When it comes to the innate-versus-learned debate, I share the view of activist-academic Meg-John Barker, who emphasizes that our relationship styles are “not a matter of nature or nurture, hard-wiring or social construct. Rather the way we form relationships is influenced by a complex web of biological, psychological, and social aspects which would be impossible to disentangle.” Natural or not, what matters to us is that presently many men and women seem to find monogamy, translated as mandatory sexual and emotional exclusiveness, quite difficult to maintain. Hence it may be time to at least take a fresh look at the topic.
We should be careful, however, not to conflate the conversation about monogamy with the conversation about infidelity. They are not the same. “
Excerpt from The State of Affair by Esther Perel – page 256
Opening up monogamy without taking it apart
Iris, the thirty-something product of a marriage that was as long as it was miserable, has no intention of ever getting stuck. She wants an “intentional relationship.” “When we come home. I want to know that it is out of free choice rather than obligation.”
For romantic reformists, convention leads to constriction and dishonesty. They want truthfulness, choice and authenticity. And they want connection with their partners that does not disconnect them from themselves or from other people. They want to weave a tapestry together without losing their own threads.
Today’s nonmonogamists……..are very different from the free-love pioneers of the sixties and seventies. ….. They are not rebelling against commitment per se; they are looking for more realistic ways to make their vows last, and have concluded that the quest includes lovers. The form this takes can vary enormously – from married couples who allow each other occasional “hall passes”, to swingers who play with others together, to established three- or foursomes, to complex poly-amorous networks that are reconfiguring love and family life.
Trust, loyalty, and attachment come in many forms. As feminist theorist Shalanda Phillips notes, “Experiences such as these call into question the integrity of monogamy as a stable construct, not rejecting it intact, but pulling it apart from the inside out.” Rather than simply dismissing monogamy, these nonconformists aim for a more holistic, malleable definition of the term, one that no longer rests solely on the pedestal of sexual exclusiveness. Hence some observers, including psychologist Tammy Nelson, have characterized this movement not as nonmongamy but as a “new monogamy” – a shift in the way the architecture of commitment is designed and constructed.
Excerpt from The State of Affair by Esther Perel – page 259-261
For many people, sexual exclusivity feel inextricable from trust, security, commitment, and loyalty. It seems unimaginable that we could retain those virtues in a more permeable relationship. However, as the psychiatrist Stephen B. Levine posits, changing values is an integral part of life experience. We do it with our political and our religious values, as well as with our professional ones. So why not with our sexual ones as well? He invites us to recognize that our values evolve as we mature and “move from an understanding of ethical and moral issues in black and white absolutist terms to comprehending the gray ambiguity of most matters.”
….there is tremendous merit in having open discussions about the subject of monogamy and the nature of fidelity, whether they result in open marriage or not.
Excerpt from The State of Affair by Esther Perel – page 263-264
Navigating the monogamy continuum
If you thought infidelity was a polarizing topic, monogamy is even more so. Its another of those typically “for or against” standoffs. People go instantly to the notion of “closed” and “open”, caught in a binary perspective. Either you’re sleeping only with your spouse or you’re sleeping with everyone else. There are no gradations – you cannot be mostly monogamous or 95 percent faithful. Dan Savage has attempted to soften the hard edges with his term “monogamish“, which signifies remaining emotionally committed to each other but making space for the third, whether in fantasy, flirtation, flings, threesomes, sex parties, or Grindr pickups.
My patient Tyrone likes the term because, as he puts it, “It speaks to how there is a fundamental fidelity to our fifteen-year partnership, but it also contains a bit of levity and flexibility, which is great.”
Monogamy is anything but monochromatic, particularly in our digital age. Today we each negotiate our particular brand. We decide whether it allows for fantasizing about someone else while making love to our partner, for extracurricular orgasms, for enjoying memories of one´s wild youth, for porn, for sexting, app browsing, or more. In other words, monogamy exist on a continuum. When you ask people if they are monogamous, I suggest you ask them first what their definition of monogamy is.
Tammy Nelson makes the pertinent observation that most couples live with two separate monogamy contracts. The explicit agreement is their official declaration, like the marriage vows, and it defines the partnership´s overt rules. In contrast, the implicit agreement is unspoken and “may never be openly visited before the commitment ceremony, or even after.” It is a reflection of cultural, religious and personal values. Nelson affirms that contrary to the unified public stance, couples tend to hold very different implicit views of monogamy, and that “often a sudden collision between each partner´s implicit contract precisastes a marital crisis.” In our business, that collision is usually called an affair. Hence, we would rather say what society sanctions and what our partner wants to hear, and keep our truths to ourselves. Not because we are inherently deceptive, but because the culture that we live in provides little space for such frankness.
Having feelings and desires for others is natural, and we have a choice whether to act on them or not.
Excerpt from The State of Affair by Esther Perel – page 265-266
The economics of addition
Today’s intimate commitment is predicated on love.
If we get too close to others, one of us might fall in love with someone else and leave. It´s pure dread that loosening the grip on monogamy, even in the slightest, could unravel the strongest bond.
In my study of desire, there is one question I have taken with me around the globe: “When do you feel the most drawn to your partner?” One of the most common answers I hear is “When others are attracted to him or her.” The triangular gaze is highly erotic, which is why stories like Kyle and Lucy´s are much less unusual that you may expect. Opening up a relationship doesn’t always deplete the intimacy of the couple; sometimes it serves to replenish it. The fantasy of inviting a third comes in many variations – imagining, enacting, watching, joining in, waiting at home, listening behind a door, enjoying the detailed report.
“Monogamy and non monogamy feed off each other and are inextricably linked”, writes therapist Dee McDonald. Her focus is swingers, but I would extend the observation to many inclusive couples. Sex with others isn’t only about being with others. “It is perhaps more accurate to consider it is rather intricate, perhaps dangerous, methods of teasing and arousing the primary partner.” McDonald raises the pertinent question: When couples are physically interacting with another, while psychologically and emotionally interacting with each other. “Who is having sex with whom?”
Couples using others for a libidinal reboot is common enough, but it doesn’t always last.
“I am not looking to replace you,” Phil insists. But Xavier is rattled. “It´s not that we’re choosing other people as well as each other – it´s that we’re choosing other people instead of each other.
Sadly for this couple outsourcing sex has led to a recession at home.
Consensual non monogamy requires both sexual diversity and initmacy, crossings and barriers. They (Phil and Xavier( have favored variety over closeness, and this is depleting their relationship.
Philosopher Aaron Ben-Zeév makes a distinction between two relationship models, one defined by exclusiveness, the other by uniqueness. The first one focuses on what is forbidden with another, whereas the second one centers on what is special with the beloved. One emphasizes the negative consequences; the other, the positive possibilities. I ask Xavier and Phil to consider: “If sex is something you share with others, what is exceptional to the two of you?” Exploring this question together helps them reclaim their common ground without giving up their freedom.
Excerpt from The State of Affair by Esther Perel – page 267-270
The non monogamy playbook
In order for commitmentsto take on a new meaning beyond sexual exclusivity, we need to talk about boundaries.
Common features include stipulations around honesty and transparency.
“Fluid” is an important term in these discussions, and not just in reference to the bodily variety. The boundaries in these carnal contracts are more fluid than the rigid restrictions of traditional monogamy, designed to be inclusive and adaptable. This distinction is particularly well captured by scholar and activist Jamie Heckert, who highlights the difference between boundaries and borders:
“Whereas borders are constructed as unquestionably right…boundaries are what is right at the time, for particular people involved in a particular situation…Whereas borders claim the unquestionable and rigid authority of law, boundaries have a fluidity, and openness to change; more like a riverbank, less a stone canal. Borders demand respect, boundaries invite it. Borders divide desirables from undesirables, boundaries respect the diversity of desires.”
Boundaries vary greatly from one relationship to another, and they may also vary between partners. Partner A may feel fine about Partner B having intercourse with someone else, but prefer no kissing, while Partner B may be comfortable with Partner A doing what she likes. Partner C doesn’t want to know much at all – just a text so he’s not caught unawares. Partner D wants to be told the granular details in person, while he is holding her. These differing preferences speak to what the popular contemporary author Tristan Taormino calls the “myth of equality” – the common assumption in conventional relationships that each partner has the same needs and desires. Equality, she explains, has become synonymous with symmetry, leading couples to override the differences that likely exist between their sexual needs and emotional sensitivities. In these new contracts, symmetry is not required; agreement is.
…..”a monogamy of the heart.”
While uneven agreements may be a good fit for some, they work best when based on differing preferences rather than on power imbalances.
Their negotiation about fluidity is compromised because she is too vulnerable. Nonmonogamy requires equal footing and trust. A couple needs shared agency when they are going to enter an open relationship. Both parties need to feel that they are choosing from a position of parity. Successful non monogamy means that two people straddle commitment and freedom together.
Inequality, gender, power, and a solid foundation are all considerations that need to be addressed before broaching how to open up a relationship.
Excerpt from The State of Affair by Esther Perel – page 270-274
Beta testing new families
Many people are looking for a safe place to examine feelings like jealousy without being told that the presence of those feelings is proof that these groupings don’t work.
Michael Shernoff …..“Couples who successfully negotiate sexual non exclusivity”, he wrote, “are, whether not they are conscious of it, bing genuinely subversive, in one of the most constructive ways possible…by challenging the patriarchal notion that there is only one “proper” and “legitimate” (heteronormative) way that loving relationships should and need to be conducted.”
What is your monogamy agreement?
Excerpt from The State of Affair by Esther Perel – page 278-279