HER: It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the institution of marriage is in crisis. For years now, divorce rates have been rising, marriage rates declining, and as many as 70% of unions have experienced infidelity … whether both partners are aware of it or not. Therapists, religious leaders, self-help authors, and well-meaning friends all have advice on how to keep your marriage faithful and strong, but, recently, some voices on the fringes have been asking if the faithful part is really that essential. What if the problem with marriage isn’t communication style, money or kids (the things we usually blame)? What if the problem is the expectation to be monogamous when we, as a species, don’t seem to be well-suited to it?
HIM: I guess that’s the big question for most people who think about this issue: is monogamy a struggle because it isn’t natural, or is it a struggle because we, as a society, have lost our self-discipline? It’s a question worth asking. Nobody thinks we should make norms of our worst tendencies. At the same time, fighting against natural urges is generally a losing proposition. Some will point to our nearest primate cousins for guidance — the startlingly sex-crazed bonobo chimps — but would we also want to emulate their other, less attractive qualities?
HER: Good point. Throwing feces is incredibly unattractive. And so is pretending we have definitive answers for any issue of this complexity. We don’t. We’re not experts on human evolution, psychology, or sociology. But we are fascinated by the topic of monogamy for very personal reasons: we have both lived through sexually unfulfilling marriages, and are currently in the best place we’ve ever been sexually and relationally. We’ve invested a lot of time exploring ways to be sure our past frustrations are never repeated, and we want to continue to have the amazing sex life we both value. What we’ve discovered is that monogamy doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Being what some have recently called ‘consensually non-monogamous’ can be at least part of the way we keep our sex life fresh and our relationship ‘faithful’ in the best sense of that word. It may sound crazy, but, for us, it’s working so far.
HIM: The person who seems to be talking the most about this idea is Dan Savage, the sex advice columnist. He coined the term ‘monogamish’ to describe couples who are faithful with a few carefully negotiated exceptions. In a television interview a few years ago he said, “Monogamy is ridiculous. People aren’t any good at it. We aren’t wired for it, we didn’t evolve to be. It’s not natural, and it places a tremendous strain on our marriages and long term commitments to expect them to be effortlessly monogamous.”
HIM: I get what he’s saying, but, so far, infidelity has not been a temptation for either of us. You and I aren’t wondering how to handle our enormous desire to fool around with other people. When we first considered expanding our sexual explorations, we saw it as a way to enhance our enjoyment of each other. It wasn’t about solving a problem; it was simply a way to have more fun together. I liked the idea that we were throwing away the rule book as we explored the world of sex, sampling all the pleasures that are possible for two people.
So I guess, in a way, you could say we were cutting off the desire for variety in advance. If variety is always a part of our sex life, then maybe the lack of it would never become an issue for us.
HER: True. It may sound counter-intuitive, but, for me, having your permission to have sex with other men (and women) takes away the temptation to do it. I suppose it has to do with removing the appeal of the forbidden — a well-known aphrodisiac. But having permission certainly doesn’t take away from the sexual excitement when we enter situations we are both comfortable with. When we experiment, I feel more in love with, connected to and sexually excited by you than ever. When I watch you with another woman, it gives me the critical distance to see you with fresh eyes and fall in love with you all over again.
And this isn’t just our experience. According to therapist Seth Myers, “couples who swing have less fear than monogamous couples. What’s more, they cheat less. Monogamous couples often fall into the toxic jealousy trap, afraid that a particular behavior or gesture might lead to a full-fledged affair and the end of the relationship. Monogamous couples also often fear that their best days are behind them, that they lost the opportunity for sexual excitement in favor of settling down and getting married. On the other hand, swinging couples are often deeply in love and emotionally connected” (Swingers: Mentally Healthier than Monogamous Peers).
Now, I don’t want anyone out there to think these kind of encounters make up the majority of our sex life. When we first started down this path, I was worried about the slippery slope: that we would have to do crazier and crazier things to get turned on. But that hasn’t been the case. We throw in a little extra-curricular adventure a couple times a month. The rest of our time in the bedroom — which is, on average, four or five times a week — is spent having amazing, loving, inventive sex with each other. We find our best orgasms happen in these times.
There are also lines we cannot cross. Everyone has to create their own version of monogamish. Neither of us have a free pass to have sex anytime with anyone. If I found out you were sleeping with someone behind my back, I’d be devastated. The key to my comfort with outside sexual activity is our embarking on it together, with each of us having full veto power. It’s also freeing to know that we can bring up any possibility or desire without being judged or summarily turned down. The only thing that’s off the table is keeping secrets.
HIM: That spirit of openness is why we both like the idea of this blog. Generally, when you hear someone talking about deviating from the strict definition of monogamy, it’s in an abstract way. You might hear it discussed as a social phenomenon, with a certain amount of critical distance, because — let’s face it — our society is still very uptight when it comes to sex.
Haven’t you noticed that even people who seem very liberated rarely talk about sex except in a jokey or judgmental way? How often do you think one man will say to another ‘Last night my girlfriend pulled really hard on my balls and it felt amazing’? That would be real, but it never happens. Saying ‘Did you see the fucking rack on the new girl in accounting’ is not talking about sex in any meaningful way. Aside from being crassly formulaic, it completely avoids the human dimension where joy and disappointment and love and hurt reside. If this blog is going to work it will be because we tell real stories without holding back on the emotions surrounding them.
HER: And have we got some fucking great stories to tell!