Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Coming to terms

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.


JT said...

He is not allowed to flirt, nor do I think he could do so in person anyway, being congenitally shy and fairly asocial. Since we met on the Internet (what nerds), I am a little weird about him e-mailing. However, I'd have to say he's far more conservative than I and I really don't think of him ever cheating.

That being said, a little healthy flirtation that does NOT involve physical contact or serious feelings... that's kinda okay. If I do it. And don't tell him.

Besides, what kind of guy is going to hit on a married, pregnant mother of two? And would I really want him?

DoctorMama said...

We've definitely discussed the ground rules. Flirting -- ok for either of us (though he's a lot better at it than I am). Physical contact, no. And we're both conscious of avoiding the perception of impropriety, especially since we both work with students. We trust each other, but we also try not to spend a lot of time apart. I read about celebrity couples who spend months shooting movies in different locations, and I think I would find it very hard not to wander in those circumstances.
I do sometimes wonder why I think physical monogamy is so important. I really don't know.
We have a policy against routine spats, and it seems to work. There are a few very strange things we've had to come to an agreement on -- for instance, he didn't like the way I flossed my teeth (I said it was strange!). Having a child certainly increases the possible trouble spots, though, so I think it's a work in progress.

Orange said...

Doctormama! I was over at your blog at the exact same time that you were at mine! One of us must be psychic, and I don't think it's me.

Mr. Tangerine likes to bitch at me for reading magazines in the bathroom (while brushing my teeth, drying my hair, whatever). Do you think the time will come when he realizes that complaining about that will never change my habit?

DoctorMama said...

I've never been psychic -- psychotic, maybe.
He won't let you read magazines while brushing your teeth? What's the MATTER with him?!! If I didn't read magazines while toothbrushing etc., my personal hygiene would suffer greatly. Not to mention my grasp of current events.

The Un-Apologetic Atheist said...

I'm in a tight spot, philosophically, because I'm on the road 3-4 days out of every week doing research, out in the middle of nowhere. I even took my partner on one of the trips so she could see the only people I ever encounter are gas station attendants. Recognizing that she is much more sexually driven than I could provide for, I told her it was okay if she wanted to sleep with other people while I was gone-- I don't want to "own" my Lady in any way, so physical nonrestraint seemed the path to take-- yet when I told her that, she started seeing an ex-boyfriend from over 4 years ago for whom she still has feelings (that I had no idea about until after the fact). Suddenly, I was NOT okay with her seeing others, and when she told me that "she loved me more, but loved him differently", I decided to leave.

Monogamy makes no sense to me from a biological perspective, but I think we just have too large of a cultural investment in this idea to let go of it. I'm hoping I can find a happy middle ground on this in the future-- because I don't like making any demands of my partner, and don't see how you can say you love them only under X circumstance... but I know my last foray into nonmonogamy made me miserable.

I guess monogamy is just the "easy" answer.

Orange said...

DoctorMama, you rock! First you speak up as a Hendrik Hertzberg fan and let my friend Kristin know she's not alone in lovin' him, and then you lay claim to literate oral hygiene to back me up.

Atheist, monogamy is definitely the easiest choice in our society, but if you look at the high rates of (unsanctioned) adultery, clearly people aren't as committed to the concept as they claim. Good luck figuring out the right balance for you and your next partner.

.-.lilie.-. said...

Actually, I think most of the time we argue because I want to be perfectly clear and my husband prefers to be more vague. I'd like to spell things out and know exactly what's expected of me, and he'd like for things just to "flow" the way they do without structure. So when I try to define things, he gets frustrated or annoyed. We handle it better now than we used to, and I hope it continues to improve.

We've had lots of little misunderstandings in the past, but we've managed to work through all of them. None of them have been regarding what is acceptable behavior (that may or may not be called cheating) because I think we've always been pretty clear on what's acceptable there.

We recently got married, so we may be in a honeymoon phase - I may have something else to report on the topic in time. =)

Hello, btw - I found you through Bitch PhD and One Good Thing. =)