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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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But if the stories we hear from couples coming into our offices these days are any indication, we’re in for a sea change. Whether we like it or not, many couples are far less encumbered with the legal, moral, and social strictures and expectations around marriage that held sway for our parents or even for us, if we were married 20 to 30 or more years ago. With divorce rates hovering at 50 percent, couples today are extremely aware of the impermanence of marriage in our culture and the many centrifugal forces in society pulling it apart. Once past the first, dewy, romantic days as newlyweds, many couples seem to expect that infidelity, however defined, is likelier than not. But far from becoming jaded and cynical about their own marriages, they want to protect their relationship--in ways that may surprise or even shock some of us. Instead of wanting to trade in the old partner for the new person, they reject the assumption that, somehow, the second time around, love will be “real,” and they’ll never again be tempted to stray.

Today’s couples are far likelier to think about negotiating ahead of time what they mean by “fidelity” and how they define and live monogamy in their own relationship.

It isn’t that there’s an epidemic of mate-swapping libertines out Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the iconographic ’60s take on the theme. In fact, most couples practicing what I call the “new monogamy” still want and desire a committed monogamous marriage, as well as the same long-term loving attachment, affection, mutual trust, and security that traditional monogamy has always promised--if not always delivered. It’s just that their notions about what constitutes emotional and sexual “commitment,” “fidelity,” and “monogamy” itself are more expansive and varied than what we’ve long considered the norm.

So what do we mean by this many-splendored “new monogamy,” and how does it compare with the old? The new monogamy is, baldly speaking, the recognition that, for an increasing number of couples, marital attachment involves a more fluid idea of connection to the primary partner than is true of the “old monogamy.” Within the new notion of monogamy, each partner assumes that the other is, and will remain, the main attachment, but that outside attachments of one kind or another are allowed--as long as they don’t threaten the primary connection.

The key to these arrangements, and what makes them meaningful within the framework of emotional commitment, is that there can be no secrecy between partners about the arrangements. The fidelity resides in the fact that these couples work out openly and together what will be and will not be allowed in their relationships with Party C, and maybe Parties D, E, and F. To couples engaged in the new monogamy, it isn’t the outside sexual relationships themselves, but the attendant secrets, lies, denial, silences, and hidden rendezvous that make them so destructive to the marriage. Rightly or wrongly, today, many couples consider that honesty and openness cleanse affairs, rendering them essentially harmless.

But how does this actually work in practice? Does “being honest” solve all the problems arising when an outside person is brought inside the marriage? Are these couples just kidding themselves, while trying to have their cake and eat it, too?

Partners who define themselves as a couple (as opposed to two people who happen to hook up now and then, or who engage in what are understood to be short-term affairs, or “friends with privileges,” as they’re sometimes called) inevitably come to some kind of contract about monogamy--explicit, implicit, or both--whether they fully realize it or not.

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