I grew up - as most of us did - with monogamy as a given. Anything else was "cheating" or an "affair." Sure, there were some of those wild artist types on some Greek island or was it Tuscany? who lived--and presumably had sex--communally. But "normal" people? They picked one, had sex with one and kept their longings and lusts for others to themselves. And if partners (usually men) "strayed," well, that was a crisis, though never talked about openly. (In my mother's time, it wasn't just a crisis, it was the fault of the woman "who couldn't keep her man." Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!)
Today, we talk more openly about sex and in a more complete way -- our longings, our desires, our fears, our disappointments. Esther Perel, in her book, "Mating in Captivity," talks about exploring our desires and our sexuality by cultivating a "sexual ruthlessness," that frees us from guilt and shame.
So, I wonder if we were all ruthless about our own sexuality, if more of us would choose monogamy. I wonder if monogamy is a useful mechanism to keep families intact and society safe from upheaval, or a trap that binds us into stifled, increasingly unerotic relationships? Given that anywhere from 25-75% of people have a sexual encounter outside their committed relationship--and usually lie about it--it's clear that monogamy isn't for everyone.
We value monogamy, and there's a lot to be said for its stabilizing effect on the family. I remember a workshop with Byron Katie (www.thework.org), who said, "I choose to be monogamous because, for me, it's simpler." For her--and many others--it's simpler to not deal with all the complicated emotions that having sex with others brings up.
For me, it comes down to honesty. To be truly connected, to see and be seen by those we love and trust, we must be honest. Vulnerable. Open. Clear. Truthful. You can't do that and have sex with others when you've promised to just have sex with your one; you can't do that and lie. (And sex isn't the only betrayal--or even the worst one--we can make. We also promise not to bankrupt our partners through gambling, to hit and hurt them, to endanger our children's lives, to drive drunk, to mock and show contempt for them--and we do all that.)
And I think it's interesting that many people report having outside sex because...well, they want to be sexual with others. Not because they are unhappy in their marriages. Or because their mate doesn't satisfy them sexually. This goes across the spectrum--men, women, hetero, gay, pansexual, you name it.
We need to start talking about sex beyond monogamy. We need to stop framing our sexuality so tightly. We need to create a new language beyond "cheating" and "faithful" and "affair." We need to open up our intimate relationships to other ways of being sexual--maybe be "monogamish," as sex columnist Dan Savage calls it. We need to say it's okay to be single, to be asexual, to be polyamorous, to be "monogamish." And above all, to be free from shame and being shunned, so that we can be honest about our sexuality.
That is the aim of successful other-than-monogamous couples: to be open and honest with their main partners, to deal with jealousy and hurt as it comes up, to set limits, to make (and keep) agreements. And, above all, to be true to who they are. I say we should all have that goal--those of us who choose just one sexual partner in a committed relationship, and those of us who don't. It's about choice and being able to be truly ourselves with the one(s) we love.