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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 this explosive conversation with her husband, a high-powered litigator with a leading law firm, she said--yelled, actually--that he hadn’t really seen her for more than a decade, except as the ever-dependable keeper of his house and mother of his children. She felt more like a golden retriever with him than a real person--although the golden would have gotten more attention. Meanwhile, her professor told her she was a unique, smart, beautiful woman, and it was largely due to his influence that she’d decided to continue her education.

Outside of her marriage, Karla had been living an entirely separate and distinct life with the professor--sleeping at his apartment on weekends when she told Jack she was at conferences, and getting virtually all of her emotional support, guidance, and companionship from him. She felt that he was her true partner and the man she loved. Jack was almost completely wound up with the single-minded pursuit-to-the-top of the legal food chain. He knew nothing of her, as she knew nothing of him or his life without her.

Although Karla felt her life would be meaningless without her lover (who’d asked her to leave Jack), she decided not to divorce, knowing it would publicly embarrass Jack and destroy his chances for promotion. The firm was old and traditional, the partners were all married and frowned on divorce, their wives were largely “company wives,” and “family values” was virtually the firm’s founding motto. She also worried that the financial upheaval would derail her future plans and compromise her kids’ financial security. She’d only revealed her affair to Jack because she’d felt that it would be in both of their best interests if he took a lover as well--this might bring some type of equity to their marriage and ease her guilt.

They appeared to be in a real bind. Karla said that if she felt she wouldn’t injure her husband’s chances or her own and her kids’ financial security, she would indeed leave him and pursue her own personal and professional growth. However, such a move would clearly jeopardize Jack’s career. The solution she and her husband ultimately arrived at would most likely shock Dr. Laura. By the time therapy ended, Jack had acquired a lover and, after much calm negotiation, he and Karla agreed that they’d, in effect, carry on parallel lives: maintain outside lovers while staying in their primary relationship, if only for show.

Together, Karla and Jack made an informed, transparent decision to do what they thought would work best for them. True, their solution went against the current norm: if your marriage is irretrievable, leave it for a new romance and the new promise of “happily ever after,” even if you must do it multiple times. Yet it could be argued that, in some ways, the approach they took was more adult, more orderly, and even more responsible to all parties concerned.

If couples are becoming more flexible in the way they define monogamy, it could be partly because people live longer than in previous centuries and one spouse is far less likely to leave the other widowed after 5 or 10 years than used to be the case. Now couples are expected to stay sexually and emotionally connected to each other for 40, 50, even 60 years. There’s no precedent in any culture for staying married and passionate about the same person for that amount of time. We aren’t trained or advised about how to remain monogamous and happy with a single sexual partner for half a century, probably because we’ve never before had to be.

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