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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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The third and most fraught aspect of affairs is, of course, sexual infidelity. Again, infidelity occurs on a continuum and is sometimes as much in the eye of the beholder as in the actual behavior. Some, particularly those of strong religious beliefs, consider that “coveting” one neighbor’s wife or “lusting” after another, not to mention using porn, are as much breaches of fidelity as checking into a cheap motel with a secret lover. By contrast, one spouse may allow the other free reign on Internet sexual relationships as long as there’s no actual meeting or “touching.” Sex with prostitutes or even a purely sexual quickie with someone may be acceptable, as long as the sex is compartmentalized in a distant emotional universe far, far away from the Planet Earth of the “real” relationship.

In the culture of the new monogamy, couples are negotiating their fidelity in many ways that most therapists haven’t explored or even considered much. When a couple tells me there’s been an affair, I can’t assume I know what they mean. I need to assess what exactly monogamy means to them or what constitutes a breach of fidelity to them. What are the terms of their explicit and implicit monogamy agreement? How can my view of fidelity as either a professional who’s open-minded to their version of monogamy or as someone who’s more traditional in her beliefs define the therapy so it works best for them?

Although I’ve always thought of myself as pretty open and reasonably “hip,” I’ve been fired by more than one couple for being perceived as too traditional. There have been times when couples have come into my office and it’s been hard for me to keep my jaw from dropping open as I listened to their stories. Sometimes I ask couples to recount how they manage their relationships, not so much out of voyeuristic curiosity about the details of their sex lives as out of a fascination with how they balance the multiple levels of commitment with their various partners. I often wonder aloud to client couples, “How do you keep it all straight?” Sometimes they’ll indulge me. For instance, they’ll explain that on those nights that they have outside partners, they’ll agree that one will stay home with the kids, while the other meets the lover. Or they’ll take turns having that lover at home for the night. Or sometimes they each have a lover at home on the same night, waking up in the morning to all have breakfast together. Sometimes they might have a boyfriend or girlfriend or another couple come home to bed with them. They come to therapy, not to get permission to do what they’re doing, but to get their communication clear. The relationships that are working smoothly don’t come into my office and I can only assume that they have found a way to balance the transparency and communication necessary to keep it all straight.

Sometimes I get confused by the characters in the plot, and couples have gotten frustrated with me, and felt that my more traditional views were showing. Perhaps my inability to concentrate on the complexity of some of the more integrated monogamy agreements interferes with the therapy. One couple told me they wanted to find a younger therapist who was a specialist in swinging. I asked if I could follow up with them. They looked at me like I had asked them for a sex tape.

The new monogamy, while a reality that I believe must be recognized, doesn’t by any means ensure smooth sailing through the life of a marriage. Between two people making a life together, there’ll always be plenty of opportunity for mutual misunderstanding, hurt feelings, miscommunication, sexual ennui, and conflict, regardless of which version of monogamy--new, old, or in-between--defines their relationship. But rather than impose a preset agenda on the couple, it’s my job to help them make the best choices for their own relationship and work out a monogamy agreement in full consciousness of what they’re doing. It isn’t that one or the other can’t have any secrets, for example; it’s just that therapy should help them both agree about whether secrets are allowed. Often in the process of becoming fully aware of their original implicit monogamy agreement, couples are in a better position to renegotiate it, taking into account the people they are now as opposed to who they were when first married. Sometimes the result can be both greater individuation and a stronger marital bond.

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