—which many readers zoomed to with hardly a glance at Honest Communication, Productive Fighting and Equality—they suggested outside sex could make marriage “a still deeper, richer, more vital experience.”

Some readers seemed to regard that as de facto repeal of the Sixth Commandment. “Like a Rorschach test,” Nena says, “our proposal mirrored the readers’ perception, to say nothing of those who did not read it but thought they knew what it was all about.” Follow-up studies show that very few couples who discussed ongoing affairs in the book have stayed together; George says he’s become more of an advocate of closing open sex. He recommends that couples delay going to bed. “The minute you have sex,” he says, “it totally changes the character of the relationship. If you want to get to know the person, hold off.”

That attitude more accurately reflects the O’Neills’ own background than the license of page 259. When they met in New York in 1944, George was a civil engineering student, the son of a drug company executive descended from Spanish nobility (the family moved to Spain from Ireland in 1601). Betty Dross was a Barnard anthropology major from the Midwest who got nicknamed “Nena” (Spanish for “baby girl”) when she met George’s family.

“I remember bus rides, walks in the park, talking about our dreams,” says George. Sex? “We were Catholics and held off until the day we were married. I’m proud of that.” He was drafted shortly afterward and spent the war in Europe. Postwar they worked sporadically to finance anthropological trips to Mexico, Peru and the Caribbean. Nena’s parents worried—”They thought we were gypsies,” she recalls—especially because by 1950 the O’Neills were raising two young sons in tents and trailers. By 1960, however, they were back in New York. George was working toward the anthropology Ph.D. he got from Columbia in 1962. The year before, he joined the City College faculty, where he is now an assistant professor.

Nena tended the boys and did clerical work: “My career was secondary. I didn’t realize it until the women’s movement made me aware.” In 1967 she plunged into the research that led to Open Marriage and shared equally in the success that has earned them, George says, “more money than we thought we could ever accumulate but nowhere near what people think.”

Their ideas about marriage are still changing. Nena wrote her new book largely as the result of a divorce between their first son, Michael, 30, a New York photographer, and his wife of six years. (Son Brian, 27, studies in London.) Feeling “paralyzed, confused, defeated, full of guilt,” Nena says, she decided that after their how-to book on marriage, a why-do-it-in-the-first-place book was needed.

Both O’Neills believe that few people under 25 are mature enough to accept fidelity and marriage. Living together, says George (who stayed out of The Marriage Premise to teach), “is really the proof of the pudding—the dishes and the laundry and the garbage. Why go through the bitterness of divorce?” The trend, Nena says, is to “serial monogamy”—successive relationships, with or without marriage.

Last year the O’Neills finally took the separate vacations they have long advocated: George to Jamaica to skin-dive and Nena to Mexico (“I could look up at the clouds and enjoy them without having George constantly remind me how nice they were”). The other day, when Nena felt a chill in their Riverside Drive apartment and snapped, “What are you trying to do, freeze me to death?” George had a ready answer. Mentally flipping through Open Marriage for the section on honestly talking out problems, he said, “Nena—Chapter 7.”

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