We’re Not “Bad at Sex,” But We Sure Are Bad at Teaching It – Part 4: Monogamy, Polyamory, and why people “cheat:” A guide for the autism spectrum (and perhaps beyond)
We often make terrible, terrible mistakes when we assume that a) monogamy works simply because two people really love each other, or b) that monogamy works for everyone. Neither assumption is true. Without a tremendous amount of sacrifice and hard work, we will eventually lose sexual interest in our partner, or give in to a sexual interest in another person. Often, the person and not the policy (of monogamy vs. polyamory) will dictate what structure should govern your relationship. With one person you might think, “He’s the one!” while with another you might really love them but not want to spend as much time with them. And even in the cases where two people work their butts off to remain “true,” the relationship can end because monogamy was just not the right fit for one or both partners.
This failure can happen even if our commitment to a shared lifestyle (and perhaps children) hasn’t diminished, or that deep down we don’t consider our partners to be any less of a soulmate than they were before. Without great sacrifice and effort, we will act on lustful impulses, or mistake lust for love (and then really make a mistake).
The world is nowhere near a consensus on which relationship structures work best – and for good reason! But, as was discussed in part 3 of this series, we’re all coming to the harsh realization that monogamy is not what we, as humans, were biologically designed for.
I was non-monogamous until I married for the first time at age 25. Prior to that, I think I just couldn’t navigate the complexities of emotional ties that came with monogamous relationships, and I was also exposed (at the time, in the theatre world) to a lot of people, and lastly, I never wanted to lie.
But I also used to have a fascination/ongoing frustration with just the idea of cheating. I didn’t understand why it happened, or why people did it. With relative ease, I could watch gory movies wherein children died, but if a movie portrayed infidelity, it bothered me immensely. This is no contradiction or paradox: if we’re telling our partners, however painfully, that we will not remain exclusive to them, then it is not cheating when we sleep with someone else.
I trusted my first wife unconditionally. The relationship lasted for more than ten years until we amicably divorced. After that, I dated for a bit, but not long, and then married again under the same monogamous rules.
I am now what many sex educators ridicule as “a serial monogamist,” which is someone who has a “no cheating” pact with his or her spouse or partner, but who eventually moves on to a different partner, under the same monogamous rules. A serial monogamist repeats the process, and marries/couples again under the same clear, monogamous conditions. It’s worth noting that historically, lesbian marriages are monogomous most often, while heterosexual couples are in the middle and married gay couples, while no means universally polyamorous, subscribe to monogamy the least. But gay couples also divorce the least, heterosexual couples are again in the middle herein, and lesbian couples divorce at the highest rate. Go figure.
Serial monogamy appeals to many people on the spectrum because the rules are simple, and they are very clear. If you do this (cheat), this will happen (“we’re done”). Think about it: How can we have the social confidence that damaged trust can be repaired, if our spectrum differences prevent us from understanding why someone would hurt us like that in the first place? While important to all relationships, when you’re on the autism spectrum, trust is perhaps an even bigger deal. And also, because sleeping around requires socialization and manipulation, we know that polyamory isn’t a lifestyle that speaks to our strengths – in an open relationship we will almost always be obtaining significantly less “outside action” when compared to our neurotypical partners.
Therefore, we are more willing to trash the relationship than most others, to move onto the next monogamist relationship or more tragically, to give up on sexual activity. Even if we don’t exit the relationship in a sea of hurt and anger, we still justify this abrasive breakup under the philosophy of “Well, I was wrong about that person,” when really, you might not have been. What you might have been wrong about is simply what makes human beings human.
As we move forward, it is important to understand one thing: All relationship structures have agreements in place that can be betrayed, or “cheated on.” A breach of trust will not necessarily hurt more in a monogamous relationship. And we also have to remember that in the course of a long relationship, people aren’t the same people. They change. After a decade, no one is who they once were.
There are others on the spectrum, however, who for equally spectrum-like reasons, abhor monogamy. Think of those of us who have simply realized that “I stink” at relationships, but enjoy sex. Or, think of the spectrum porn actors and sex workers I wrote of earlier, or someone who only wants limited contact – but with more than one person. Think of someone who wants no “primary relationship.”
There are other factors as to whether mono or poly is right for you. For instance, what environment do you live in? In my 28 years of living in New York City it seemed there were opportunities to cheat every couple of weeks or so, and I’m sure my wife had roughly the same experience. But there are a multitude of people in New York, millions upon millions, who lead diverse lives, and have social belief systems that often aren’t practiced outside major metropolises – thus, there were more people open to “doing it” with a married guy. Now, I could instinctively think of those who came on to me as “homewreckers” or immoral. But while such a response is very natural given our conditioning, how are those “loose” women and men hitting on me supposed to know that I don’t have an open, polyamorous relationship with my wife? They may know enough married people with open relationships that their behavior seems perfectly acceptable to them.
But now I live in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a much, much smaller city where it feels like everybody is married, and nobody has affairs. Of course that’s not true, but the opportunity and/or temptation to cheat has been dramatically reduced because of how different the environment is. If someone was more suited to polyamory in Green Bay, I would imagine that cultural pressure would steer him or her naturally, into monogamy…and heartbreak would follow. And while some monogamists might see Green Bay as attractive because of the lack of “temptation,” there is also little to no sexual energy here.
The Ashley Madison Hack
In mid-2015, someone stole the database of a very different kind of online dating website. Breaking into Ashley Madison, a group of skilled computer hackers not only extracted the personal information of Ashley Madison’s 37 million customers, they posted all the contact information online.
Why was this a big deal? Well, Ashley Madison was a membership organization of people specifically looking to cheat on their spouses. Their unapologetically disturbing slogan was “Life is short. Have an affair.” Suddenly, 37 million “cheaters” had been exposed. It was now incredibly easy to type your spouse’s email address into one of the websites hosting the hacked info, and find out immediately if he or she had been a member.
Now Ashley Madison’s marketing was different from other (healthier) dating websites. Instead of telling people to reconsider monogamy, or to have painful but honest conversations with partners about your justifiable desires to sleep with others, Ashley Madison was different in that it brazenly advocated that you lie to your partner.
When the database was released the social fallout was immediate and the pain was immense. People wrote all over the internet about the devastation of finding a spouse’s email on “the list,” or they wrote about how “the justice of it all” made it so funny. Cheering the hackers from the sidelines for having “nailed the bastards,” proud cheater-bashers neglected the more imaginative reasons (other than just being scumbags) for why people might join a site like Ashley Madison:
What if one spouse/partner, for medical reasons, was not able to have sex, and the other partner was using Ashley Madison with the first spouse/partner’s full knowledge and blessing?
What if the marriage was an open one, but because of where they lived (a small and/or conservative area), both spouses had to keep their relationship terms a secret?
What if someone signed up just to think or fantasize about cheating on their partner? In other words, what if after signing up, they did nothing further?
What if the couple were both looking together on Ashley Madison for someone to join them in a threesome?
Do these people deserve to be so outed against their will? Do their families deserve the community consequences? One person used the hacked list and Google Maps to identify all “caught” Ashley Madison users in their small town in Alabama – put dots where they lived, and published the new map online. And even in the cases of the “liars,” do the children of even the worst cheaters deserve this?
And aren’t the so-called cheaters just emulating what so many others do in our society, be it politicians, rich businesspeople, athletes who marry under the terms “I get to cheat but you don’t”? In other words, the people we admire and can’t get enough of in the media?
To close the Ashley Madison story, a Gizmodo writer named Annalee Newitz later examined the data from the Ashley Madison hack, and made startling discoveries. She found that of the almost 37 million addresses “caught,” 31 million plus were male, and only 5.5 million were female. And then after examining the IP addresses she further found that virtually all of those female members were fake profiles.
The site was basically created to cater to heterosexual, male fantasy.
Why Do People Cheat? Here’s What I Found Out
First off, one’s definition of cheating, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. For some people, a strong and loving emotional connection with someone outside your relationship can mean cheating – even if the two never physically touch one another. For others, viewing pornography is cheating, while for others, just retaining an old membership on Match.com is cheating. For some, romantically kissing someone is a clear act of betrayal, while others need their partners to have full sexual intercourse with another in order to constitute cheating. But lastly, given all we know about the complexities of infidelity, why are we not giving “cheaters” any say? Isn’t there mutual blame for partnering with the wrong person, for not satisfying each other, or for being unrealistic about what our species is capable of?
Affairs appear to happen to monogamous couples for both physical and emotional reasons. Most of the time, sex has nothing to do with love. There might, for example, be a temptation to cheat that crosses our path, and we will make a choice both about whether or not we cheat, but also in what to do afterwards – to confess the infidelity (or the almost infidelity) to your partner, or to keep it a secret.
Physical reasons for cheating can revolve around something sexual that your partner won’t give you or do for you – dirty talk during sex perhaps, or a “kink” – something you desire that maybe you’re too embarrassed to even admit to your partner that you desire! In the affair, perhaps there is an intensity and lust that either does not exist in the relationship, or that used to exist and now doesn’t; or perhaps someone else makes you realize how much you miss being physically desired…because your partner never expresses this anymore. This applies to all genders and sexual orientations.
For some, affairs will be rooted in basic recklessness containing no justification other than a pre-ordained disposition toward risk itself. For others, the risk-taking is a subliminal desire (however immaturely or harmfully communicated) to get out of the relationship they are in. For some, the partner can be blamed if he or she takes you for granted – i.e. they fail to make you feel sexually attractive or special – whereas for others this is excuse-making of the highest order. But while there is often a desire for the perceived freedom that an affair could bring, affairs tend to happen in long term relationships not because of deficiencies in the partners, but because the “cheaters” find deficiencies in themselves…they do not like the person they have become, and seek to reinvent themselves, or rewind the clock, with a new person or new people.
Often too an affair is something of one’s own, and feels wonderful, because the silence that is a part of any transgression endures no judgment or third-degree examinations by family, friends, or anyone. It can be a marvelous secret.
Again, we are discussing the whole cheating thing here, and not monogamy or polyamory. Because again, you can cheat on any agreement even if you are in a non-monogamist relationship. Even if you have the power to sleep with other people, you will still find the forbidden, whatever it is, to be sexually attractive. What could be forbidden in a non-monogamous relationship? Tons of things! Examples might be: You must always use protection with other lovers, you must try to avoid emotional attachments that equal what we have, you can’t have sex with mutual friends of ours, you have to tell me about it, you can never tell me about it, etc. Our human need to interpret risk as alluring will never change no matter what relationship structure you find yourself in. If a relationship carries any agreement, it can be cheated on.
After the affairs many couples stay together. But are they happy? Usually this is defined by whether or not they can live with the idea that the relationship they had before will never exist again. They will succeed if they want to start a second relationship, and not by repairing the first. The new relationship will probably be renegotiated to include vastly different terms than the first, even if monogamy is still the basic structure (though it may not be!). Many relationships that succeed after an affair threatens them, it should be noted, seem to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
It Helps to Know
Using the following lists, extolling the positive values of BOTH monogamy and polyamory, try to figure out what relationship structure suits you best
The Arguments for Monogamy
Women’s biology. While the relative superiority of sexual pleasure over many other joys in life is indisputable – and was further liberated by the widespread access to birth control starting in the 1960s – the reproductive differences of women forces them to hesitate more before jumping into bed with someone. Nobody’s getting away from that.
Women’s biology II, or “better orgasms.” Unless made bonkers by the hot stranger, a woman has better orgasms the more she knows her partner (However, if the relationship grows stale, then the opposite occurs).
Economics. Breakups, non-monogamy in conservative cultures, and experimentation most often comes at a financial cost. 75% of the world’s population does not get to experience options outside of monogamy and for them, survival is a priority over pleasure. Little is more shallow or bourgeois than to assume that these social freedoms are available to everyone.
While monogamy may not be our biological pre-destination, it is often our cultural reality, and it is no crime to give in to our cultural obligations. Also, to give in to monogamy’s pull with the understanding that monogamy is not our “natural path” could all be termed “monogamous by informed choice.” This new term (maybe the only original thought in this article) would be in direct contrast to the 99% of other monogamists who therefore now can be termed “monogamous by uninformed choice” (and therefore susceptible to a gazillion times more pitfalls). This would be a tremendous improvement in understanding the challenges faced by couples choosing monogamy.
Children. (Yes, this is an extension of Point #4 above, but…) Let’s face it – Outside the big cities, non-monogamist relationships almost always will be stigmatized, and therein will cause suffering to the kids of those poly grownups. In extreme cases (of conservative surroundings), the parents can even lose custody.
Pride. Given the biological ease, and pull of non-monogamy, what a sense of accomplishment (so long as you wanted it) to have worked one’s butt off in one’s lifetime to “stay true” with your partner!
While many marriage counselors try now to look at affairs as containing positive growth for both parties, there are still those who (perhaps rightfully?) argue that “Wait!...Having an affair as a way to solve one’s problems???”…is the stupidest idea imaginable.
Though now critiqued by many, the concept of “serial monogamy” is still upheld as the most stable of relationship models by arguably the majority of therapists.
As a relationship starts to grow stagnant, it could be time for a change in the relationship – not in the partner.
Non-monogamy should not be entered into just because popular sex experts and columnists are calling monogamists “stupid” (which, unfortunately, is what it often feels like).
Outside of lesbian relationships, the possibility of no condoms is pretty sweet. Condoms can be fun, but…
Arguments for Polyamory
Given our proclivity as humans, this is the most honest relationship structure we have. Herein there is almost always more freedom, less anxiety, and usually there is consistently better sex in that most new relationships have that “honeymoon period” where the two can’t keep their hands off each other. A life of polyamory means more honeymoon periods.
Polyamory, at its best, is about a life with less jealousy. Hurt feelings? Yes, there can be lots and lots. But jealousy, to be real, is arguably the least healthy emotion that humans are capable of.
Lust is not love. Why throw away love when infinitely humane lust appears – over and over again – in our lifetimes?
(Just for heteros) If 50% of people have had affairs, then when you cross-pollinate these folks, it means that the vast majority (75%) of heteros in monogamous relationships will have to deal with being cheated on, or they will cheat (i.e. you’re probably not going to be able to escape this anyway, so…).
We need a sex life of stability and adventure. It is insanely hard for any partner to be both.
In open relationships, if one person’s partner ends up bonding with your lover (i.e. hanging out with the person that’s having sex your partner, and having a great time, with no jealousy?) this can feel to all parties like the world is an endless expanse of affirmation, strength, and good feelings.
No two people have equal libidos. If you have the larger libido, you are satisfied when you can go outside the main relationship. If you have the smaller libido, you feel less pressure to be someone you are not.
Dare we say it?...Given the clitoris’ potential for hours of lovemaking, multiple partners will provide the best chance for getting the most physical pleasure out of a sexual experience. In an open relationship, this might be a “treat” that the woman has the opportunity to give herself every so often.
Again, based on our pre-history as humans (as described in Part 3) is it realistic to expect one person to give what a large community once did?
Are marriage and divorce simply economic rackets for caterers, churches, and lawyers? First-time marriages have about a 50% survival rate, less than 40% for a second marriage...and yet, many people make a lot of money off them…Remember, these are not timeless institutions. The masses only started adopting marriage in the late 19th century.
Too often monogamy means “Your sexual body belongs to me whether I desire it or not.” This attitude is wrong, and abusive. These are relationships to get out of (or make very polyamorous).
Again, polyamory is just as rules and agreement-based a relationship structure as monogamy. The rules are simply different, and can be “cheated” on. Trust is just as important to a poly relationship as it is to any other. The boundaries, while seeming physical, are just as emotional as in monogamy.
Spectrum people will enjoy a world that is becoming more and more communicative. So long as we are, or can be sexually attractive to other people, polyamory might be the easier life. The less society hooks up by flirting, and the more society hooks up by saying what they mean and meaning what they say, then we spectrumites will have more sex. For example, if someone says to us, “I want to have sex with you, but our using protection is a must, and while there’s a chance I might do oral I also might not because it’s our first time; and there’s no way I can even think of anal on a first time. I also respond really well to long massages beforehand. Does that sound ok?” then even if we do not like the “terms” being proposed, and will say “no,” we are usually relieved that someone is being clear with us. Under these changing “rules” about how people come together, we will not only have more sex, but it is also safe to say that spectrumites will not have to worry about being alone if we do not marry the first person we sleep with.
Regarding hookups…20 years ago we felt an obligation to be a bit of an asshole to our hookup the next morning (as a means to distance ourselves from them). Nowadays we get it – these are relationships, that if ended on a happy, respectful note can help us grow emotionally in many healthy ways.
Compared to the saner Europeans, Americans tend to place too much weight on monogamy. Many other nations have accepted more lenient attitudes toward relationships.
Imagine being in a long-standing, monogamous relationship, wherein you love your partner. But you’ve changed, and your ideas of what you want and what works for you are now different. And in order to be happy in the relationship, the relationship needs to change. Wouldn’t this be too painful a conversation to have with that partner?
Painful? Yes, the conversations might be very painful. But “too painful”? No, they are too important to run away from.
Humans (to me) have always had great potential for transformation. Perhaps not to the degree that the American ethos celebrates. But we have lesser superpowers that we can decide to use for good, or not so good. We stress real or imagined freedoms within the context of individualism, and not as we should…within the filter of universality. When we focus on the latter, and on love as a true adventure (not a script) then and only then does the world feel like it’s really open.
How do we get there? By advocating for the reduction of our stricter “moral” codes (or laws) surrounding alternative relationship and family structures. Relationships not only come in all shapes and sizes, but they change. And we’ll be a lot better off if we demand that the relationship structures change to fit us, rather than us trying to fit into them. We’ll be a culture that is less uptight, less anxious, makes fewer mistakes, and, thank goodness, has more sex.
header image: “polyamorie,” boxflip / wikimedia commons