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The New Monogamy

Social monogamy, not sexual monogamy, is emerging as the new norm.

This post is in response to
FAQ About Sex at Dawn (II)

The current issue of the journal Psychotherapy Networker has an article titled "The New Monogamy." Author Tammy Nelson says she wrote this piece in response to statistics suggesting that over half of married couples were not strictly monogamous, and the growing number of clients she was seeing whose extra marital affairs couldn't be explained away as symptoms of a dysfunctional marriage.

Ms. Nelson observes that "One major impediment to the view that an affair indicates that something is profoundly wrong in the marriage, however, is that 35 to 55 percent of people having affairs report they were happy in their marriage at the time of their infidelity. They also report good sex and rewarding family lives. So how can we continue viewing affairs as symptoms of dysfunctional marriages when apparently so many of them seem to happen to otherwise "normal," even happy couples? The one-size-fits-all view of infidelity never questions the standard model of monogamy, much less helps a couple explore a new model of monogamy that might work better for them and their own particular marriage. Furthermore, a therapist who takes sides, implicitly vilifying one partner as "bad," endorsing the other as "good," is much likelier to lose the couple early on, since infidelity is rarely a black-and-white issue."

One might think her points are obvious, and to most people identifying as polyamorous, they are hardly earthshaking, but in the world of mononormativity, these are radical notions. Question the standard model of monogamy? No way. No matter that Dr. Robert Francouer and his wife Anna presented a very similar idea and argument which they called flexible monogamy way back in the 1970's in their book Hot and Cool Sex. It seems to have taken forty years for much of the world to begin noticing that the concept of lifelong fidelity is just not realistic for most people. And many still seem to take it as a personal affront when someone insists upon grappling with the facts.

Ms. Nelson's excellent article goes on to define "the new monogamy" as follows:
"The new monogamy is, baldly speaking, the recognition that, for an increasing number of couples, marital attachment involves a more fluid idea of connection to the primary partner than is true of the "old monogamy." Within the new notion of monogamy, each partner assumes that the other is, and will remain, the main attachment, but that outside attachments of one kind or another are allowed-as long as they don't threaten the primary connection."

"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 fidelity resides in the fact that these couples work out openly and together what will be and will not be allowed in their relationships with Party C, and maybe Parties D, E, and F. To couples engaged in the new monogamy, it isn't the outside sexual relationships themselves, but the attendant secrets, lies, denial, silences, and hidden rendezvous that make them so destructive to the marriage. Rightly or wrongly, today, many couples consider that honesty and openness cleanse affairs, rendering them essentially harmless."

Sounds an awful lot like polyamory to me, but when I spoke with Ms. Nelson, she assured me that it was not. In the new monogamy, the focus is on the marriage, she asserts. They're not trying to include other sexual partners, they're just acknowledging that other attractions happen and an affair, especially if it's above board, doesn't have to mean divorce. She feels that the primary role of the therapist is to facilitate a conversation in which the couple make their implicit assumptions about the rules of their marriage explicit and then negotiate any differences in assumptions to a win-win conclusion. Hmm. Great idea. In fact, I've been doing this for years.

It still sounds like open marriage to me, and open couples are by far the most common form of polyamorous relationship. But if people want to call it new monogamy, that's ok with me so long as they understand what they mean by that.

In fact, I think it heralds the acceptance of non-monogamy as a new norm in the culture. Back in the 1950's serial monogamy was called serial polygamy. It was only when it was renamed serial monogamy that it became accepted as the most common style of marriage. So let's hear it for the new monogamy.

As Christopher Ryan points out in his Sex at Dawn blog, we often confuse sex and love. Long term "social monogamy" is common both in humans and other species, but it doesn't always translate into "sexual monogamy" or exclusivity. This doesn't mean everyone should have an open marriage, and it doesn't mean that they should have secret affairs. These only two of many possibilities.

To me, the whole point of polyamory is to recognize that we're not all the same and we need different relationship options at different times in our lives.

The best thing our society can do right now is to open up the conversation on marriage and family to as many different points of view and types of life experience as possible. Those who've been openly exploring non-monogamy for decades have a wealth of knowledge but are often marginalized. Thank you Tammy Nelson and Christopher Ryan for bringing this conversation into the mainstream!

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