Marriage: Is There a Place for Infidelity?

By Arlene Kahn Therapy • July 6th, 2011
couple at nargile lounge

Image by j.o.h.n. walker via Flickr

What a question?!  Is there room in your relationship to ask that question? Should there be?

Yet, that’s the question being asked by Mark Oppenheimer in his New York Times magazine article, Married, With Infidelities ( Sun. July 3, 2011).  He reviews the position of Dan Savage, who says that for many couples,  monogamy is not right, that it’s not natural. Savage says we’re not honest about how hard marriage is, how hard monogamy is.   Oppenheimer  quotes Savage in stating that “the goal of marriage, is ‘stability’  and if affairs or sexual activity outside of marriage promotes that stability then it may be a good choice.  Savage writes Savage Love for The Stranger, an alternative weekly paper in Seattle that syndicates it to more than 50 other newspapers.  He also created the It Gets Better video posted on Youtube on Sept. 21 that was viewed 35 million times.  The video is a promise to gay youth that if they can just survive the bullying, they can have a good life with marriage and children when they grow up.  The goal is the possibility of stable, adult families, for gays and straights alike.

Savage emphasizes the three G’s:  lovers ought to be Good, Giving and Game–Oppenheimer interprets that as “skilled, generous and up for anything.  And if they cannot fulfill all of each other’s desires, then going outside the bounds of marriage should be an option if that’s what it takes to make the marriage work.”

Oppenheimer also interviewed Judith Stacey, a New York University sociologist.  She  researched gay men’s romantic arragements for her book “Unhitched.”  Her conclusion is “One size never fits all..”  She states that “Creating non-monogamous relationships [gay or straight] that strengthen rather than corrode a marriage is surely as much work as monogamy.” (My highlighting)

Infidelity is hard work, too. Not all good relationships require monogamy, but they all require what she calls integrity. I.e. “Work out terms of what your commitments are, and be on the same page.”

Oppenheimer agrees, as a straight, monogamous, married male that flexibility is a good thing and couples are courageous who can choose an arrangement that works for them, despite societal demands for monogamy.

The issue of integrity in marriage or any form of relationship is key. The horror of betrayal and abandonment when there is an affair covered over by stealth and intrigue, to promote excitement without the other’s knowledge is devastating. It’s a rare partner who can forgive and “understand,” after the fact. But, to have integrity in a relationship implies sharing one’s needs.

Couples often have different sexual or intimacy needs. Sometimes it’s a simple massage that one partner enjoys, perhaps even needs before other sexual activity, which makes his or her partner uncomfortable. These needs are often central to the couple’s issues and even in marital therapy, they don’t always get revealed.

Does one partner have to sacrifice his or her needs to keep a promise of faithfulness in marriage and for how long? Do we not also owe something to our own growth and pleasure? If a partner is unwilling to be “game” to try something new or uncomfortable, is the answer to secretly go outside of the couple’s union?

Too often, these unspoken differences or outright disagreements creates a relationship that is like the picture at the top of this post, where the couple appears to be together and not together at the same time. They aren’t touching, not looking at each other. It’s as if there is no emotional connection between them. The lack of connection is often what is so painful in the relationship and what drives people apart.

Integrity in the Relationship

May I make a plea for integrity in the relationship, including honesty, first with ourselves about our desires and wishes and how isolated in the marriage we might be feeling? Then bring these desires into gentle, empathic conversation with each other.

It’s possible that such sharing, with caring and empathy for ourselves as well as our partner, may meet a new level of flexibility that can surprise both people. In my experience, it’s the fear and hurt, masked by arguments, judgment, contempt and withdrawal that is so painful. It is all rolled into a lack of connection. That is what we try to escape.

Real relatedness means taking the risk to trust that our partner will hear us, if we share ourselves in an honest and loving way. It may be cautious trust and that’s okay. And with trust comes vulnerability. It’s being vulnerable that brings out our humanness and our beauty. That is what creates in our partner a willingness to make the effort to share new experiences. Trusting too little or too much, i.e. too blindly are both undermining to relationship. Appropriate trust and the vulnerability that comes with it is vital for personal and relationship growth. When we risk with love and compassion often there are new possibilities.

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