I deal with the topic of infidelity in my work with couples all the time. Committed and married couples come see me individually or together- but usually only after the fact: after they have tried to work things out on their own or need someone to help them make a decision whether to stay together or not. It’s never easy.
Nor is it clear cut. Part of the problem is that many people think that monogamy is a given, a steadfast rule, something we pledge in our vows or commitment to each other, something that is just supposed to happen- like a knee-jerk reaction to a sharp tap on the patellar tendon.
It’s more than that.
True, monogamy is something most people believe in and want for themselves but it’s also a choice, a conscious choice…and one that needs to be honestly discussed. Couples cannot fend-off affairs just by assuming monogamy or even promise monogamy without discussing the issue. Nor can they avoid affairs by making threats as to what they would do if it happened. It doesn’t work that way.
I always loved the expression, “Married but Not Dead”. My clients never know whether to gasp or smile whenever I remark about how on this planet of 7 billion plus people to possibly think that we cannot be attracted to someone other than our partner or spouse is….,well, pretty darn ridiculous, adhering to the simple fact that attractions to others are likely, even normal, sometimes healthy and indeed inevitable, no matter how much couples love each other. The bottom line is what we decide to do with the attraction.
Did you know that the process of discussing attractions can actually decrease the likelihood of acting on them? Think about it: if you were to openly and honestly talk about having an affair, you would certainly erase the secrecy out of it and probably focus more on the possible problems of acting on the affair; whereas, when a person is secretly tempted to have an affair, their undisclosed private thoughts usually lead them to focus more on the possible pleasures. This is why clandestine behaviour thrives on mystery. By talking about it, however, it diffuses its potency.
One of my favourite experts on this topic, Peggy Vaughn, who penned The Monogamy Myth, writes that this process of acknowledging attractions and discussing how they are to be handled is one that both married and unmarried couples need to address prior to any problem with affairs. Constantly wondering- and especially worrying about this issue- creates a strain between partners that may prevent their developing a better sense of trust in each other. She suggests couples need to talk through their feelings about monogamy and attractions to other people on an ongoing basis, as their relationship develops. I agree. It requires not only ongoing honest discussion of the issue but is also part of building value for the relationship. The same goes for sex. Even in totally exclusive relationships, people change when it comes to their sexual needs and desires. Being able to discuss these issues freely is important. This makes it possible for the couple to feel connected, as if they really know each other, making it more likely they can trust that they won’t deceive each other, thus preventing affairs.
Maybe monogamy has become too cliché? Maybe its outmoded doctrine requires a brand new podium? Instead of embracing monogamy as a default mode, perhaps we should kick it up a notch and really flesh it out, making room for more of an openly shared state of internal affairs.
What are some of your thoughts about monogamy? Do you think holding it up to an ideal-without necessarily talking about it- is enough for a relationship? If so, do you think it somehow has to do with the continued existence of sexual taboos in our society which contribute to the difficulty many partners still have when it comes to talking openly and honestly about sex?
Hope you’re having a great summer…..I would love to hear from you.