When it comes to relationships, most of us have inherited a very clearly prescribed version as the acceptable cultural norm. This ideal looks something like this: two people meet, feel some attraction, fall in love, form a bond, call themselves a couple, and from that point on they commit to devoting to each other all their time, energy, desire and attraction, and most importantly, their body. Anything outside of that we then call cheating.
As a tragic romantic and self-confessed love addict (in recovery), I have spent much of my life believing in and aspiring to this relational ideal. However over time and through a few experiences on both sides of the cheating equation, and of course through my years of study and work in the relationship field, I have realised that there are some extreme flaws in this design.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you that monogamy is extinct and that we should all go and join some weird sex cult. While a life of free love may be fun and all, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s the whole point; there is no “right way” to do relationship!
There are many relationship styles available, and I’m not an advocate for one or the other. But I am an advocate for people making fully empowered decisions about what’s right for them, and then working out how to create a relationship around that with their beloved(s).
There are of course a few alternatives to the common monogamy model of relationships;
- polyamory – the practice of engaging in multiple sexual and/or emotionally committed relationships with the consent of all people involved
- polygamy – the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time
- open relating – a marriage or relationship in which both partners agree that each may have sexual relations with others
- swinging – the act of engaging in group sex or the swapping of sexual partners as a couple.
A non-monogamous lifestyle has its appeal and polyamory has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, but it’s definitely not an easy path and not for the faint hearted. So what is the appeal?
In her latest book, The State of Affairs, Esther Perel tells us that “affairs are both an act of betrayal, and an expression of longing and loss.” A relationship transgression can be motivated by many common factors including; a yearning for novelty, to feel alive, a desire for freedom, the rush of risk, a longing to be loved/valued/appreciated/desired. And of course, if your relationship lacks any of these, the likelihood of a transgression increases.
Non-monogamy, if done well, can provide a space to have these experiences whilst also having the benefits that come with a committed partnership and loving connection. What it also provides for you is a very real understanding of your fears, insecurities and delusions of ownership, which is really important to know.
But if non-monogamy just isn’t for you, how can you create a monogamy that works for you both and which also provides the appeal and benefits of sexual freedom?
What I know for sure is that, no matter how healthy your relationship is, you will never stop feeling attraction and desire for others – and if you think it all disappears when you’re in a loving relationship then you are setting yourself up for a great deal of pain and disappointment!
We are all sexual beings and we will always feel desire and attraction for many people. This is not only natural, it is very healthy therefore should be nurtured.
If you pretend that your desire for others doesn’t exist and relegate it to the dark cupboard where you secretly keep all your ex’s photos and love letters, your desire will start to operate covertly and get you into trouble. So why not embrace it? This doesn’t mean you have to act on all your desires of course, but it does mean you can bring them out into the open, share and discuss them. Maybe there’s a way to give your desires some airplay without causing pain?
My belief is that 90% of relationship transgressions could be avoided with some very clear, honest, and courageous conversations. And while polyamory may not be a perfect answer, there is one thing that poly people generally do a lot better than the monos, and that is communicate effectively about boundaries and relationship agreements. Of course, that doesn’t mean that poly people always stay within the agreements!
If we are to reduce the likelihood of cheating, we first need to define what cheating means for us.
Most monogamous relationships are balancing on the edge of a mountain of assumptions. The conversation never happens until it’s too late; shit happens, one partner feels betrayed and the other is branded a cheater. Yet the definition was never made, the lines were ambiguous.
What is a YES or a NO in your relationship will look very different for everyone; for some, flirting may be a big NO, for some it’s a YES. What about watching porn? Texting an ex? A dinner date? Keeping your Tinder profile? Sharing a bed with someone else without sex? Non-penetrative sex? The diversity of possible agreements is endless, and they can be fluid. What is a NO today may be a big fat YES tomorrow – It is crucial to communicate this leaving no room for guessing.
In my opinion, while relationship style labels can be useful to provide a framework for you to work with, it is necessary to be clear on what it means for you and your partner.
So how about you drop the labels and design your own version of relationship. Grab a pen and paper, write down all your fears, desires and fantasies, all of your YESs, Nos and MAYBEs, then sit down with a glass of wine and have a deep, rich and joyously edgy conversation to create your perfect relationship blueprint.