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Q: I recently found out my boyfriend of two years cheated on me. It was shocking. I didn’t see it coming. What was even more shocking is I realized I was more curious than angry. I love him very much. In fact, I always thought I’d spend the rest of my life with him. So, I would have thought this would be a deal breaker. Turns out it’s not. It’s making me wondering how to start the conversation about being in a committed, but open relationship. It’s also making me wonder if relationships like can actually stand the test of time.
A: There are people who are chronic manipulators and will always cheat on their partners because it makes them feel independent, alive, or powerful. Folks with low self-esteem have a hard time being secure in their needs; and they definitely have a harder time being sexually open. But let’s pretend that your boyfriend is like most people and had sexual interest in other people, yet repressed those interests and then became opportunistic in a quest for his desires.
Why do people go outside of their established relationships for pleasure, excitement, attention, arousal, validation? There are many reasons. For one, most of us have been raised to value monogamy even when it does not suit us. Many folks treat sexual interest in others as emotional warfare – and some people even prevent their partners from having friends that are the same gender, out of fear that the temptation of the opposite (or same) sex will be enough to lead your person astray.
Monogamy can be an ideal relationship situation for most people, we want to share investments, future plans and growth in our home. But our culture presents a hard line on the value of partnering with one person: We celebrate engagements even when the couple isn’t healthy, we encourage people to “settle down” when they haven’t fulfilled various aspects of their professional or emotional lives, we refer to finding “our other half” – a strong cultural implication that we aren’t whole people unless we are in relationship with another. We talk about marriage being “forever” even though American divorce rates have been 50% for decades. There is a lot of social pressure to be in a heterosexual and monogamous relationship, while still ignoring our own sexual needs of excitement and diversity.
This motivates people to build relationships that are functional by appearance: living together, raising children together, going to social events together, paying bills together. But we ignore the facts that people’s initial sexual excitement phase wanes after about a year or so, and this leaves many people in relationship that might outwardly look complete, but is missing all the ingredients of trust and honesty.
IMO, the healthiest couples often acknowledge arousal and desire that doesn’t relate to their partner – not as gaslighting, but as a way to keep the real communication flowing. I even tell my boyfriend when I notice other people checking him out; it makes him feel good, it makes me feel good, and we get to share in the knowledge that his sexiness is noticeable by other folks in the world. I ask him with a giggle if he’s touched himself lately because I’m proud of his ability to meet his arousal with self-touch and masturbation.
Cultures around the world and for thousands of years often create models for relationship that are not strictly monogamous – blame the Puritans and the Catholics for shaming you into thinking that one person can be your all. Most animals engage in flirting or sex with other animals that they don’t share a nest with. It is normal to have sexual interest in others, and it is possible to create a trusting relationship where you can talk about sex without pressure.
I suggest you check out “The State of Affairs” and “Mating In Captivity” by Esther Perel, who focuses on jealousy, infidelity, and all things relationships.
If a long-term relationship and marriage is a goal of yours, I suggest you invest in the quality of raw, sometimes uncomfortable discussion about your desires: do you like flirting with your barista? Do you and he want to send sexy pics to other consenting people or couples? Do he and you have freedom to look at sexually charged material on your own time, without having to report back to the other? My boyfriend and I feel comfortable bringing up our monogamish leanings; it helps us keep realistic about our very real desires, even if we don’t wish to act on them.
“Forever” is a lot longer than most people realize, especially when the new-relationship excitement is so strong; it seems like it will never fade. It’s time to reframe how we talk about our desires – and remember that being married by thirty could mean fifty years of time with your companion of choice.
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Elle is available for email coaching by appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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