Non-monogamous relationships

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one on non-monogamous relationships.

I understand that there has been a couple of recent books ( yours and Catherine Hakim´s ) discussing the attitudes about infidelity  in the UK? Do you think that is just a coincidence or is it a sign of the times?

It definitely feels like a current topic with many books and movies raising questions about the challenges of being in long term relationships and about how we deal with infidelity when it occurs.

Catherine Hakim’s book looks at the recent trend of dating websites for people who are looking for lovers outside their marriage. My book explores all of the many ways in which people at the moment are rewriting the rules of their relationships.

I think that the ‘rules’ about infidelity are being questioned right now for a combination of reasons. First, as people live longer what is meant by a ‘long term’ relationship becomes potentially much longer than it was in previously. Secondly, people are now looking for a lot more from a partner or spouse than they might have done in the past. It is common for people to expect such relationships to remain romantic and sexual throughout as well as providing a close friendship, a sense of belonging and security, and personal validation. This can be a great deal of pressure to put on one person, and that is a big part of the reason why people often end up looking elsewhere and having infidelities.

Is it more difficult to be faithful to one partner today? If so – why?

The problem relates to a common tension in relationships. At the same time that we are looking for safety and companionship in a relationship, we are also all trying to reach our own goals in life and we value our independence.

This tension between belonging and freedom plays out in a number of ways in relationships. For example, we might find ourselves in serial monogamy where we search for a partner when we crave love and belonging, but break-up with them when we start feeling stifled and yearning for independence. Another way the tension plays out is in infidelities. These can meet our need to feel more free and to remind ourselves who we are without our partner, whilst retaining the relationship.

Another reason that it is difficult to be faithful is something that Esther Perel explores in her excellent book, Mating in Captivity. She says that we are looking for ‘warmth’ and ‘heat’ from the same relationship. We want to be secure and comfortable with a partner, perhaps building a family with them, at the same time as wanting to have a hot and exciting relationship. It is hard to get both these things from the same person, which might be another reason for people seeking infidelities.

Is there a problem with our cultural attitude about infidelity? If so – what?

There is a problem because all of the pressure we culturally put on relationships makes it more likely that infidelity will happen but, at the same time, infidelities are very frowned upon in many countries and often seen as being a reason to break-up a relationship.

Catherine Hakim suggests that people in France are more relaxed about casual infidelities (or ‘play-fairs’) and that it is generally expected and accepted that married people will have sex with other people at some point. Other researchers like Lisa Wade have written about ‘hook-up culture’ in the US where college students have several more casual sexual relationships rather than having one main relationship and additional infidelities. It is useful to see that different groups and cultures have different ways of doing relationships because it opens up the possibility of doing things differently and finding our own ways forward.

Infidelity is sometimes being presented as a way of saving marriages or long relationships? Do you agree that having a secret affair, is good for the primary relationship?

The problem that I have with all of this is with the secret aspect of it all. Certainly there are cases when people have had affairs and it is good for the relationship long term, perhaps because it came out in the open and encouraged the people involved to communicate more. However, much more frequently if the affair is uncovered it causes a great deal of pain for everyone involved. The person having the affair is often blamed and feels terribly guilty, their partner frequently feels very hurt and betrayed, and the person who the affair was with may well end up losing somebody who they loved and had become very important in their life. It can also be very hard for friends and family who feel pressured to take sides.

What are the negative aspects of infidelity? 

In the case of secret affairs which come out into the open there can be real damage to the sense of trust between the main partners because they realise that they have been lied to. Feelings of guilt and shame, betrayal and self-doubt, are also very common. It can also be very painful for the person who the affair was with, and for any children and other family members.

If the infidelity remains secret then there can be a lot of fear of being found out, as well as constraints on how the affair relationship can develop given that it has to remain hidden.

Many marriages end in divorce – what do you think are the most important reasons for that?

There are many reasons for the break-up of relationships – people changing in different directions, recognition of incompatibilities, etc. – but I think that a big part of it is the pressure that relationships are under to provide so many of our needs. When we look for a ‘perfect’ partner and try to be a ‘perfect’ partner for somebody else, we are doomed to fail, and painful break-ups often follow from the recognition that we cannot be everything to each other.

Infidelity is often involved with this because people frequently look elsewhere when they feel that their partner isn’t meeting all their needs any more, or when they realise that their partner has stopped seeing them as perfect.

A big part of the solution is to put less pressure on romantic relationships and to recognise all of the important relationships that we have in our lives (with friends, family, colleagues, and others, as well as with partners). Also if we can acknowledge that people and relationships change over time our relationships may be more flexible and able to shift, and we may feel less need to blame each other if we do go our separate ways.

Is there an alternative to the marriage plus secret affairs model?

My research has mostly focused upon open alternatives to secret affairs. Many people now are pursuing honest ways of having more than one sexual and/or romantic relationship. For example, the ‘new monogamy’ or ‘monogamish relationship’ involves having one main relationship but with openness to flirtations and friendships of various kinds outside of it. Open relationships and swinging involve having one romantic partner but many sexual partners. Polyamorous people have multiple romantic relationships in various different ways. People who are interested in relationship anarchy value the freedom of themselves and of their partners to make their own decisions in all of their relationships.

Most of these kinds of relationships emphasize ongoing trust and communication. There are an increasing number of books available about how to communicate about monogamy and other aspects of relationships. Readers who are interested might find it useful to read Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s book The Ethical Slut and Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up: A guide to creating and sustaining open relationships.


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  1. Alison

    16 August

    Hi Meg,

    Thanks for another great entry on your blog. As is often the case I find myself nodding in agreement or thinking ‘great idea’ or ‘that’s interesting’. I am quite hung-up this time though on a couple of points made:

    “The person having the affair is often blamed and feels terribly guilty, their partner frequently feels very hurt and betrayed, and the person who the affair was with may well end up losing somebody who they loved and had become very important in their life.”

    ‘The person having the affair is often blamed …’:
    It is helpful to situate the unfaithful partner and their behaviour in the wider culture. Rather than view them as intrinsically nasty, we can be more compassionate about the circumstances influencing their behaviour. I don’t think this is the whole picture though.

    People have different ways of coping with similar tensions and not everyone deals with cultural pressures by having secret affairs. A macro-sociological explanation is incomplete by itself.

    I’m not suggesting looking to the individual alone to understand infidelity. But I do think we need to add a more personalised understanding of why individuals make the choices they make to the sociocultural context in which they are making them. I agree that nobody can stand outside of culture but I still think that we are often largely accountable for what we do.

    ‘[The affair-partner] may well end up losing somebody who they loved and had become very important in their life.’:

    How can people expect to cultivate a satisfying relationship with someone who has already promised monogamy to their primary partner or spouse and is living a secret or double life? And can’t they be held at least somewhat accountable for the pain and suffering they bring upon themselves?

    That’s my tuppence worth! Thanks again for your great blog.
    Alison

    • megbarkerpsych

      16 August

      Thanks Alison – yes I certainly wasn’t meaning to imply that all parties were equally responsible or ethical in such circumstances. More the way in which that situation is culturally located. Thanks for the clarification.

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