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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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One couple I see, Ned and Beatrice, who’d always kept what they thought was a clear agreement around monogamy--no outside sexual partners--discovered that they were both having sexual liaisons when they traveled for work. First Ned, the husband, got “caught” and confessed to several experiences that he described as “non-emotional, just purely recreational, sex.” Beatrice felt hurt and betrayed, and wondered whether she should leave Ned. I asked her not to make any decisions for at least six months because her feelings were intense right then, and it would be hard to make a clear decision.

For several weeks, we worked on the betrayal of their original monogamy agreement. Then Beatrice confessed that she, too, had had several dalliances on the road, and found that really they hadn’t affected her feelings for her husband. They were both surprised and wondered if this was a sign that they were growing apart. I asked them whether the secrets and the lying would eventually force them to feel as though they were living parallel lives. They felt it would, and that their answer (not mine) was to agree that each could continue their outside sexual experiences, but with clearer rules.

They agreed they could each have sex with other people outside the marriage, but only while traveling separately. In addition, they could never have sex with a colleague who worked for the same firm or have sex more than once with the same person. The other important rule was that they had to tell their partner afterward that it had happened, but with no details unless they felt compelled to share some emotional experience they were having about the incident. If that happened, they agreed they’d need to do some crisis intervention to figure out what was happening in their marriage.

Both Ned and Beatrice said that they could never have had this type of open marriage earlier in their lives. “At younger ages we would have been too threatened,” she said. “But now I know neither of us is going to end the marriage. We love each other, but we married young and we never had sex with anyone else, ever. I figure I’m in my fifties, and how many years do I have left to have sex?” she added. “I wanted to experience what it was like, and I feel like I have my husband’s permission, and that’s made me feel so close to him. I feel like I’m a fully alive sexual being. I’m more attractive to my husband because I know that I’m attractive to other men. I can’t explain it,” she concluded, “but I feel like I love Ned more than ever.”

There are marriages in which couples agree to live parallel, emotionally unconnected lives, while each partner pursues love and sex outside. It may be particularly hard for our culture to sympathize with these unions since they so profoundly break the basic “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage” rule. In fact, not only are there times when you can have one (marriage) without the other (love), this arrangement may seem to the participants as the only one that really makes sense, given their circumstances. It may even seem like the only right thing to do.

For example, Jack and Karla married during their last year at an Ivy League college. At that time, their agreement was that Jack would pursue a career in law and Karla would go to graduate school, become a teacher, but give up her teaching career to be a stay-at-home mother when they had children. This she’d done. Now in their forties, with their children in their teens, Karla had blossomed, in more ways than one. She’d taken up graduate studies and was working on a doctorate in education, a field she loved. In addition, as she finally told Jack one night, she was having an affair with a professor from her graduate school--in fact, she’d been having an affair with him for 10 years.

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