This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.
There’s a new article on ways that people are creating new visions of what monogamy means on the Psychotherapy Networker site. And while The New Monogamy is written for therapists and other mental health professionals, I think that there’s a lot of wisdom there for anyone interested in creating sustainable relationships.
The author, Tammy Nelson, describes some of the shifts that she has seen during her career as a therapist. As she sees it:
People no longer marry for economic, dynastic, or procreative reasons, as they did for millennia; they can’t be compelled to marry by law, religion, or custom; they don’t need to marry to have sex or cohabit or even produce and raise children. But throughout all of this staggering change, the requirement and expectation of monogamy as the emotional glue that keeps the whole structure of marriage from collapsing under its own weight has remained constant.
I don’t think that that is entirely true. For example, I’d agree that fewer people marry for the reasons she names, and there are still a lot of people who do. Nevertheless, as she discusses, despite the overwhelmingly constant messages that marriage equals sexual monogamy, “55 percent of married women and 65 percent of married men report being unfaithful at some point in their marriage. Up to one-half of married women have at least one lover after they’re married and before the age of 40.” So what do we do with this disconnection between what we say we want and how we act?
Some people are finding new ways to define what their commitments to each other mean. Rather than hiding their sexual attraction to other people, which creates secrecy and lies, they find ways to put it on the table and work with it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have sex with other people, but rather, they recognize that despite Matthew 5:28, there is a difference between looking at someone lustfully and committing adultery.
Then, of course, there are people who take things in a different direction and make room for one or both people to have other sexual partners. And consistently, what people say is that:
The key to these arrangements, and what makes them meaningful within the framework of emotional commitment, is that there can be no secrecy between partners about the arrangements. The fidelity resides in the fact that these couples work out openly and together what will be and will not be allowed in their relationships with Party C, and maybe Parties D, E, and F. To couples engaged in the new monogamy, it isn’t the outside sexual relationships themselves, but the attendant secrets, lies, denial, silences, and hidden rendezvous that make them so destructive to the marriage. Rightly or wrongly, today, many couples consider that honesty and openness cleanse affairs, rendering them essentially harmless.
Of course, this gets complex because we don’t have a lot of models for how to create these sorts of structures. I get a lot of questions from people who are curious about open relationships and don’t know where to start. Fortunately, Tristan Taromino’s book Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships offers plenty of suggestions. She interviewed over 120 people in open relationships, so there’s info about what swingers said works for them, which is often different from what polyfidelitous folks said, or what people who have friends with benefits said, etc.
It’s also complicated because being able to tell your partner(s) about your sexual desires, attractions, experiences, fears, and hopes usually takes a lot of practice. It also takes practice to be able to hear what your partner shares, especially when jealousy, shame, fear of abandonment, or judgment come into play. But this is essential if you want to bring your implicit assumptions about your relationships into the light and talk about them. You may be surprised at what you and your partner(s) believe or expect from each other.
This is one of the ways in which a good therapist can really help. Having someone identify the patterns of behavior and communication, offer useful tips for staying focused, and help keep each person from getting lost in the stories in their heads can go a long way towards making this process much more graceful. Check out the listings on the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors & Therapists site if you want to find some support.
Personally, I’m not convinced that calling these sorts of relationships a new form of monogamy is the right way to go, if only because the etymology of the word is “one marriage” and I’d rather use different language to talk about relationships that make room for multiple sexual partners. There are all sorts of ways to build committed relationships that can include any number of people and may or may not include sex. What makes any relationship stable and healthy is whether everyone involved is treated with care, respect, and love. It’s not a question of whether you have sex with other people or not, but rather, that the folks involved are being treated well. And when conflict inevitably arises, or when someone does step outside the boundaries that have been agreed upon, it’s a question of how that’s dealt with.
But even with that, The New Monogamy is a really great read and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in creating happy, healthy, and sustainable relationships, no matter what the structure.