Does Daring to Abandon Monogamy Make You a “Failure?”

Two people holding hands after agreeing to abandon monogamy.

“The first divorce in the world may have been a tragedy, but the hundred-millionth is not necessarily one.” – Anatole Broyard

I want to talk about the notion that daring to abandon monogamy if you’re nonmonogamous represents a “failure.” This belief reflects the tremendous investment of the Overculture. It wants to keep people locked into relationships. (Or, until very recently, keep other people locked out of certain relationships.) It wants to shame people and disparage alternatives to lifelong, heterosexual monogamy. There are a range of reasons for this. None are particularly valid today.

The stigma surrounding divorce – and who’s still pushing it

Although I’m no youngster, within my lifetime there was a huge stigma surrounding divorce. Many still bemoan the supposed “easy accessibility of divorce.” They seek to repeal or otherwise severely restrict access to divorce. Another vocal group resorted to the scare tactic that divorce irreparably harms children. They insisted that people should stay together for “the sake of the kids.” Research on this is mixed, but trends away from this view. Yet this attack continues.

An unholy alliance took place between three groups:

  • Those who opposed recognizing same-sex marriages or relationships;
  • Those who disparaged non-marital cohabitation; and
  • Those who simply opposed divorce, especially so-called “no fault” divorce.

What united them was a maniacal devotion to lifelong, exclusive, heterosexual monogamy. They brooked no opposition or examination of alternatives. In 1996 they were at the peak of their power. They pushed successfully for a federal law enshrining their views. The law mandated what should be taught to young people about marriage and sexuality. It specifically mandated exclusivity.

Now that’s no longer true. That law was, fortunately, repealed, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. I’d like to think that the social climate has changed positively. But the defenders of “traditional” monogamy still seek to influence public discourse. They work in somewhat more sophisticated ways, but with the same ultimate intention. They promote “marriage” as a one-step solution to a host of social ills. But make no mistake. By “marriage” they absolutely mean exclusive monogamy. No room for swingers, polyamorists, or those with open relationships.

When you realize you’re at a crossroads

So, what does this mean? I’ve seen many people realize that monogamy doesn’t work for them. They’ve engaged in a good-faith effort to try to live authentically. They’ve fairly and respectfully tried to renegotiate their relationship.

There are four possible outcomes for this negotiation. Some are successful in renegotiating the relationship to live more authentically. Often, both partners grow and benefit from the fruits of the renegotiation. This is the best case.

Another outcome is a “poly-mono” relationship. In these, one partner lives non-exclusively, and the other freely chooses to remain exclusive. Despite some criticism by some nonmonogamy community voices, it works well for many people.

A third group can’t renegotiate. They then resign themselves to staying in a disappointing relationship. Or worse, decide that their only alternative is cheating. This is a very unfortunate outcome. It doesn’t bode well for the future of the relationship. But that’s the subject of a different post.

The fourth segment tries good faith negotiations. But they then conclude it isn’t going to work. The monogamously-oriented partner’s right to live authentically is not in question. So, what happens? The people involved must navigate an appropriate relationship transition. It’s time to abandon monogamy.

Pitfalls to be avoided

This transition can have varying degrees of complexity based on the situation. But what happens to the nonmonogamously-oriented partner who engages in a relationship transition? The pressure of the Overculture to remain exclusive at all costs is potent. We are still all marinated in an invisible social pressure. It enshrines lifelong, exclusive monogamy as the “ideal” relationship.

Many divorces, regardless of the cause, unfortunately are acrimonious. The nonmonogamous transitioning from monogamy can feel guilt, shame and other unpleasant emotions. These are made worse by a common tendency of a monogamous partner. These seek solace, reinforcement and affirmation from family or mutual friends. To preserve their self-image, they often disparage the nonmonogamous partner. Their supporters then “pile on.”

This can create ruptures within the nonmonogamous partner’s social support network. In some cases, it damages their bond with their children from the ending relationship.

I can’t fix the Overculture that punishes nonmonogamous thoughts. I can’t fix how the monogamous try to relieve their guilt, insecurities, and low self-esteem by avoiding all responsibility. But I believe I can help those who have chosen to move on from a relationship that no longer nourishes them. With help, they may avoid some of the negative outcomes associated with a transition.

If you find you must move on from monogamy

I rely on techniques from my Affirmative Intimacy® method for managing relationships. These tools can also help you manage transitions in relationships.

Most appropriate among the tools is Mindful Reason. This manages the negative self-talk from the emotional baggage of the Overculture. The other is Differentiation of Self. This is the ability to stand, independent from any relationship, without feeling incomplete.

Mindful Reason can be an important tool to address the negative messages you may receive. The dislocations caused by a relationship transition are unfortunate. These are not outcomes you would have chosen and embraced. But neither are they a tragedy nor a cataclysm. They are a natural, temporary outcome of your desire to live in authenticity. You have a right to grow in the direction of your particular rays of sunshine.

Avoid internalizing negative messages from the Overculture. Immunize yourself from those acting in solidarity with your monogamously-oriented former partner. They are often driven by fear of losing their grip on their own monogamous relationship.

Listen to the messages, including your own self-talk. You can then analyze their source and validity. Then, replace the harmful ones with new, healthier beliefs.

Differentiation of Self is a complex subject. But too often, as social animals, we invest too heavily in being “part of a relationship.” It is one of many roles assigned to us since infancy. The positive attributes of being connected to others is certainly a net benefit. But not when carried to an extreme. Clinging desperately to a relationship that no longer serves you is harmful.

Differentiation of Self means being able to be your true self both in and out of a relationship. It’s about not being dependent upon a relationship to function. It’s about not deferring to a partner to “keep the peace” and preserve a relationship. Of course, compromise and negotiation should happen and they’re often positive. But when compromise becomes capitulation, you’ve crossed the line. The more capitulation within a relationship, the less functional it becomes.

What you need to do

So, where does this leave us? If you’re looking at a relationship transition, take stock of what’s at stake. What are your pros and cons? Realistically assess the impact those would have on your life. Compare that to the opportunity to live with authenticity.

Have you tried for a satisfactory renegotiation of the relationship? Have you taken into account the reasonable desires, needs and orientations of both parties?

If a transition is inevitable, for your own sake and that of other persons involved, take the high road. Avoid recriminations, disparagement or other negative behaviors directed toward your soon-to-be ex-partner. You should seek fairness in any distribution of assets. Always take the high road in any interactions with third parties.

Be ready for negative messages from people invested in monogamy. Their fear demands they shame anyone daring to live outside their inflexible boundaries. But don’t let it get to you.

As importantly, you need to be prepared to grapple with your inner mononormativity. You’re not immune to the messages that you’ve been marinated in since childhood. Ditch the myth about finding your “one true partner” and “living happily ever after.” You must marshal your inner resources to overcome any negative self-messaging. Research shows that even those who are practicing nonmonogamy haven’t fully escaped this.

So, in short, you need to embrace the challenge in exchange for the powerful benefits you hope to receive. Scientific research suggests that you’ll be happier, healthier and more satisfied. Doing so is not a failure. A brighter future is open to you if you have the courage to step through that door.

How to have a better sex life in seven powerful steps

One of the most common concerns sex and marital therapists see are problems with couples’ sex lives. Frequency, behaviors, types of sex acts, masturbation, appoved or disapproved fantasies – these all play a part. There are millions of internet advice pieces on this topic. I have a different take on solving this problem than most. To me, the tactical tips offered by many of these internet sources are not helpful. I believe that, while well-intended, they are premature. Unless you first address some underlying issues, these quick fixes won’t work for long.

Couple conversing about having better sex and sexual fantasies

1. Recommit to having a better sex life

Remember when you first became sexual with your partner? It was easy, frequent and hot (or at least that’s how many folks remember it). Now, it takes planning, juggling, and determination, happens rarely (if at all), and is often far from hot. What happened? More importantly, what can we do?

A lot of “experts” give you a list of tactical suggestions about new positions, new places, or similar ideas. These are great, but extremely limited. They assume that any underlying issues getting in the way of having the sex you want either don’t exist or have magically been resolved. Applying tactics when you haven’t dealt with the root causes is an exercise in frustration. Having sex in a treehouse isn’t going to improve your relationship if one (or both) of you doesn’t really want to have sex anywhere!

The Affirmative Intimacy™ approach to relationships is designed to help you with the skills to get the relationship you want. Central to achieving that is helping you accept complete responsibility for yourself and for getting what you want in relationship. This includes your sexual satisfaction.

An essential first step is recommitting with your partner that you both want a vibrant, fulfilling sex life together. This is a root cause matter. There are those who have so little sexual desire they simply don’t much care about having a partnered sex life. Others have let their desire waste away from disuse. Or they’ve pushed their desire to the back of their emotional closet for so long they’ve completely lost touch with it. There sometimes are physical challenges that must be addressed, especially as we age. And, there are many “unrelated” issues that can erase your sex life if not addressed.

But research demonstrates that a fulfilling and satisfying sex life is strongly associated with good health and relationship satisfaction. There are powerful and important benefits to be had by getting this right!

So, you and your partner must first have a thoughtful and detailed conversation about your respective willingness to recommit enthusiastically to the sexual component of your relationship. My Safe Space, Structured Dialog, and Mindful Reason techniques can help with this. You then need to work together to demolish any obstacles to prioritizing this aspect of your relationship.

If you can’t master this, no amount of “date nights” or “sexy texts” are going to restore the health of your relationship. There are other measures you can take if you’re deadlocked, but those are beyond the scope of this post.

Image of a washing machine

2. “Normal is just a cycle on the washing machine” – Whoopi Goldberg

Own your desires, turn-ons, ideal partner preference, fantasies and preferred approaches to sex. Collectively, these constitute your lovemap. Forget everything you think you know about what’s “normal.” Each of us is perfectly individual; we all have different life experiences from birth. Even identical twins raised together will have differences in their lovemaps. My point here is to avoid self-shaming, and to build resistance to shaming from others, about your lovemap. Unless your lovemap leads to abusive or criminal behavior, it’s ok.

What is a lovemap? The term comes from a 1986 book by Johns Hopkins University researcher John Money.  Money defined it as “a developmental representation or template in the mind and in the brain depicting the idealized lover and the idealized program of sexual and erotic activity projected in imagery or actually engaged in with that lover.”

As we grow up in a particular culture at a particular time, cultural norms shape our sexuality. So do life experiences and family-of-origin norms. We each develop a detailed lovemap that incorporates these inputs and our own reactions to them. Money believed this process begins as early as five years old. Whenever a sexual or potentially sexual situation occurs – real or virtual – we unconsciously consult our lovemap to see if we find it arousing. This then leads us toward satisfying our sexual needs in ways consistent with what we’ve learned and internalized.

Couple sharing individual sexual lovemaps and fantasies

3. For better sex, share your fantasies with your partner and ask your partner to do the same

Once you’ve identified your lovemap and associated fantasies, invite your partner to do the same. When they’ve finished, it’s time to share with each other! Research proves that doing this is good for your relationship. It can be an incredibly hot experience for both of you, if you’ve correctly set the stage. My Safe Space training might prove very valuable in getting this right the first time!

Couple embracing, happy over accepting each other's sexual lovemaps and fantasies

4. Accept your partner’s desires, turn-ons, fantasies and preferred approaches (It doesn’t mean you have to do them)

Here’s where a lot of conversations around sexuality and lovemaps go off the rails. To allow vulnerability and honesty, we must commit to unconditional acceptance of each other. It doesn’t matter if we find our partner’s lovemap appealing or appalling; it’s theirs and they have every right to it. Resist any temptation to express disgust or to practice shaming behaviors. It’s perfectly fine to ask for elaboration or clarification, so long as it’s not a setup for launching a put-down.

By accepting, I don’t mean endorsing or committing to act upon your partner’s lovemap. In truth, many of us entertain fantasies that we’d really never want to enact in real life – and that’s ok! They can still be hot and juicy stimuli during a somewhat tamer sexual encounter.

Also, QTIPquit taking it personally! Resist the urge to judge your partner’s disclosures as a reflection on you, your looks, your skills, or your physical endowments! It doesn’t matter where they came from. This sexual lovemap formed long before your partner ever knew you! Lovemaps typically can be changed only around the margins.

Fur-lined handcuffs for sexual play and fantasies

5. Agree on boundaries – then agree to push them a little!

As I said, once you’ve shared your fantasies and lovemaps, you can have an honest conversation about which, if any, might be fulfilled. Set forth your boundaries and limits as clearly as you possibly can. That said, I invite you to give serious consideration to pushing your own boundaries a little. Sometimes our baggage around sexuality causes us to be so limited in our sexual repertoire that we never experience some very interesting and pleasurable variations.

Pleasurable and enjoyable sex is first and foremost about mutual consent and consideration. That said, rigidity denies so many opportunities in the bedroom. Strive to be flexible and willing whenever possible. It can pay off in mind-blowing sexual experiences we would have missed out on if we stubbornly stayed within our safe, quiet shell.

Woman in nightgown displaying satisfaction over better sex

6. Reclaim a healthy sense of sexual entitlement!

As an adult human being, you are entitled to a fulfilling sexual life. That’s what I mean by a healthy sense of entitlement. This absolutely can’t come at the expense of others’ well-being! But neither should you easily surrender this basic human right. You have every right to take every ethical step possible toward meeting this human goal. This does not make you a “sex addict” or a nymphomaniac! As I noted above, the path to achieving this goal lies in mutual consent and consideration. Practice both, liberally and frequently. Within reason, do not seek to deny or infringe each other’s rights in this matter.

Couple initiating sexual play

7. Then do it! Negotiate win-win scenarios and stretch your boundaries (it feels so good once you’ve tried it!)

Enough contemplation! Take action. Have the conversations, negotiate together how you can each meet your goals, stretch your boundaries a little, and have at it! Now you can bring in all of the tactical tricks that the sex advice columns focus on to the exclusion of addressing the bedrock sexual concerns I’ve touched on here.

Want to know more about my approach to keeping relationships fulfilling, happy, and lusty? Get my free ebook, What’s Wrong With Our Relationships?

Resolve Now to Avoid These 7 Deadly Relationship Mistakes

It’s the time of year that people focus on the changes they want to make in the new year. Like so many others, we have some suggestions for you. Ours are focused on making your relationship better and more fulfilling, not just for this year, but for the rest of your life!

We’ve expressed our ideas in the form of things you should stop doing. If you’re not doing any of these things, why are you reading this? But really, we find that at least one of these issues tends to resonate with most of the folks we talk to, and many can find multiple “ah-ha’s” among this list. Read on, then, and we hope you have a great relationship year!

Stop Sign
#1 Settling for an unsatisfactory sex life – and not talking about it!

Recent research demonstrates that nearly half of both men and women are unsatisfied with the frequency of sex within their relationship. Decades of research shows that sexual satisfaction within a relationship is very closely tied to overall relationship satisfaction. But many people are either afraid or otherwise unwilling to discuss their dissatisfaction with their partner.

We strongly recommend recommitting to a vital, active sex life within your relationship, and that starts with talking about it! Explore what you want in your sexual relationship, find out what your partner wants, and then agree to find ways to work toward satisfying each other’s needs. We know this isn’t as simple as it sounds, but neither is it as difficult as we often imagine it to be. The hardest part is often getting the conversation started, but the payoff will be well worth it.

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#2 Keeping secrets because you’re afraid to share

Oscar Wilde said, “The one charm about marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.” Makes for an interesting quote, but it’s terrible practice. Yet too many do it, and mostly for the wrong reasons. A gentle but persistent honesty is an important key to building healthy and sustainable relationships.

Achieving real intimacy requires transparency and vulnerability, not deception. But for that to occur, you have to be open and hold truthfulness in high regard. It has to be safe to be truthful! We certainly don’t recommend cruelty or “brutal honesty” – tact and a loving consideration are still essential. But withholding important truths from each other creates a climate of fear and uncertainty in a relationship that is always toxic and destructive in the long run.

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#3 Expecting your relationship to “complete” you

Thanks to fairy tales and popular mythology, too many people go through life as “living tinker toys.” They’re always hoping to find the right other person to join with them to create some magical completeness they don’t feel on their own. If this is your habit, we recommend you give it up. Accept yourself as already complete and whole. You’ll be more attractive to others if you do. You’re also freed up to begin finding others who complement you in one or more aspects of your life and to forge healthy partnerships. You don’t come across as “needy,” and you’re much better positioned to make rational choices about who you get involved with and to what degree.

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#4 Taking it personally

When we live in close proximity with another, there’s a tendency – a carryover from our childhood, when we didn’t know any better – to believe that everything that happens in our lives is a reflection on us, or happens because of us. We should outgrow that, but many of us do not. We continue to believe that “it’s all about us” even if not in a selfish way, but rather in a self-absorbed way. We take every event, comment, or situation in our relationship as somehow reflective of our own self-worth, the strength of our relationship, or the security we want to feel in life. This is a prescription for misery.

One way out of this form of self-limiting belief is to begin questioning these assumptions as they occur. If your partner says or does something you find threatening, pause and reflect on whether it’s really about you, or rather about something altogether separate from your relationship or from you as an individual of worth and value. If you find that the situation truly does warrant a conversation with your partner, you’ll be coming from a better place to have that conversation. If you realize it’s not really about you at all, you’ve spared yourself and your partner a needless annoyance. We like to tell our clients to practice the “Q-TIP rule – Quit Taking It Personally.”

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#5 Expecting your partner to be your companion at every event/activity/pastime you enjoy – whether they enjoy it or not – because “that’s what partners do.”

Our fairy-tale insistence on eternal togetherness often leads to some pretty dismal real world consequences. Research shows that couples often distance themselves from friends and intimates once they become serious about each other. This has the effect of limiting your exposure to viewpoints and observations that are not forged in the white hot crucible of your blossoming partnership. Over time, the partnership stabilizes and grows routine, but your outside friendships and connections have withered away. This in turn creates a dynamic where we expect our partner to fulfill the role of “best friend” in ways that are ultimately unhealthy and destructive of the relationship.

Humans are social animals. We’re not wired to huddle up in isolated pairs. This is a construct created within the last 100 years in western culture. A healthy relationship is one in which both partners maintain and nurture strong friendships outside the pair. We should refrain from expecting our partners to share every interest, hobby, and enthusiasm, and look instead to others for that social input. We return to our partnership enthusiastic and refreshed by our interactions with others, and we avoid imposing on our partners in ways that actually erode closeness and true intimacy.

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#6 Dodging tough conversations about important concerns

As with sex, there are a number of other sticking point issues in every relationship that people are reluctant to talk about. A small number of these will resolve themselves, for better or worse, but most of them won’t. If you’re unwilling to have the conversation, you can count on things not getting better most of the time. You have to ask yourself if the pain caused by the underlying issue is greater than the perceived potential pain of confrontation that keeps you silent.

We find that many times, the “air clearing” conversation actually strengthens, rather than erodes, the relationship, but only if you go about it the right way. A couple of key points: pick the right time for the conversation; have an open mind about the outcome; be prepared to hear your partner’s point of view; know exactly what it is you’d like to see change and how that would look; remember that you can only change your own thoughts, beliefs and actions; and remember that sometimes, you’re up against something that just isn’t going to change.

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#7 Wasting mental energy trying to change your partner

Speaking of things that won’t change, once again, we really want to emphasize that you can’t actually change your partner. The best you can hope for is – by making needed changes to and for yourself and your thinking – to influence your partner. This is not to say that you can’t respectfully request that your partner do something differently if that would please you or make your life easier in some way. What we do say is that it’s ultimately futile and counterproductive to expect to change your partner’s fundamental approach to life and living by dint of nagging, hectoring, snide comments, or non-specific, blanket demands. At best, you’ll get temporary, grudging compliance; at worst, you’ll get a letter from your soon-to-ex’s attorney.

By following these suggestions, you’ll lay a strong foundation for an enduring and fulfilling relationship. Avoiding these common pitfalls will free up your emotional and mental energy to engage in developing a true partnership that rewards both you and your partner in many ways.

Happy New Year!