This article was written by Malcolm Fraser for AskMen.
Even in the world of hook-ups, friends with benefits and dating apps by the dozen, a lot of people are still chasing the dream of finding “the one” person and having a monogamous relationship.
Our society, at least in principle, is based on the idea of the family unit: a stable couple that can raise kids and spend their whole lives together.
But that’s in theory. In practice, a lot of people can’t handle being with the same person forever. So, some of them split up. Some of them just grudgingly go on living with each other (possibly with affairs on the side, and all the dishonesty and guilt that comes with that). And some couples are brave enough to try out — or at least explore — a new approach.
As someone who’s been married (the old-fashioned way) for 15 years, I don’t have first-hand expertise with these new ways of doing things. But I see more and more people exploring them, both in the media and among acquaintances. It got me curious about just what all these alternatives are, and how people make them work.
These bold few are lucky to live in an era when there’s more and more awareness about alternatives to traditional monogamy. That’s partly because the media exposes us to a lot of different lifestyles, and partly to do with the death of privacy and the dawn of over-sharing — all of a sudden we seem to know a lot more about each other’s formerly private lives.
Also, with same-sex relationships becoming more and more acknowledged, straight people have been exposed to the alternative arrangements that many of our gay friends enjoy. In a 2010 study, fully half the gay couples polled disclosed that they had extra flings on the side with their partner’s consent.
This increased exposure has also highlighted that we may not even share the same conception of what monogamy and infidelity are: Is it cheating when you flirt with an ex on Facebook? With a stranger on the subway? Does it have to be sex to be adultery? Is it worse to have a casual sexual fling or to cultivate a friendship with someone else you’re attracted to?
While couples may assume that they’re on the same page with regard to the boundaries of their relationship, you can never be sure until you’ve discussed fidelity, infidelity and what behaviors fall where with your partner at length — or find out the hard way, by unknowingly transgressing a line.
There’s an old cliché that says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But that’s kind of what our society does with monogamy. So why do we keep trying? Because it worked for our grandparents and (maybe) our parents? Or because the alternatives are too complicated or scary?
On the other extreme of the spectrum, some people don’t want their partner flirting — or even being friends with — anyone they might potentially be attracted to. This kind of desire for exclusivity is usually rooted in jealousy and fear of losing a partner, emotions that are normal, but not very positive. Ideally, you want to feel secure and comfortable in your relationship — know that you can trust each other without feeling like you need to be overly possessive.
So what if, instead of just assuming that the “normal” model will work for you, you had an honest conversation with your partner — and with yourself — about what monogamy means, and what version of it could make the most sense in your life?
Monogamy, Nature, Culture And Brain Chemistry
It doesn’t make a lot of sense to argue whether or not monogamy is “natural” — in nature, some species mate for life and some don’t. Statistics say that only 3% of mammals are monogamous — and among those, many are practicing what’s known as “social monogamy,” raising a family together with occasional action on the side.
Among humans, one study claims that of the world’s 238 societies, only 43 promote monogamy. Certain religious affiliations, from Muslims to Mormons to numerous African cultures like the Maasai people, allow men to have multiple wives or partners.
For a lot of Western feminists, that seems awfully convenient for the men involved. And fair enough. But any number of “sister wives” will tell you the arrangement works perfectly well for them: They share child-rearing and household duties, while only one of them has to put up with the husband at once. (The opposite practice, with wives sharing multiple husbands, is very rare, comprising only 0.05% of the world’s cultures.)
Though scientists differ on the evolutionary reasons for human monogamy, it seems pretty clear that our Western model of lifelong mating is based more on maintaining social order than any kind of inherently self-evident natural state.
But one thing is for sure: Monogamy is not for everyone. Statistics vary widely (as you’d expect from an issue that not everyone has reason to be honest about), but a recent study from the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found over half the participants (both men and women) admitted that they’d cheated at some point in some relationship. Conventional wisdom will tell you that men are hard-wired to spread their seed as far and wide as possible, whereas women are biologically destined to hold down the fort at home. But according to these stats, women cheat almost as much as men — some might say they’re just usually smarter about covering their tracks.
Dr. Leanna Wolfe, an anthropologist and sexologist based in the Los Angeles area who spoke at a recent conference on The Future of Monogamy and Non-Monogamy, hosted by the University of Berkeley in California, explains that it’s a simple matter of brain chemistry. “In the attraction stage of a relationship,” she explains, “the brain releases dopamine and norepinephrine, causing excitement. In the attachment stage, it releases oxytocin and vasopressin, and you’re happy just to cuddle on the couch. But as far as brain chemistry states, a lot of us want to have both security and stability, but also excitement and intrigue.” In short, our brains are wired to desire both the security of a stable relationship and the thrill of looking beyond it.
Polyamory: More Partners, More Problems?
Mark Bentley Cohen, a Vancouver-based writer and counsellor, has been with his wife for 25 years. For the past five, they’ve been experimenting with polyamory — each one has other partners they (openly) see on the side.
Cohen, who also spoke at the Berkeley conference, has become an expert on and a bit of a cheerleader for the open relationship lifestyle. “People who are able to enter in this kind of relationship, contrary to popular belief, are often happier, more satisfied and more in love with their partner than people who don’t,” he claims.
“The downside is that, if as a couple you have serious issues and problems, going out and having sex with other people is not necessarily going to cure that. It’s not going to solve all your problems, and it will create a host of other challenges. But monogamy itself is challenging, as we all know.”
I know a couple who’ve been together over 10 years, but who each have a full-on, serious, second relationship. I can barely imagine the logistics, let alone the emotional gymnastics, involved. But what do I know? It seems to work for them — as it did for the late French president François Mitterand, who openly had both a wife and a mistress. They even cried together at his funeral.
A lot of guys would probably think that this kind of scenario sounds just great. But the thing is, making it work would require a lot of honesty, negotiation and self-sacrifice. Because it’s one thing to have your cake and eat it too — but then you’d have to extend the same courtesy to your partner, without being jealous or possessive.
If you embark on this lifestyle, “you’re going to be experiencing intense emotional episodes,” Cohen warns. “You’re gonna feel things intensely. A lot of people would rather sit on the couch and be complacent in their unhappiness than challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zone and feel something.”
Social Monogamy: Couples With Benefits
I know a longtime couple (today a family with several kids) who, in their younger years, spent some time living in different cities. Their agreement was: If one person had a fling, then the other person didn’t need to know about it. But if someone started to fall in love, then they needed to have a conversation. For a long-distance relationship, that makes a lot of sense. Some people try it in the same town, practicing (like many of our fellow mammals) “social monogamy.”
It’s an arrangement that’s been common among some gay couples for a while. Sex columnist Dan Savage has promoted the agreement he calls “monogamish”: He and his husband are committed to each other, with the occasional fling for variety’s sake. Or, as a gay friend of mine once quipped: “The closest thing we have to monogamy is exclusive with an ‘oops’ clause.”
Some couples find their comfort zone in the world of swingers, which is not to be confused with polyamory. Swinging, says Dr. Wolfe, is “much more popular than polyamory because it isn’t designed to be provocative in terms of jealousy: All one is sharing is eroticism, not an emotional connection.”
The late author Peggy Vaughn wrote a bestselling book called The Monogamy Myth. Despite the title, she actually argued (after having learned the hard way when her husband cheated) that couples can make monogamy work.
“The best hope for monogamy lies in rejecting the idea that a couple can assume monogamy without discussing the issue, or that they can assure monogamy by making threats as to what they would do if it happened,” she wrote. “Either of these paths creates a cycle of dishonesty.”
Her solution? Being more honest about your desires so that you don’t act on them. “In making this choice, both partners realize that attractions to others are likely, indeed inevitable, no matter how much they love each other. So they engage in ongoing honest communication about the reality of the temptations and how to avoid the consequences of acting on those temptations.”
But Dr. Wolfe warns that whatever your arrangement, honesty can be dangerous. “There are huge consequences to being honest,” she says. “To get along with each other and to keep things smooth, we don’t necessarily want to say things that will be hurtful. You might get an insight that someone doesn’t want to hear a certain thing, and the ultimate consequences might be worse if they knew.”
Probably the best bet is for couples to talk about their arrangement early on. What does monogamy mean to you? What would be a deal-breaker — does a coffee date count? What about a Facebook flirtation?
And you’ll have to keep the discussion ongoing, since people’s needs change over time. The old model, where extramarital flings were kept secret, may have been dishonest and hypocritical, but it was a lot less emotionally complicated. There’s no easy solution — except, as Dr. Wolfe says with a laugh, “If it’s not working out that well, try something different!”