It was 2005 when I first came across an open marriage arrangement attributed to a seemingly-everyday-run-of-the-mill-couple portrayed in popular media. At the time, I, like most of America’s reading population, had my nose buried in the gripping drama of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The relationship between Mikal and Erika being known to, and approved of, by Erika’s husband Greger stood out to me more than any of the other crazy, weird, twisty (and I just don’t mean the way everyone’s last name was spelled), dark, potentially misogynistic plotlines and characters. Author Stieg Larsson only spent a few paragraphs on their arrangement, but my shock was so profound, it felt like a major portion of the 460+ page novel.
In 2005, open relationships were not NEW news. I mean, we’d all seen the TMZ lists about the celebrity couples who we know have open relationships because they publicize it (gasp!) and the celebrity couples who we know have open relationships even though they don’t publicize it (GASP!) but that’s… Hollywood. Those are actors. They don’t live real lives. These were people who supposedly did. This was a newspaper editor, and a reporter, and a… well, we never find out what Greger does for a living.
But the point being, “regular” folk didn’t do stuff like this. Or if they did, they certainly didn’t treat it as an accepted common practice. It was the nonchalance of the arrangement that shocked me more than the arrangement itself. Larsson wrote about the circumstances as if it were absolutely normalized. Meanwhile American wives read those paragraphs, re-read those paragraphs, and then lost their collective minds. “How can she do that? How can her husband be okay with that? Can… Can *I* do that and would *MY* husband be okay with it?”
One thing I will note is that prior to this, there are not many examples in American pop culture of women having affairs just because they want to. Look at other popular works such as “Bridges of Madison Country.” Sure, she has an affair, but we forgive her because it’s “justified.” I think her husband neglected her? Traveled? Whatever it was, there was some reason that made it OKAY for her to cheat. In other examples, the wives are physically or mentally abused or it’s clear the husband was cheating on her forever and she’s doing it JUST THIS ONCE for revenge.
Rarely were women having affairs because they just wanted to, or because they are bored, and certainly not because they are horny. You know, all the reasons men have had affairs in popular culture for years. I remember liking the 2002 movie “Unfaithful” a lot more than it deserved because Diane Lane’s character cheats on Richard Gere simply because Oliver Martinez was hot.
So being brought up in a world where cheating wives are only acceptable under dire circumstances, the arrangement presented in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was shocking to me and to many other readers. As I mentioned, Larsson certainly treats it as such. Erika tells Gerger she’s going out with Mikal and he’s like, “have fun!” and turns on the game, which I assume must be curling. Later in the book, they all drink wine together. Is that awkward or is it just Swedish?
I am well aware, non-traditional relationships have existed forever—they are what led societies to define and endorse “traditional” relationships. I know it didn’t actually start with the book but I do believe its huge commercial success that it was, opened people’s minds, opened the door to conversations, and likely opened quite a few marriages.