Studies show that between 30 and 60 percent of married individuals in the United States will cheat on their partner at some point in their marriage. Infidelity has increased significantly among married couples in their 20s, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that, "Between 1991 and 2006, the numbers of unfaithful wives under 30 increased by 20 percent and husbands by a whopping 45 percent." Even without knowing these exact figures, the majority of us are well aware of the prevalence of infidelity in our culture. Most people have either cheated, been cheated on, or know someone close to them who has been involved in one of these circumstances. Many people assume that affairs are symptoms of larger problems in a relationship. However, a statistic offered in the Psychotherapy Networker article "The New Monogamy" points out that "35 to 55 percent of people having affairs report they were happy in their marriage at the time of their infidelity."
When it comes to their intimate relationships, individuals can make any decision they want about monogamy, as long as this decision is mutually agreed upon by both partners. As the Networker article suggests, many couples have made exceptions to sexual fidelity or are taking alternative approaches to their sexual freedom. Yet, no matter what the agreement is, there is one fundamental quality that, if compromised, can destroy a relationship: honesty. A study published this year by the International Society for Sexual Medicine showed that "unfaithful individuals are less likely to practice safer sex than openly nonmonogamous individuals." Riskier sex is more common among people who are having secretive affairs than those who are openly engaging in extramarital relationships. Thus, one might say that in both a physical and emotional sense, the dangers of non-monogamy truly lie in the deception.
Whatever their decision is regarding monogamy, if two people want their relationship to stay strong, they must strive to be open and truthful and to ensure their actions always match their words. As the Networker article describes it, "The key to these arrangements, and what makes them meaningful within the framework of emotional commitment, is that there can be no secrecy between partners about the arrangements." The trouble is that, too often, affairs go hand-in-hand with sneakiness, deception, and distrust, three elements that can destroy a close relationship.
So how do we keep our own relationship healthy and honest? While this may seem counter-intuitive, what I've found in my 25 years of experience as a psychologist and researcher working with couples is that avoiding affairs often means offering our partners more freedom, increased independence, and open communication. Maintaining intimacy means breaking down restrictions and building up trust. It means staying close to someone without losing your unique sense of self. Here are some of the do's and don'ts that help keep couples excited about each other and less likely to grow apart.
• Hold on to your friendships. Your friends bring out different aspects of your personality that are authentically you, and this helps keep you from losing yourself in your relationship. Good friends also offer diverse and distinct attributes to our lives. This counters the unrealistic pressure we put on ourselves to get everything from just one person or one relationship.
• Expand your world, make new friends, and try new things. Research shows that having a number of close friends adds years to your life. When relationship partners shrink their worlds to accommodate each other, the relationship suffers. Instead, meet your partner's friends and have him or her meet yours. Try new activities together, and be open to each other's interests.
• Keep being the individual you were before you got in the relationship. When you give up aspects of yourself, you stop being the person your partner fell in love with. When you mold yourself to suit your partner, whether he or she asks for it or not, you lose your vitality and your relationship suffers.
• Allow your partner to keep his/her friends (regardless of their sex). When you restrict your partner's movement, he/she will start to resent you and may become less straightforward to avoid dealing with your reaction. Your partner needs to keep his/her friends for all the same reasons you need to keep yours. By letting your partner be free, you ensure that you're his/ her "real" choice. You don't want someone to be with you out of obligation, guilt, or fear. You want it to be because they love you (and trust you) for who you are, and because you love them for exactly the same reason.
• Don't lie to your relationship partner, even by omission. This means not engaging in activities with other men or women that you are not willing to disclose to your partner. Deceptions may seem self-preserving in the moment, but they will only drive you apart in the long run. When people find out they've been deceived by a loved one, they will often lose any trust in that person, which then leads to either heightened jealousy, attempts to control, or rejection.
• Don't talk about relationship problems with other potential love interests. Using someone as a confidante, who is not necessarily unbiased or a "friend" of the relationship, is not getting objective advice and may drive you and your partner apart.
• Don't use contact with other people to make your partner jealous. This is a form of manipulation. Even if gets your partner's attention, he or she will resent you for it and think less of you.
• Don't create false expectations in other people who may be interested in you romantically. Be clear about your boundaries. If you aren't, your "friend's" expectations can lead your partner to feel unnecessarily threatened.
• Don't turn your partner into a parent, where you are asking his or her permission to go out or do something on your own. In turn, don't restrict your partner by imposing too many restraints on his/her actions. This creates a parent-child dynamic of inequality in your relationship that will have a ripple effect. Eventually this pattern of relating may cause you to feel resentful and your partner to feel like he or she is in control. Instead of acting out these parental or childish attitudes, you can strive to engage your partner in a respectful conversation between two equal and caring adults. In this framework, you can both express your desires, while taking your partner's thoughts and feelings into serious consideration.
If our goal is to enjoy a rich and sustainable relationship, it is essential to maintain equality, honesty, respect, and individuality. And, in many cases, these characteristics can exist among couples whether or not they've decided to be sexually exclusive. Sex columnist Dan Savage has stirred up controversy by talking about unrealistic or unnatural expectations we impose on monogamous relationships, even suggesting that, in some cases, "non-monogamy can strengthen a marriage." Yet, for this to be possible, Savage has stressed the unwavering importance of honesty and openness. In an interview with NPR, Savage stated, "For a nonmonogomous relationship to function properly, properly meaning no blood, no tears, both persons involved have to agree on a set of rules."
Whatever this set of rules may be for a couple, whether insisting on monogamy or making certain exceptions, that is for them alone to decide. What matters is that once we've decided and agreed upon the terms of our relationship, we must stand by these decisions. In doing so, we offer our partner and ourselves a certain degree of freedom and respect as the separate individuals we are. We are then free to love our partner for who they are, not as extensions of ourselves or people we must control, watch out for, or feel suspicious toward. When two people in a couple accept and appreciate each other's uniqueness and independence, they're often surprised by how much closer they get to each other. When we give up some control, we frequently find that we gain much more than we lose.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on Relationships at PsychAlive.org