Monogamy is difficult to maintain. Sure, it’s easy enough at times when your life is devoid of temptation. But unless you and your partner live in isolation in a cottage in the woods, there are no guarantees that an attractive “other” will not emerge — to lure you away and challenge the sanctity of your relationship.
“Oh no,” you think. “Not me. I adore my partner. Things are still so fresh. And I have so much to lose if I were to stray.”
Yes, of course. But research makes it clear that our best intentions are often worthless in the face of a compelling, and possibly unexpected, attraction to another person — someone intent on connecting with us. Those who report having had an extramarital relationship say it was with a close friend, co-worker or long-term acquaintance; these tend not to be random strangers.
What’s more, an act of infidelity is often understood as the “dealbreaker” in relationships. And few people are abhorred more than those known to have “cheated.” Movies, songs and literature are replete with stories depicting the appalling retribution believed owed to those who stray.
Despite all this, studies show that most people have in fact engaged in some type of infidelity in the past or have experienced a partner’s infidelity.
The question arises then: Is it time to ditch, or rethink, monogamy as a standard?
Research shows that most people both expect romantic and sexual exclusivity to be in place very early in their relationships and that they denounce infidelity.
Interviews with newlyweds in the United States indicate that many people expect they and their partner will remain monogamous, despite admitting to having experienced a range of extramarital thoughts and behaviours already, such as flirting with another or feeling aroused in the presence of another.
All industrialised countries, even those purporting to have more tolerant beliefs around the importance of exclusivity, report that monogamy is the dominant pattern in their societies.
Despite strong universal disapproval of infidelity, and despite optimistic expectations, studies show that infidelity remains, year after year, the primary cause of relationship break-ups and divorce.
Now, if you factor in the distress, distrust and discord that infidelity causes to those relationships it does not destroy, you begin to understand the weight of its consequences.
Fantasising about a celebrity lover?
Is monogamy reasonable? Can we ever reconcile the improbability of spending a lifetime (also known as many years) with a partner without ever being drawn to another?
Can we admit that our partners might not meet all of our needs at all times? That we could experience attraction to another without a complete surrender of our rights to a loving and respectful relationship or a wish to abandon our lives to race off with the other person?
These questions are more poignant in light of research indicating that intimate relationships are becoming less rewarding over time even as our expectations of what they should deliver steadily increase.
In most Western countries, belief in the importance of monogamy is strong, yet relatively few individuals actually discuss with their partner what monogamy must entail.
Is online flirting with an ex you will never see again “cheating?” Is fantasising about a celebrity lover being untrue to your One True Love?
Jealousy and suspicion are the tools
A series of studies by psychologist Ashley Thompson makes clear that we are notably inconsistent in the monogamy standards that we hold for ourselves versus those we hold for our partners. For example, we are far more lenient and tolerant in explaining our own versus our partner’s behaviour.
Those who endorse alternative approaches — such as “consensual non-monogamy” which allows for romantic or sexual relationships beyond the primary relationship, with the partner’s consent — argue that monogamous relationships are far less stable because people use jealousy, monitoring and suspicion as tools to hold their partners to this difficult standard.
Individuals in supposedly monogamous relationships are also less likely to practise safe sex when they cheat (putting their primary partner’s health at risk) than are those in consensually non-monogamous relationships. And questions arise about whether you are really practising “monogamy” if you’re exclusive but in relationship after relationship after relationship — that is, for those who change primary partners after just a few years.
Rewriting the fairytale
To discuss dealbreakers in one’s relationship, it is essential for a couple to define what constitutes a betrayal, violation of trust or act of dishonesty.
If a couple can plan ahead of time for the possibility than one or both partners might have an intimate moment with another person at some point, this can reinforce the flexibility, tolerance and forgiveness required to adjust if that happens.
It all depends on the circumstances, of course, but accepting that another person might offer something that we or our partners need can leave couples better-positioned to move forward and adjust or negotiate if necessary, without an entire and irreversible relationship disintegration.
This is key: If we can admit to ourselves that a fleeting attraction, or more meaningful connection, with another partner might not irreparably harm our primary relationship — and indeed might supplement it — then our relationships might survive longer and better.
A new viewpoint requires a willingness to supplant the fairytale — a belief (often cherished) that one person can forever meet all your emotional, romantic and sexual needs.
Lunch is ok, touch is out
This is unlikely to be easy for most of us. The idea of a partner being distracted by another can induce panic in the most stalwart and confident. But insisting upon a fairly unreasonable standard (lifelong exclusivity or else!) can in fact harbour the possibility of secrecy and betrayal.
This is not to say that you or your partner will ultimately connect intimately with another person in any way despite adopting a new viewpoint about exclusivity. It also does not mean you have to agree that “anything goes,” that your relationship becomes an open relationship in the broadest sense of that term, or that anyone at all can enter your private sphere.
It is wise to negotiate some guidelines with your partner — about who or what type of person might be invited to look in on that sphere, for a moment or longer, and what might be acceptable ways to connect with another person (e.g. lunch is okay, touch is out), should the need or want arise.
If you also discuss how best to talk about it, this approach can go far in keeping your relationship truthful, transparent and trusting — making the need for a dealbreaker that much less relevant altogether.
Lucia O'Sullivan is a professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick. This article first appeared on The Conversation (theconversation.com) and current appears in The Independent.