Life Beyond Therapy
Is Monogamy outdated?
Published Thursday, 07-Oct-2010 in issue 1189
In this age of almost-legal GLBT marriage, many of my coupled clients are examining traditional heterosexual marriage-based relationships and finding them lacking. Other people, however, think that the idea of “emotional monogamy and sexual non-monogamy” is just a cop-out, a way to rationalize not being faithful to your partner.
While this is a controversial issue, it’s a great opportunity for us GLBTers to be social pioneers and make our own way. We can critically analyze what heterosexist society has pushed on us for the past two hundred years or so. For many of us, the model of a traditional monogamous “marriage” isn’t a good fit, no matter how many movies or TV shows tell us that a “faithful” marriage is the only way to go.
To tell the truth: it’s not working very well for the hetero folks, is it? When half of straight marriages result in divorce, this is a hardly a wonderful role model for us to emulate. Here are some typical problems with long-term monogamy:
• Is it realistic to only have sex with one person for the rest of your life?
• Incompatible sexual desires, e.g., you’re both tops; one of you likes anal sex and the other doesn’t; you like wild, animal-like sex and he likes it tender and gentle.
• Incompatible libidos: you want to do it once a day – minimum – and she’s happy with once a month.
When looking at alternatives to long-term monogamy, let’s not idealize open relationships either. After all, how many open relationships are happy and healthy? In fact, isn’t it more difficult to have a good open relationship than a “closed” one? After all, in a closed relationship you have only one other person to work out your intimate difficulties and disagreements with. If you open up your relationship to other people, you may have two, three, four or more people to learn to get along with, communicate with, understand, get to know, etc. While “infinite sexual possibilities” sounds great in theory, how the hell do you pull this off with grace and sanity?
So let’s say you and your partner want to remain emotionally faithful but want to sexually open up your relationship. This is likely to bring major changes to all aspects of your relationship. I recommend that you both sit down and figure out what you each mean by “emotionally faithful” and to figure out how sexually opening up your relationship is likely to change it. If you were my clients, I’d have some questions for you:
• What is your intention for your relationship? Why are you two still together, anyway? Is it to have fun, share great sex, deepen an emotional connection, see if you can be life partners?
• What would be the purpose of an open relationship? Of monogamy? What are the pros and cons of each?
• What role does sex play in your relationship? Do you see yourself as a monogamous person (or not)?
• What does “emotional monogamy” mean to you and your partner? If this is important to you, how can you remain emotionally committed to each other while having sex with other people?
In my years of counseling experience, I’ve seen many long-term emotionally monogamous relationships that are sexually “open” or periodically go through “open” periods. In a long-term relationship, sex over time often becomes predictable. Depending on the value that the partners place on sex, this may or may not be a problem. Some people like consistency and the comfort of consistency in bed (e.g., I know what you like and you know what turns me on) while others thrive on change and creativity. You needn’t give up monogamy to be spontaneous and creative (in fact, I encourage you not to) but an open sexual relationship can be stimulating and invigorating for a long-term committed relationship. There are, however, many challenges to making it work for all people involved.
• Feelings of jealousy and insecurity.
• Possibly falling in love (or lust) with someone else.
• Feeling scared and disoriented as the formerly predictable structure of your relationship changes.
• Confusion about how to structure this brave new world you’re jumping into.
• Your relationship may not be solid to begin with and opening it up actually makes it worse.
• Less sexual intimacy may lead to less emotional intimacy so you end up feeling more like housemates than lovers.
Monogamy or open relationship? The joys of infinite sexual possibilities or the security of one person for the rest of your life? These are questions with no right answer, save the one that every couple comes up with. If you and your partner are considering opening up your relationship, by all means: discuss it, consider my questions, and make your decision. And one more thing: relax! Nothing is irreversible. You can always shift as your relationship changes over time. Your relationship can be as fluid as you like: today you may regularly want a new man in your bed. Next month/year, you may want to make love to the same woman every night. You get to call the shots. If you want emotional monogamy with physical non-monogamy, talk about it with your partner: be brave, bring the subject up with tact and respect and see what you both come up with.