I have had conversations many times recently about monogamy, polyamory, and cheating. Actually, as I have mentioned before, it seems like every day I hear a comment or 20 about someone cheating. Brunching the other morning, a hostess walks in a customer and beams up at him with her stare as she takes him to the bar.
I run into the bartender in the bathroom and ask how long they've been dating... all the signs of NRE* and their energy is palpable.
She tells me that energy is probably the reason she can't get a relationship to last. I laugh. "That's why I'm not monogamous, how can I give that up?".
That triggers something. Non-monogamy.
"Don't you get jealous?" -all the time.
"What if they leave you?"
THIS IS THE QUINTESSENTIAL MONOGAMOUS FEAR.
In monogamy, you chose a person above everyone else to complete you. You promise to never stray, in any way, you promise to support them through everything. That feels safe. That feels real. But we forget that we are not stagnant. We are characters who change and grow, our habits change, our careers, the things we place value on, and even what we are attracted to.
People really do change.
Monogamy is the promise that you will do your best to stay the same person, and to find the other the most interesting, attractive, important, special, compatible person there has ever been for you. But I have news for you: you will not stay the most anything to anyone. There will always be someone prettier, richer, funnier, better in bed, more driven, more inspiring. There will always be some guy in a rock band to the Stepford wife and a driven power attorney to the hippie chick. And everyone has cheated. Maybe not with their bodies, but everyone in a long term relationship has or will find another incredible person that consumes their thoughts. It's as simple as the girl at the coffee shop you frequent on purpose or the business colleague that you do lunch with daily- our emotions fracture from everything we have been taught. Attraction and emotion are incredibly hard to resist but my spouse at home is not worth losing. Do we realize this means that we didn't stop loving them?
Freudian psychology has long taught that people who cheat only do so because there is a problem in their relationship. Self- sabotage. The egg before the chicken. But psychoanalysis doesn't take into account that maybe we never stopped wanting that relationship in the first place. Maybe what is really happening is every cell of your body loves some else also. Or at the very least wants to know them. And what a beautiful thing, to crave knowing someone.
"What if they leave you"
When people can have both, they rarely leave. Monogamous people leave their spouse because it is the only way to get to know the new person. Many times, a person will separate from spouse A just to have time to try out what it would be like to be with spouse B; only to return home, tail tucked, to a lifetime of resentment.
If a person decides not to leave spouse A, and to have an affair, that comes with its own set of broken promises and complications. For starters, secrecy skews the way our emotions escalate. While a regular person develops emotions with direct correlation to their depth and breadth of disclosure (look up Social Penetration Theory), a person engaging in a secret relationship has the added strength of naturally defending the relationship by guarding it- a behavior that automatically creates bonding and protectiveness. On top of that, the feeling of shame that is made by withholding information from a previous information VIP has its own set of addictive tendencies.
It's probably a good time to switch the way we refer to cheating from a lack of respect for primary spouse, to a lack of consent from primary spouse. The reality is, if primary spouse is unaware of any aspect of their relationship, it has breached consent.
To recap, consent is ALL of the following:
-Person is able to rationally agree to what is happening
-Person is not being manipulated or coerced to agree to what is happening
-Person must understand what they are agreeing to (both in terminology and in dynamic expectations)
A person who has agreed to enter into a monogamous relationship has set the agreement that they will not engage in any non-platonic relationship with another person. Once they break that agreement, spouse A is no longer in a consensual relationship. Changing our understanding of cheating to this perspective allows us to use new tools for renegotiation of boundaries and realizing why spouses have a hard time getting over these traumas. Imagine if you had entered an understanding in a sexual experience: you agree to sleep with a person, go to your room, take your clothes off, and suddenly a new person shows up. You had no ability to opt out. You wouldn't even have to watch them sleep with each other to feel infringed upon. This is a stranger. In your bedroom. In your relationship. And you did not agree to this.
We must also acknowledge that, while we are a society that teaches and preaches monogamy, we also teach and preach infidelity. Not only is it in every TV show and radio show, but it's even in cartoons. In the movie Frozen, the main character falls instantly and madly in love (engaged, even!). She later is forced to spend an extended amount of time with another man. Through the movie, we witness her emotions draw toward this new man- we root for him! Although she doesn't physically engage with him, most people in relationships would not have been comfortable with that amount of attention towards a third party. In the end, her original suitor turns out to be a jackass so we get to- FINALLY!- watch her kiss end be with man number 2. We revel in it. And so do our children. And so we continue the lesson of expected monogamy and acceptable borderline infidelity.
At the end of the day, we are not monogamous creatures- not by creation and not by actions. And don't even get me started about the Bible, writer by people to people in a time of total behavioral disarray. We have been raised with the belief that true love will mean no one else will ever catch your eye. But that belief is not only damaging to society, it is a shield behind which we are safe to explore our true desires while sparing ourselves doing any work on our own sense of shame and insecurity.
*NRE: New Relationship Energy