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New Thinking About Monogamy

How to handle questions of exclusivity in a new or long-time relationship

The Monogamy Talk Relationships

For many in heterosexual relationships it is presumed that monogamy will reign supreme. — Getty Images

En español | In any new relationship, and in many older ones, there comes a time when monogamy is discussed. Or at least there should come a time. However, for many in heterosexual relationships it is presumed that monogamy will reign supreme.

Gay men know better. When they fall in love, the "monogamy talk" is rarely far behind: "What do we expect from each other? Will we be monogamous? If not, what rules shall we set?" Many gay men agree to have an "open" relationship, meaning sex outside the union is fine so long as certain guidelines are followed — for example, no sex with an outsider more than once, or no unsafe sex. Other gay couples decide in advance to forgive the occasional sexual experience elsewhere, a practice that advice columnist Dan Savage calls "being monogamish."

Younger couples are discussing this topic in ways that are making marital monogamy less monolithic than it has been in the past. Some couples practice a "5 percent solution," meaning "I'm content to be in 95 percent of your life — feel free to keep the other 5 percent private." Others have told me that, being highly sexed people, they can both imagine an indiscretion happening to either one of them at some point — which they would hate, but forgive. A few expect to incorporate other lovers in their lives over the span of the marriage.

Doubtless these "hall passes" will strike many older couples as outrageous or unethical, but the fact of the matter is that not every long-running marriage observes monogamy. A study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in 2010, for example, indicated that 1 in 5 married or previously married people had been nonmonogamous. Research by AARP has likewise revealed high levels of "strayability": In a 2009 survey, 21 percent of male respondents and 11 percent of female respondents reported they'd had sex outside the relationship. And 1 in 8 in a current committed relationship or marriage reported having a sex partner outside that union at the time of the survey.

My guess: Very few couples who experienced infidelity had ever talked about what would happen if they did. Granted, some may have had an ulterior motive — it's not unknown for a member of an unhappy marriage to employ faithlessness as an exit strategy. But most episodes, I suspect, were acts of love, lust or simply opportunity seized.

'We need to talk about the relation slip'

Is it smart for a couple to discuss "monogamy maintenance?" Advice columnist Savage feels that marriages are stronger when both partners acknowledge the power of temptation and agree on how to handle it. He uses gay men as a model, but not every scholar believes that message applies automatically to heterosexual relationships. Stephanie Coontz, for example, the author of Marriage: A History, sees women as unlikely to want that much sexual freedom in a marriage.

Psychotherapist Esther Perel, by contrast, views monogamy as "unnatural" for both men and women. The author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence stops short of advocating free love, but Perel says we should be less scandalized, and more forgiving, when trespasses occur.

If you doubt the wisdom of having "the monogamy talk" with your significant other, consider this: Isn't it about time the two of you learned each other's values and sexual philosophy?

How to bring up monogamy subject

If you decide to open these talks, keep the nuclear option — "I would kill you [or "We'd be finished"] if you strayed" — off the table. If you are virulently opposed to the idea of nonexclusivity, try less draconian statements such as "It would break my heart" or "We would need counseling for me to get over feeling hurt and scared." If you want to float nonmonogamy as a possibility, by contrast, you might begin with a declaration like "I can imagine having sex outside our relationship, but I cannot imagine ever loving someone else. Could you deal with that?" Or "Is monogamy the most important thing in our relationship?"

Those are all key questions, for the rancor that can infect a relationship in the wake of a "monogamiss" can be psychologically destructive.

"Resentment is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die," Perel says she once heard someone say. She doesn't deny the pain inflicted by unfaithfulness, but she goes against the sex-advice grain when she says that too much intimacy can actually be anti-erotic. True eroticism lies in the unknown — the enigmatic glance, the promise of arousal — not in the mere mechanics of doing the deed. "Most people don't want more sex," says Perel. "They want better sex."

Paradoxically, broaching this topic may demand a level of honesty possessed only by couples who feel secure and happy within their relationship. But airing views would profit many a relationship, inspiring some to keep their sex life hot and helping others repair their bond in the aftermath of a lapse.

Yes, nonmonogamy happens — but its fallout is easier to weather when you've worked out beforehand what your relationship can and cannot tolerate.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz answers your sex, relationships and dating questions in her blog.

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