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Negotiating the Monogamy Agreement

We’ve all seen the classic scenario, whether on TV, while attending a wedding, or even getting married ourselves. A couple gets married, sharing public, heartfelt promises to be “together and faithful ‘till death do us part.” Then why is so common, decades after having made this promise, that so many couples’ definition of monogamy remains not only unknown but may be vastly different between partners?  Just think for a second, do you and your partner have the same answer to some of these questions:

  • How often do we have sex? Who initiates?
    • Is self-pleasuring a part of our ordinary lives or does it mean that something is wrong in the relationship?
    • Can I have friends of an opposite gender? Can I exchange dirty jokes with that person?
    • Can I flirt with other people? Where are the boundaries?
    • Can I watch porn? Do we watch porn separately? Who makes the decision?
    • Can we have casual sex with other people when we travel separately?

The list goes beyond sex to fantasies, friendships, thoughts, desires and emotions. In this article, I will describe why it is important to be explicit with one another about definitions and expectations of the monogamy promise, and how to take first steps toward achieving a more transparent, and more trusting relationship.

Let us go back to the wedding vows: statistically, about half of the couples never bring up the issue of fidelity again after their wedding day (ref.1).  It is even less common among unmarried couples, who never go through the “I do”s and “Until death”s, and might never even openly broach the topic of fidelity with their significant others. This often leads to these concepts remaining unspoken. This silent agreement, and lack of open discussion, forces both partners to live with their own assumptions about what it means to be faithful. This creates a couple’s differing expectations about the true meaning of monogamy, an unseen rift that only widens without clear communication. One study showed a whopping 40 percent of individuals in relationships didn’t know their partner’s “rules” when it came to monogamy (ref.1). How can you follow the rules if you don’t even know what they are in the first place? Imagine a busy intersection where only 40% of drivers know the meaning of a red light?  Now relate this image to the ever-increasing divorce rates around the world.  Because these individuals didn’t know what their partners expectations were, they often find themselves breaking the partner’s rules them without even realizing it (ref.1).

It is not uncommon for couples to start their lives together with implicit rules regarding fidelity, such as “I know you won’t cheat, but I probably will,” or “I will be faithful to you except for the periods when you are pregnant,” because someone might still want regular sex when the other partner is unwilling or unable to provide it.  Another implicit agreement might be “I will stay emotionally committed but still have one-night stands,” with the belief that it’s okay if there is no emotional connection. Some implicit agreements may not involve physical sex at all: “I will spend a lot of time with that other guy who is in love with me, we will have soulful conversations, but I won’t have sex with him,” with the understanding that it’s not cheating if there’s no physical sex involved.  These implicit rules are often based on cultural norms, religious beliefs (or lack thereof), traditional sex roles, family background, and personal moral values.  They are often unspoken, and may be different from explicit agreements.  And because they are implicit, each partner may hold a different and even opposing understanding of what the agreement is. This divergent understanding results in different expectations when it comes to fidelity.

Occasionally, when facing relationship difficulties, many couples redefine their understanding of monogamy and come up with more explicit agreements (ref.2). Further, according Dr Tammy Nelson, it is not enough to make this agreement once, but it should be a continuous negotiation, she views monogamy as a continuum, rather than a dichotomous term, and encourages couples to revisit rules throughout the course of their relationships (ref.1). Even more important than buying a new dishwasher or deciding on a paint color for the living room, continuous communication is key when it comes to negotiating monogamy expectations, because as couples age and pass through different developmental stages of their marriage (ref.2), these rules should change as well.  Life stages, such as kids being born, leaving home, menopause, retirement, personal existential crises and growths should all trigger an adjustment in this most important agreement. Referring to driving analogy, it is just like renewing your driving license when it is no longer valid.

Why is it important to have an agreement in regards to monogamy? While it might be a difficult conversation, the benefits of having it far outweigh any discomfort. Common understanding of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable promotes deeper and healthier relationships. Because communication creates fewer grey areas, these relationships are less prone to misunderstandings and betrayal and instead promote trust in each other.

If a couple decides to make a monogamy agreement, the results tend to be better with the guidance of a trained psychologist. Setting this agreement during a therapy session allows a couple to establish their “do”s and “don’t”s in terms of fidelity. There are various aspects that a couple may decide to discuss, including, but not limited to:

  • Thoughts
    • Do I share my sexual thoughts with you, or do I keep them private?
  • Fantasy
    • Do I share fantasies I have about celebrities or fictional characters? What is an acceptable level of detail? Do I share my fantasies that I might have about real people?
  • Desires
    • If I desire any sexual acts that are not common in our relationship, do I discuss them with you, or do I keep it to myself?
  • Emotions
    • What if I become emotionally connected to a friend of the opposite sex?
  • Sex
    • How often do we have sex? Who initiates?
    • Can I watch porn? Do we watch porn separately? Who makes the decision?
    • Can we have casual sex with other people when we travel separately?
    • Do we tell each other when we masturbate?
  • Flirtation
    • What are the rules regarding flirting with other people?
    • Is it ok to flirt with someone at work?
    • Is it ok to flirt with each other’s friends?
    • Where is the line between innocent flirtation and flirtation that can make you jealous?

These are only a few questions to illustrate possible topics during a process that may take several sessions. Some couples take it very seriously and get in heated discussions, while others are more relaxed, viewing it as an opportunity to explore and grow together. My own experience shows that couples with more explicit agreements have more trust and confidence compared to couples who refrain from open discussions, choosing instead to stick to their own assumptions.

These discussions are undoubtedly difficult, especially when broached for the first time and late in a relationship. But if rooted in love and shared desire to build a stronger relationship together, they will be far easier than having to deal with the repercussions caused by miscommunication.

References
1. Warren, J.T., Harvey, S.M., & Agnew, C.R. (2011). One love: Explicit monogamy agreement among heterosexual young adult couples at increased risk of sexually transmitted infections. Journal of Sex Research, 48(1), 1–8.
2. Nelson, T. (2013). Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity: The New Monogamy. New Harbinger Publications