Over at Shades of Grey, Charlie’s written a thought-provoking essay defining nonmonogamy and infidelity. What Charlie means by a nonmonogamous relationship is a serious relationship in which all parties involved consent to having multiple sexual partners.
What is infidelity, then? In Charlie’s view, there can be infidelity in a nonmonogamous relationship, but the two are not tantamount. In most monogamous relationships, there is an assumed promise between both partners that each will have sex only with the other. Charlie writes. With such an assumption, it is easy to see how sex becomes the focus of infidelity. But in a nonmonogamous relationship, both partners recognize that it is not the sex itself that is wrong, it is the broken promise. “Cheating” is anything that breaks a promise to one’s significant other. For a nonmonogamous couple, that could mean violating the terms of the agreement the couple has reached (e.g., no sex with exes, or no outside relationships without talking about it first).
Jettisoning the automatic assumption of complete monogamy that permeates our society would encourage couples to hash out the terms that work for them. How much flirting is okay? What about porn? Are strip clubs okay or off-limits? What constitutes cheating? Many couples probably define things differently from one another, and clear communication of their expectations is key to avoiding hurt feelings or a sense of betrayal. If a husband thinks it’s cheating only if there’s sex involved but his wife thinks that kissing or romantic conversations also constitute cheating, it’s going to get ugly if he’s making out at the office party.
I think it’s crucial for any couple to discuss where their comfort zones are and how they define the limits. Just as couples strive to reach agreement on where they’ll live, how or if they’ll raise children, how they save and spend money, and who does the laundry, it makes sense to talk about where they draw the lines on sexual matters. Many couples commit, at least nominally, to traditional “forsaking all others” monogamy, but they do still need to hash out the particulars on issues like flirting and how they define cheating.
I’m sure every one of you has examples from your own relationships of conflicts that arose as a result of differing definitions and expectations. Were you able to talk it out and reach an agreement, or were your views so divergent that you couldn’t get past the issue? In a minor example, I finally gave up asking Mr. Tangerine to unroll his rolled-up shirt sleeves before tossing a shirt in the hamper; it pissed me off for a few years that he’d never do that, but eventually I realized that it was a stupid thing to make an issue of. And he finally realized it wouldn’t kill him to put the bottle opener back where he found it. On the bigger issues, he and I generally reach a mutual agreement. With the little things we argue about chronically (e.g., who dawdles in which troublesome fashion before road trips), we really ought to come to terms once and for all, and quit having the same routine spats. Really, after 17 years together, shouldn’t we be over the routine-spat thing? Gotta work on that.