Fidelity vs Monogamy: Do You Need Both?
Last year I entered into an open relationship, partly out of curiosity and partly because the man in question knocked my socks off. Both of us had the occasional other lovers who we wanted to continue seeing, very occasionally, and we lived two hours apart, so neither of us was intimidated by the idea of being non-monogamous. Because we fell in love, we considered ourselves ‘primary’ partners, making all others secondary in a nod to the comfort of our biological drive to pair bond.
Saying you’re open can come across as a justification for sleeping around, imply you don’t have the emotional skills to commit to a ‘real’ relationship, or that you’re so bent on living a life less ordinary that you’re willing to suffer through the heart stomping emotion of knowing your partner is fucking someone else. Why did we choose to be open instead of just discreet? Because I never wanted to have to lie to a person I loved, even if a lie was the kindest thing to do. I don’t disagree with the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude which pragmatically prevails in Europe. However, having grown up in the U.S., I’m genetically programmed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me god. It’s a terrible burden.
But being open can evolve to be just as secure as an exclusive deal. Because what is more important to a thriving relationship is fidelity, not monogamy. The definition of fidelity is a faithfulness to a person, cause or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support. Whereas monogamy is defined as the practice or state of having a sexual relationship with only one partner. Many people I’ve asked didn’t initially believe there was a difference between the two words, likely due to the fact that infidelity denotes sexual transgression. But fidelity and monogamy are very different and I believe only one is truly crucial to a successful long term relationship.
Since the beginning of time, people have been having affairs. It’s only our attitudes towards them that have changed. When marriage was essentially an economic contract, lovers outside the marriage were expected and tolerated (for men at least). As the notion of romantic love grew, we started to believe that love should put limits on sexuality, and so marriage became associated with monogamy. But monogamy in the age of feminism, economic prosperity, and unprecedented longevity, combined with raising families in tiny houses, is a tenuous proposition. Wanting to get physical with someone outside the confines of our domestic drudgery is not a weakness. It’s an escape valve that can be used responsibly.
Alas, affairs are viewed by most as an affront to a healthy relationship. They certainly are if the two of you are operating under the assumption that sex outside the partnership is forbidden. But what is at the root of indignation over the affair? I think it’s fear. As I wrote in my article about jealousy, the thought that an affair may blow apart the home, kids, and economic stability of all parties, is enough to make anyone’s autonomic nervous system go into overdrive. It’s not so much the sex as it is the fear of what the sex may lead to that causes us to go wild with despair and decide our mates are untrustworthy scoundrels. What we fear losing is the fidelity of our partnership, that copilot to help raise the kids, a mate with whom we’ve had more laughter than tears at the end of a very long decade. Even without kids, it can be deeply satisfying to have a number one fan to come home to at night. A mutual fidelity to this can create a foundation from which we thrive.
Having an open relationship was a challenge mostly because it tested the concept of fidelity. Can two people really have something special if they get naked with other partners? I think so. There were fits and starts for us. Some evenings the hanky didn’t cut it and I had to blow my nose into a t-shirt. But what we were able to do over time was create a fidelity that felt unassailable. We prioritized each other, we laughed and loved and had spine tingling sex. We always wished each other goodnight even when apart and with other people. It took effort but so does any satisfying relationship. It’s a different kind of work to accept that your number one fan is rocking his hips between another woman’s legs.
I never doubted my partner loved me. And that was oodles more important than his drive to have sex with other women. Certainly, people get closer when they have sex with each other and it’s possible my lover would fall in love with someone else. But we had freedom and we had trust and ironically we started sleeping with others less the longer we dated. Show a partner your love for them by giving up your need that they ‘love’ only you, and you’ll find yourself with many moths, or just that one, dancing around your flame of generosity.
One big irony was that we did much better the less we spoke about any of our other encounters. I’ve read books about how people in non-monogamous relationships should over communicate in order that everyone’s feelings get heard. But if you’re truly devoted to a primary partner, treat that relationship with the respect and kindness it deserves by not bringing up the others. I wouldn’t enjoy hearing my partner wax blissfully about his other lover. Surely, creating an unshakable fidelity means using your time together to say and do things that only reinforce the importance of the bond between the two of you. If you’re not explicitly open and are thinking of having an affair, be sure you can say to yourself that your loyalty to your current relationship is paramount. Otherwise pick up the phone and book a therapy appointment, because you’re going to use an affair to ignore the festering problems you already have.
Admitting the significant difference between fidelity and monogamy could go a long way in avoiding a family bust up when two people find themselves confronted with sexual infidelity. And though I’m not advocating open relationships, having one is certainly a fascinating exercise in figuring out your own relationship style. Monogamy is easier because the rules are well established. But I’d rather have a rock solid partnership without exclusive rights to another person’s body parts, than a mate who feels trapped within the expectations of tradition. If you have any experience with an open relationship, I’d love to hear from you, what your challenges have been and why it’s a choice you’ve made.
Have a question or comment? Write to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
4 thoughts on “Fidelity vs Monogamy: Do You Need Both?”
There is too much non understanding in this article to comment on, however if I limit my discussion to the observation “Alas, affairs are viewed by most as an affront to a healthy relationship.” I would point out that a full and complete deconstruction as to what a ‘healthy relationship’ is would automatically address the non understanding that I allude to. I do not see that anyone, not academics, not popular articles like this, has indicated a real grasp or indeed any grasp of the depth of the question ‘what is a healthy relationship’. That to me is both unfortunate and astounding. Before even attempting to answer the question, I’d have to first outline how deep it goes.
I’m struggling with this concept.
My partner and I have not been together very long, but right from the start, he has implied that he feels that an element of openness would not be out of the question. In fact, I suspect that this has already happened but he has been kind enough not to mention it.
I have a deep aversion to infidelity. My ex-husband had a number of one-night stands throughout our marriage and eventually left me before sleeping with the object of his desire, because he could not, in his words ‘face the guilt’.
Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I cannot see how being having sex with others outside of the primary relationship can deepen intimacy unless, as you claim, it serves to confirm who you want to devote your fidelity to.
So maybe I’ve just answered my own question and should let sleeping dogs rest peacefully as stirring them may result in my being badly bitten.
I completely understand your feelings; non-monogamy is not an easy thing for most of us. What I’ve come across since writing this piece, is that research suggests some of us are simply wired to be monogamous and others are wired to fool around. There’s conjecture that this tendency is influenced by the attachment styles we establish in childhood. Without getting too detailed, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be clear about what style you have, communicate that with your partner, and be prepared for him to disagree. Having different opinions about what is ok and not ok when it comes to sex is a relationship breaker.
Karin, you hit the nail on the head.
I have always known myself to be “Polyamourous” and made sure when I got married to do so under vows that respected that. I intended, and continue to intend, to love and support my wife to the end of our days and share the burdens and joys of a family and a homestead.
Unfortunately my wife did not know herself as well, she was clear she loved me and that I was the man for her, but in her heart of hearts she has found that she is monogamous, and not just the “I only see one person at a time” serial monogamy, but one lover for this lifetime monogamy.
You can imagine the tension this caused over the intervening decade plus! Myself behaving monogamously since my love for her and our kids was the most important thing. Her knowing I did not consider sex with another anything wrong in itself and knowing the only reason I did not was the threat of loosing the family over it.
Now as we approach 20 years together (and one incident of ‘cheating’ I have to admit) I have finally let go of my fear of loosing everything and she has let go of the panic part of her reaction.
We are now on a new experiment that is going surprisingly well. She let me know a few months ago that she was not going to have sex with me any more since I identified Poly even if I acted Mono. Interesting.
Well that is what I have been doing and it has been going well. Going well in the most important way, my marriage is improving! She is happily Celibate (with one lovely relapse into my arms) and though I’m getting laid even less than I was before (how do you find the time to date, and then find someone you really connect with?) but so relieved to be ‘out’ as poly and be able to treat my relationships honestly again.
The tension of the long truce is over and now the skies are open. Neither of us know what the next year will bring, but we both know we love each other and will do our best to do right by the other even if our relationship needs to change. Will I go back to acting mono willingly this time, having learned that dating bears limited fruits? Will she realize that my Poly identity does not mean I have any less fidelity to her or our life together and be content being my ‘primary’? Will we realize that we are not meant to be spouses and find a way to separate amicably? I have no idea, I am of course hoping for the middle option, her love and understanding though has made it possible for me not to fear the last option and thus be coerced into the first, for which I am exceedingly grateful.
Whatever we do from here on out will be more mature, more respectful of eachother’s sexual identity, and true to what we both saw 20 years ago, that in that other person is an ally, for a lifetime.