Monogamy is such a warm and cuddly word. Even to look at: it’s all soft, curvy cosiness. When you say it out loud, your lips touch reassuringly and the syllables gently tumble from your tongue. Infidelity, on the other hand, is a word you can really spit out. It’s sharp and dramatic, like a slap, and the very idea of it can trigger all sorts of painful feelings.
Few things can make us feel we have a right to judge and comment on other people’s relationships than infidelity. I’m doing it now, in this very column. Is giving up the incredible excitement of acting on chemistry with another person the only way to stay in your marriage? Can we ever get to a place where people aren’t immediately vilified for admitting that while they love their partner, they’d really like to pursue the tantalising attraction they have for another?
The idea of “open relationships” is still wildly unthinkable for most of us, so I thoroughly enjoyed trawling through the news – well, rumours – that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith may be in an open marriage. If they are, good for them. Why, when two people have been together for years, raised two children, supported each other’s careers, should a romantic liaison with someone else end that partnership?
Personally, I’ve never slept with anyone whilst in another relationship but then I have never been with anyone for longer than five years. Who am I to say that serial monogamy is better than consensual polyamory? (Another comfortingly cosy word, by the by.) I used to say that polyamory looked exhausting: the heartache, the endless talking and searching for understanding sounded like a full-time job. But then my own romantic life of one monogamous relationship after another has also been exhausting and time-consuming with bouts of intense heartache, just with different people rather than the same one. Can I really say that is better?
An open marriage is of course very different to cheating. Cheating, lying and being duplicitous is a different animal. If you have been cheated on, you will know it can completely shatter you, and you wonder why you can’t report such debilitating harm to the police. In an open relationship, you give your blessing to your partner. You trust the love and respect you have for each other will remain untouched by them being intimately touched by another.
I can’t bear the thought personally, and would have to commit to undoing a lifetime of conditioning to be able to bear it, and frankly, who’s got the time? I do wonder if for many couples an open marriage means, “we are free to sleep with other people but one of us is freer than the other”. If one partner says, “I’m off to bonk Gerry next door, don’t wait up”, it’s hard to imagine the other partner being equally as thrilled. And what about poor Gerry? It might be all dandy with his paramour and his/her life partner, but Gerry might end up being terribly hurt. He might fall hard for someone who is married, who will never give up their spouse and make trips to Ikea with him instead. How many people who are involved in open relationships, or are in a romance with someone in an open relationship, are convincing themselves they are fine and can cope with all the emotions, when really they are in emotional agony?
Monogamy is entrenched and largely unquestioned in our culture. No one, over a drink, has ever dissected how monogamous someone they know is. No one meets up to have a pow-wow and says, “He’s such a great guy, he’s got such a crush on Susanna, they really connect, the energy between them is so powerful. If anything happened between them it would feel electrifying, his world would become technicolour, but he’s given up ever having that experience again because he promised his wife monogamy and he’d rather die than break that promise so now he is avoiding the sandwich shop she works in until his crush subsides.” Plenty of people do this, plenty of people feel a spark for someone else when married then back away.
No one gets any credit for being monogamous. We rarely talk about how hard it is. Even the idea of admitting it can be hard seems like a betrayal to your partner, but maybe it’s time we talked about how hard monogamy can be. Perhaps if we were able to switch our way of thinking and consider that infidelity may not mean the end of a life-partnership.
When I was married, I did have passing thoughts that if he cheated on me, it wouldn’t necessarily be the end. We had a child and I loved him but my priorities weren’t romantic.
I had a boyfriend once who promised he’d never cheat on me because “I know how much that would hurt you”. We had taken my kids to the zoo. It made me realise how differently we were seeing our relationship (not to mention the day out). Then he bought me a book about polyamory and how to practice it ethically. I didn’t read it. We didn’t last. I don’t think I’ll ever be secure enough for any of that. The most secure I have ever felt is now. I’ve been very happily single for a while now and have no plans to spoil this perfect bliss by falling in love, monogamous or otherwise.
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