A reporter recently asked me “what is the current hot topic in relationships these days?” I said it had to be the question of monogamy and how it is changing for couples. With a 54% divorce rate across the board in North America, you may come to the conclusion that monogamy is a failing experiment. And you may be right. Whether it’s couples who have lost that loving feeling and find themselves drifting into thoughts of others that may be threatening their monogamous relationship; the urge to wander seems to be rampant. I’m hearing daily of many people trying more sexual experimentation (individually or together) outside of their marriage. This question of curiosity or desire to step out on a traditional relationship has seem to become far more vocal over the last year. Monogamy it seems, is an institution under threat. How to negotiate or contract changes to a monogamous relationship is the hot topic de jour in my practice. So what does negotiating monogamy mean? How is Monogamy defined by couples? Is there a well articulated understanding what each partner expects and desires in terms of changing monogamy and in terms of the sexual life they want to have?
There is a great Ted Talk on Huffington Post this month by the sex therapy guru Esther Perel talking about the Passion Paradox. She asks the questions:
Why does good sex so often fade, even in couples who continue to love each other as much as ever?
– Why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex?
– Can we want what we already have?
– Why does the transition to parenthood so often deliver a fatal erotic blow to the couple?
– And why is the forbidden so erotic?
– When you love, how do you feel, and when you desire, how is it different?
Love and desire, they relate but they also conflict. And herein lies the mystery of eroticism. How we straddle our drive for connection and closeness with our quest for separateness and freedom is at the core of reconciling intimacy and sexuality, otherwise called the domestic and the erotic.”
It turns out that Perel thinks its modern life that’s to blame. We want our partners to give us stability and passion, a sense of belonging and while having a respect for our individuality. I say that “it’s impossible for one person to meet all of your needs”. It’s too much to ask of anyone. But can one person meet all of our sexual needs? Maybe, if we are on the same page sexually. The challenge comes when couples have differing sexual appetites for amounts, variations, and what they find erotic. In a modern North American culture, we still are trying to find a way to have that one person fit that ever-changing box of desire. From an evolutionary biology point of view that isn’t how we evolved. I try to explain that men are biologically attracted to newness and are trying to impregnate every women they come across. Women put out bonding hormones when they are sexually active and need to have a emotionally secure primary relationship in order to even contemplate sexual variation. I tell women that in 25 years as a therapist I have met only five women that I think can have inconsequential sex without getting their emotions in play.
The argument is that we have higher cortex functioning and can stop ourselves from wanting what we can’t have. I think we can do it for awhile but sitting on our hands becomes increasingly difficult if fundamental sexual needs aren’t being met. I liken it to dieting. If you go without food for awhile you can guarantee that you will gorge on high fat food at your first opportunity. And if needs aren’t being met sexually, catch ourselves increasingly thinking about meeting those sexual needs. I tell people that I am in the needs business. And if your needs aren’t being met you can white knuckle it for awhile, but sooner or later you’ll want to binge. Walking-not sprinting headlong into infidelity, or sexual adventures but finding a way for both parties to be secure is a whole new area of sex therapy. So what do you do? If partners love each other and don’t want to end the relationship, how do you “color outside the lines of conventional monogamy?”
It takes communication, coaching, and contracting. We may be coveting our neighbors wife but can we act on it without blowing up our relationship? The short answer is yes, but it doesn’t happen easily, lightly or without a fundamental shift in thinking. It’s that shift that allows us to clearly and maturely understand our needs, our partners needs and how to walk through this minefield with integrity. Watch, you will be reading more about changes to monogamy as partners look for solutions to infidelity, become more self aware or simply ask themselves are my neighbors having wilder sex than we are?