[OPINION | Dash of SAS] Toxic monogamy

I wasn’t entirely surprised, but the reporter in me was intrigued and wanted to know more. (TBH, even if I weren’t a reporter, I would be interested.) 

“What are the...mechanics of that?” I asked, groping for the appropriate terms and not entirely sure I was using the right ones.  

Emilio, pragmatic realist that he was, pushed up his glasses and proceeded to explain. 

His primary relationship is his longtime girlfriend, Dani*. They have been living together for a couple of years now, but Emilio has certain needs that she cannot fulfill. 

And, no, they’re not entirely related to sex, kinks, or fetishes. 

“I’m a very affectionate and showy person. She is not. I crave frequent time with someone. She can’t always give that because her work requires her to be alone or away for long periods of time. I respect that, and she is aware that I have needs that she cannot fulfill all the time.”

Emilio has several other women that he has relationships with. He hangs out with them and has long, intimate talks with them, which satisfy his need for companionship, meaningful conversation, and intimacy. Sex is not always part of the relationship. 

“But isn’t that just like a good gal pal? A wingwoman? A platonic relationship? A buddy who happens to have a vagina instead of a penis?” I think I rattled off half of that list before Emilio stopped me.  

“Not really. It’s a relationship by virtue of the time and energy spent with these women, and it’s not entirely platonic. The possibility of physical affection on a more intimate level is always there,” Emilio explained. He tacked down the reminder that “there is a lot of affection you can share with someone without sleeping with them.”

“But if you do want to sleep with another person, what about Dani?” I pressed. 

“I would have to talk about it with Dani. She has to be OK with it. Communication and honesty are always key. Everything can be talked about,” he said. 

As I let the details swirl and simmer in my head, Emilio added: “It’s not Dani I have a problem with, and she knows that. She and I are very happy and stable together. It’s just that the confines of monogamy can be toxic.”

We all have our share of stories of how monogamous relationships can become suffocating. There are women who need to tell their boyfriends or husbands where they are going, whom they are going with, and even what they will be wearing. I even have one story from a guy who told me his girlfriend told him to turn on the location settings in Viber so she could see where he is. She’s an ex-girlfriend now.

Some relationships are territorial and hyper-possessive in the belief that “being with someone” means that you somehow own them. True, individual personalities and not just the parameters of monogamy make this possible, but the interpretation of monogamy as being “only you and me” legitimizes this kind of partner policing.

Toxic monogamy 

Experts, couples, and singletons have been weighing in on how monogamy may no longer suit the way life and relationships are lived today. Longer lifespan is one of the commonly cited factors.

“We are living longer now, so couples have to love twice as long – just one person. Never before have we been so dependent on one person for all our all our needs: emotional and financial security, and our psychological well-being. Before, we had a complete village and different people to look to for all those needs,” said Perel.  

Perel also spoke of couples who had experienced infidelity and saw how many them – especially those who had never strayed before – went through intense emotional upheaval like the death of a loved one or an illness before having an affair. In those cases, Perel observed, “Affairs are sometimes an anecdote to deadness.” 

In this piece for The Atlantic, Perel talked about why even happy people cheat and cites the case of Priya*, a woman who had been happily married for many years, but was carrying on a wild wicked affair with a truck driver. He was the opposite of what was an ideal partner for Priya and their trysts often took place in his truck, but all that made the excitement of the affair skyrocket to adolescent hormone levels. 

“Priya’s affair…it’s a crisis of identity, an internal rearrangement of her personality…. Her daughters are becoming teenagers and enjoying a freedom she never knew…. As she nears the mid-century mark, she is having her own belated adolescent rebellion,” wrote Perel.

Perel stresses that it is not for her to decide for her clients if they should stay or if they should go. Rather, she focuses on helping them understand and uncover the reasons behind their unfaithfulness. 

Is it really cheating?

Dating apps have normalized hook-up culture and have made it so much easier to meet other people and stray. Throw in how internet chat sites and smartphones have enabled camming, sexting, cybersex – essentially a form of sexual exchange without an exchange of bodily fluids – and the hardlines that used to define cheating become increasingly blurry.

Relationship expert and sex columnist Dan Savage, who spoke alongside Perel at the same talk in New York, has always been a proponent of non-monogamy. Cheating happens, and happens more often than we think, and “that’s OK,” said Savage, who added that men no longer had the monopoly on infidelity. Women did it, too.

Savage and his husband, Terry, have been together for more than two decades. They have lived many of those years in an open relationship, or what he describes as: “We were monogamous or something like it. We were monogamish.”

In an interview with Anna Sale for the podcast Death, Sex and Money, Savage talked about his enduring marriage, and said that occasional infidelity could add excitement to relationships and can help keep couples together.  

Savage turned the question back to Sale, who is unmarried but in a happy committed relationship, and asked her what she would do if her partner ever cheated on her.  

Sale paused before answering. “I don’t know. I read you, Dan Savage. I get you, but I don’t know if I could get over…the hurt.” 

There is no one answer to this question of monogamy. It remains an ideal arrangement for some couples who are in happy and healthy relationships with one person, but maybe the bigger question is: should monogamy be seen as the be-all and end-all status that fits all relationships?  

Does monogamy need an overhaul to keep up with the ever-changing norms of dating, relationships, and cohabitation? Does it need a systems update to make its once clearly-defined boundaries compatible with the various ways indiscretion now exists? Should it be seen as a relationship flavor whose ingredient mix needs to be defined and liked by the parties concerned? 

Whatever the answer, it is clear that relationships and the way we have them are changing and will continue to change. It may have many different permutations that run across a spectrum. Monogamy is not necessarily better than polyamory, or the other way around.

After our conversation, my polyamorous friend, Emilio, sent me this article to better understand what it is like to love more than one person and we talked more about its own drawbacks.

Poly couples have to negotiate and navigate the conditions and rules that their arrangements are premised on. Neither are poly relationships impervious from becoming abusive or manipulative. 

Couples who stick it out with “classic monogamy” may have stability and security, but will also have to resist any drudgery and the toxic relationship ticks that comes with it.

Perhaps a change in mindset is needed to manage the monotony that often emerges as the insidious twin of monogamy. A burst of creativity to reinvent existing longterm relationships and giving them the needed jolt. “Instead of thinking of forever as being rooted in the same partnership until death, think of it as having 2 or 3 relationships with the same person throughout your lives,” Perel suggested.  

It’s not about having an off-on switch to the relationship, Perel stressed. It’s about choosing to fall in love with the same person and starting over a new journey. She summarized it best when she wrote: “Often, when a couple comes to me in the wake of an affair, it is clear to me that their first marriage is over. So I ask them: Would you like to create a second one together?” – Rappler.com

*Names have been changed.  

Ana P. Santos writes about sex and gender issues. Her Rappler column, DASH of SAS, is a spin-off of her blog, Sex and Sensibilities (SAS).