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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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Dishonesty can mean anything from hiding a full-fledged affair to not mentioning that one’s attracted to, and having fantasies about, the cute check-out boy at the grocery. Some dishonest behaviors are more egregious and destructive than others. Bob and Tanya, for example, had been married for 15 years when Tanya found Bob’s letters to his lover Adele on his laptop when he left it open one night. The adoring and quite explicit letters made abundantly clear that he’d been sleeping with Adele for several years. But when Tanya confronted Bob, he adamantly denied the obvious evidence. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said flatly. “Those e-mails must be from other people--I never wrote them.” She dragged him to therapy, but it was still weeks before he finally admitted what was screamingly obvious--he was indeed having an affair, which had been going on for years. The marriage broke up not, in my opinion, because of the affair, but because Bob’s betrayal had been so deep, so obtuse, so unyielding that Tanya felt (probably correctly) that she could never trust him again.

By contrast, Tim and Elaine came into therapy after he’d told her that his assistant, Missy, was coming on to him at work. That might have been no more than embarrassing except that Tim confessed to Elaine that he was attracted to Missy and was daydreaming about asking her out. In fact, Missy beat him to the punch and asked him to come to her apartment for drinks one night. He’d gone and, although he wouldn’t admit to intercourse, it was clear that they’d had some sort of sexual experience. Afterward, he felt bad, told Elaine about it--without explicit details--and now they were in therapy to talk about his distress and their relationship. He wanted Missy--but he didn’t want to want her--he wanted his wife, and he couldn’t have both. This couple worked out their dilemma (Missy had to go) and Elaine never stopped trusting Tim because his honesty had given her a sense of confidence in him and their relationship.

The second aspect of affairs is the outside relationship, which can be with a good friend at work or an old college drinking buddy, an ex-lover or ex-spouse one occasionally meets for lunch, a one-night stand, or a full-fledged mistress. In our culture, intimacy, privacy, secrecy, and loyalty are often reserved (in theory) entirely for the spouse. Within this conceptual model of “togetherness,” sharing personal information with a close friend of the opposite sex may be considered a threat to the marriage. Sharing intimate thoughts and secrets with such friends can be considered a kind of theft from the primary relationship--“that’s our business,” the offended partner might think--and it can sometimes cross the line from friendship to romantic and sexual attraction. Even a stimulating intellectual, social, and political connection can be considered dangerous--political campaigns, for example, are rife with affairs that draw upon the adrenaline-fueled excitement and camaraderie of the contest. Even if never acted on physically, this outside “friendship” can feel like a betrayal to the spouse when the partner obviously finds it so much more vital, exciting, and intimate than the dull domesticity of home.

Brad and Janet had been married for 14 years, with two children, 10 and 12. Brad was a computer programmer who worked nights and Janet was a socially isolated, stay-at-home mom. Brad had exposure to many professional relationships, many of which were with women. Janet routinely read his e-mail, listened in on his phone calls, and checked his pockets, before it finally sank in that her husband did have only friendly professional contact with these women. At that point, they figured out ways to bring the women into the relationship on a social level, including them in dinner parties and other social events. Janet began to realize that Brad’s friends could be her pipeline to a richer social life. Furthermore, with communication skills they learned in therapy, she was able to tell him when she felt uncomfortable about his women friends’ calling him at the house or spending too much time on the phone with him. He was able to empathize with her feelings and, thereafter, included her or got off the phone.

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