DEAR CAROLYN: While “happily married” to me, my wife fell in love with another man. Their affair lasted several years. She stayed with me but was devastated when he dumped her. I was devastated when she confessed. The damage to our marriage has taken years to heal, and it seems unlikely that we will ever re-establish the level of honesty and intimacy we previously shared.
Based on our and others’ experiences, I have concluded that our cultural obsession with monogamy is a destructive fairy tale. We can all experience love for more than one person at a time, and will likely do so over the course of our increasingly long lives. We respond by engaging in secret affairs, divorces (serial monogamy) and/or by channeling our frustrations into fantasy (pornography, prostitution).
The more honest among us promote “open marriage” or “polyamory” – difficult lifestyles to maintain, particularly in the face of religious prohibitions and community disapproval. What are your thoughts on this seemingly ageless human predicament?
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DEAR J.: Just one thought. Intimacy.
There is no one answer that suits every couple. The people who say that vows are paramount are right, that more than one love is possible are right, that monogamy is an antique concept being tested by modern lifespans are right. The people are also right who say arrangements within a couple are not the business of those outside it, except perhaps any children these arrangements fail to serve.
The responses to this “destructive fairy tale” that tend to go horribly wrong – tracking down exes online, secret affairs, porn, among others – are the unilateral ones, where one partner acts in secret, usually in an attempt both to satisfy a desire and leave the committed relationship unchanged. These attempts at having and eating one’s cake are built on wishful thinking: Energy diverted outside the committed relationship is energy drawn from it, weakening it. Plus, secrecy itself changes a couple. If you want the extracurriculars then you can’t have the domestic status quo, and vice versa.
That is, unless your approach, whatever it is, is part of your relationship.
I don’t mean polyamory, which is far from a universal answer, but it has one at its heart: What you do, agree on it. I'll add: What you think, air it; what you feel, face it. Intimacy alone covers all the variables of connubial blahs and outside attractions.
Since couples who communicate well handle monogamy best, the ideal solution actually precedes the problem: Don’t commit to someone who won’t communicate with you warmly, openly, bravely – or learn to, fast.