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Facing Reality, The "New Monogamy" Is Keeping Relationships Together

Affairs outside of marriage are nothing new, but this take on monogamy is.

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In the therapy with Ryan and Tina, we worked on exposing the implicit expectations that both had of the relationship and what monogamy meant to them. We also dug into what each of their parents believed about relationships and marriage. It was interesting that Tina’s mother had had an affair when Tina was young, which no one ever talked about--Tina only found out when an aunt let it slip one night at the dinner table. Ryan’s father went to strip clubs regularly and no one in his family thought it was unusual--it was the kind of thing men did. Now Ryan had a new understanding of how his mother might have felt about this behavior when Tina expressed her distaste and disappointment at hearing that her father-in-law spent evenings watching pole-dancers. Ryan looked at her strangely and said, “But isn’t it a compliment to women to know that we like to look at them?” Tina burst into tears. She said to him, “No, it’s a compliment if you want to listen to us. That’s why I started my affair. He listened to me, you never do.”

New monogamists try to eliminate the gap that so often exists between explicit and implicit rules in the “old monogamy.” From the viewpoint of the new monogamy, the trick is to establish and continually revisit rules to provide clear guidelines for maintaining a monogamous relationship--while keeping them loose enough to encourage growth and exploration for both partners. Some couples keep renegotiating their rules about monogamy, either directly or more subtly, as they age and pass through different developmental stages of their marriage. Accordingly, these rules can change, when they have children, when the children go off to school or leave home, during menopause, at retirement, or when the spouses’ roles change--a wife’s taking up a career once the kids are out of the nest, for example.

I see many couples in my office who look quite conventional and conservative, even staid, who report that they regularly meet with “play partners,” or couples they’ve met online, for sex dates. Several with children who’ve just entered school seem to seek a break from the routine of work and domestic chores and want to rekindle a youthful sense of adventure, sexual excitement, and desirability. They want to remain monogamous, however, and have no intention of leaving their marriages. According to the terms of their monogamy agreement, they meet with the other couples purely for fun and sport; all sexual contact between all four (or more) happens together in the same room and only on weekends; and there’s to be no individual outside contact between the partners of the different couples. The couples discuss their feelings about their sexual play both before and after the events.

In my office, we discuss these encounters--the emotions, personalities involved, complexities, and problems that arise--like we do any other marital issue. These new monogamists are just as committed to each other as traditional couples, though they may feel more connected to each other because of the mutual trust that they insist develops when partners allow each other to have sexual experiences with someone else and they themselves either watch or participate. In my experience, when rules are clear beforehand, complaints of jealousy or feelings of betrayal are rare. Often the couples naturally grow beyond and leave behind the outside relationships. One couple, for example, stopped their “play” when they became pregnant with their third child.

Having made a stab at defining monogamy, new and old, let’s look at infidelity. What does that loaded word really mean? Basically, like Gaul, all affairs can be divided into three parts: 1. the dishonesty; 2. the outside relationship; and 3. the sexual infidelity. All three exist on a continuum, with different levels and degrees.

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