Faithful but Frustrated

Friday, September 08, 2006

Question

Is monogamy achievable? I am a married hetero and having great difficulty maintaining one sexual partner. I constantly fantasize about having sex with others, but how does one accomplish that without hurting the decent person to whom one is married?

Answer

Nobody really knows how many married people "cheat" on their spouses, but every sex survey I've read shows a significant number of men look for sex outside of their primary relationships. (Women too, although the numbers are usually a bit lower.) My personal experience is that monogamy is not viable (for me, I said, for me!). I've had a couple of relationships that were monogamous, but I found it was impossible to do all of the things that I like to do with just one person. Even if I was faithful, I got interrogated about how much time I spent on the phone with my friends and accused of having affairs when I was just going to the movies. I eventually realized it was easier to keep my relationships open from the very start. I still have intense discussions with my lovers about the other people in our lives, but at least I'm not being accused of illicit sex that I'm not having!

But the two of us are in very different situations. You promised your wife that you would be monogamous. If you have sex with other people and she finds out, she'll be very hurt. There will be arguments and marriage counseling and mutual friends will think you are a dick. Maybe there will be a divorce. She'll never fully trust you again—and why should she?

Having said that, there are also a lot of husbands who have sex with other women (or men) whose wives never know (for sure) that there is any hanky-panky. How compartmentalized are you? How good are you at keeping secrets? You are talking about setting up a double life. The men who do this tell themselves that sex on the side won't hurt their wife as long as she doesn't know. They may even kid themselves into thinking that they are doing her a favor by not telling her, since that revelation would cause a volcanic explosion.

The damage this does to a relationship is subtle but real. I believe that people sense dishonesty on a deep, perhaps even unconscious, level. They begin to draw away in order to protect themselves from harm. It may not be possible to verbalize the cause of that distance, but it creeps in. Lying about where you've been and what you've been doing also takes a toll. It makes you feel like a creepy little worm. And that's not what you are looking for—you just want some sexual variety and gusto. You want to feel like a hot stud whose opportunities for studying female sexuality are far from over.

I'll probably get into trouble for saying this, but I do think that biochemistry plays a role here. Men are testosterone-based life forms. Their sex drives can be stronger and more immediate. It is usually easier for men to have sex without emotional connection than it is for women. That's because men are less likely to be harmed (i.e., assaulted or raped) when they are promiscuous, and they have no risk of pregnancy. Sexual "freedom" for women doesn't really exist in a patriarchal world where they get labeled as sluts or whores if they have sex with more than one man—or have sex with women. Because women see more potential danger in the realm of sexual experimentation than most men do, it is often hard for women to understand why men have a problem staying home night after night and going to bed with the same person.

I'm not saying that women have no sex drive or that all women expect monogamy because intimacy is more important to them than sex. But there are many women who fit that profile, just as there are a few women who defy it. Women have testosterone in their systems too, and female hormones also play a role in the libidos of both sexes. The myth of monogamy has been sold to women like a used car that looks great but will set itself on fire in another 150 miles. Monogamy is supposed to offer women the loyalty of their mates (especially when they are vulnerable during pregnancy), a lifetime of love and desire, and protection from sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) or the violence of other men. But a hell of a lot of women have been infected with HIV, hepatitis, and other serious diseases by a supposedly monogamous mate—or are battered by their supposedly protective mates. The system is fucked up, but conservative Christian values dominate even secular society in America.

Because our culture insists that any serious, legal relationship has to be monogamous, we also have an institution that makes it possible—the sex industry. Prostitution is tailor-made to help out husbands who just want to hold a different looking woman in their arms, feel like a rogue, and maybe enjoy a few techniques that their wives don't enjoy. (If you really want a monogamous husband, dear hearts, learn how to give a decent blowjob.)

Dear reader, Faithful but Frustrated, you are intending to use condoms with whoever you play around with, aren't you, by the way?

You could certainly take advantage of the various options commercial sex makes available, from phone sex and lap dances to full service, or start an affair with someone at work, or pick up an agreeable woman during happy hour. The way your letter is written tells me that you have already begun to compartmentalize your sex life. Your wife is the "decent" person. I'll bet you assume that she can't give you variety. You can't ask such a "nice" person to get dirty with your horndog, dick-hanging-out self. Men do tend to think of their wives as mothers and Madonna's, and you don't have raucous, drunk, 3 a.m. anal sex with the Virgin Mary.

Is there a problem in your sex life at home? Could your desire to roam be calmed down by initiating some change in that area? Using porn and masturbating is another outlet that would keep the peace, unless your wife refuses to give you any privacy and has negative judgments about masturbation.

Ideally, if you want a nonmonogamous relationship, you talk about it with your partner and make a joint agreement to try it out. Both of you read Dossie Easton's book The Ethical Slut.You agree on some rules about how to deal with jealousy or loneliness when the other person has a date. Maybe you'll decide to bring others into your bed and do threesomes; maybe each of you will have the right to veto a potential partner if that person seems like trouble. Couples can also make rules like no kissing your tricks or no overnight dates. The idea is to keep a feeling that the primary relationship is special and has priority.

This is not an easy thing to confess to one's mate. She is bound to have some anger and insecurity and some questions about why she isn't good enough for you. My conviction that men are hard-wired to seek out multiple sex partners won't be much consolation to her. If she won't agree, she may be just as angry at you as she would be if you went ahead and had a real affair. Nonmonogamous people are seen as being unethical and selfish. This isn't fair, because it takes a lot of honesty and genuine loving care to keep more than one sexual connection going. But she may be hard-wired to need a mate who is hers alone.

If that's the case, you will have to decide what is more important to you—the marriage or your desire for sexual novelty. I'm guessing you will opt for the $20 blowjob in the back seat of your car, and I can't say I blame you. You're in a lousy situation mandated by our culture. Sexual reality has collided with social expectations, and you're caught in the crosshairs. Marriage is a one-size-fits-all institution, but people change so much in the course of a lifetime that a couple's contract with one another ought to be periodically revisited and up for amendment.

Maybe your wife is hiding a secret world of exotic fantasies and secretly wishes you would bring home another chick she could get all snuggly with. I wish, man, I really do. But you'll never know until you bring up the topic. Maybe you could tell her a crazy story about a mythical friend who is a swinger and ask her what she thinks of such antics. Have the two of you ever talked about her imaginary erotic landscape? Here's hoping fate will give you some wiggle room.