“It’s true. Once you’ve cheated on someone it’s really hard for them to trust nuclear power.” Wendy Zukerman, Science vs.
I have cheated and have also been cheated on. To clarify, when I was the cheater, I was not married and my relationship status was more than a hookup, but less than committed. Therefore, I didn’t really think of it as cheating and in fact, that was during my summer of love and exploration. But my main partner at the time wasn’t pleased and had assumed a different status for our relationship. He was truly hurt and by fall, we were no more. I began learning then about the importance of communication in a relationship...about the importance of not assuming “the rules” of your union with someone.
Many years later, as the one being cheated on, I was in verbally-communicated committed relationship and the rules were knowingly broken and that was obviously very painful. Intellectually, I got it, he’s cute, she’s cute, she’s feeling old, he’s feeling old. It was about excitement, novelty, opportunity, or maybe distraction. Who knows. Who cares. It happened, I found out and it hurt, kind of like suffering from c.diff (horrific, foul smelling, nonstop diarrhea) on a summer morning, I thought the pain would not go away. Until eventually it did.
In my Mother’s Day post, I noted how that day of supposed celebration is actually the most common day of the year for women to go out there and explore a side piece because something is missing at home. That something could be sex, but usually it is actually something else. Usually what’s missing at home is appreciation and instead, moms often feel taken for granted. And this doesn’t only apply to moms or women. Regardless of gender, people cheat because they feel that not-so-special feeling anymore. We cheat because of excitement, opportunity, novelty, distraction and stupidity.
So how does this relate to our private parts of wellness? For the patients that I care for at the clinic, most of these indiscretions end up with a script for azithromycin to treat the new case of chlamydia, or a shot for their gonorrhea that may become part of the super variety. Sometimes the patients are surprised, sometimes they are not, most of the time they are furious. So as an ambulatory nurse, I educate about the medication and as a sex nurse, I ask about the relationship. It usually starts with, “are you monogamous?” This is when I get a blank stare. I then explain that “monogamous” means you are in an exclusive sexual relationship with one other individual.
Cheating typically happens because of a lack of communication; if you don’t know what monogamy is, how can you explore its meaning in your relationship? And how can you know what your partner wants, if you have never discussed it? You know what they say about when we ASSUME… you waste a lot of fucking time and energy trying to read your lover’s mind. Assumptions take a toll on your mental wellness and don’t usually get you to the truth.
So let’s say you have assumed monogamy in your relationship and there was a betrayal… one of you strayed. What now? Honestly, there will be screaming and crying at first, and perhaps for a while. But I don’t recommend burning anything down. Take your time, as much as you need, and decide what you want. For some, infidelity is a line that cannot be uncrossed. However, for others, infidelity may not be a reason to leave a relationship, but instead act as a catalyst to redefine it.
And what if, like in my most recent case, it wasn’t “assumed monogamy” but actual agreed-upon monogamy, and still there was a breach. Does this mean you should definitely walk away? Again, the answer is no. Remember, there are no “shoulds.” Even in this case, like in mine, perhaps the so-called infidelity can be used as a way to re-open a dialogue that has clearly been closed off. Use it to figure out how each person contributed to the pain and reestablish your commitment to each other. Get vulnerable and discuss each of your needs and wants. This may open the door for other possibilities beyond monogamy. Sometimes it’s hard to state what you want and need, sexually and in relationships, to discuss your private thoughts, even with your partner. And sometimes that is because you don't know how to express what you want...or you don't know what the “acceptable” options are. Let’s go deeper into a couple of these possibilities.
Starting with Ester Perel - In her Ted Talk and book, Mating in Captivity, she explores that point in a long-term relationship when, if you haven’t done the work, you become complacent and think “you’re still here?” While she does not explicitly state the possible benefits of an open marriage, she acknowledges the charge that one gets when their partner is desired by others. She talks about the excitement of seeing your partner in their element, basically the allure of confidence and self-assurance. She also talks about the importance of the personal erotic life, meaning if you want to fantasize that Kiki The Mechanic is going down on you while you are actually on the receiving end of Tuesday Night Missionary, by all means notice her on her 36” creeper and let her slide right into her position. It’s nobody's business what anybody does to you in your mind.
In a world where everything deserves its own label, Dan Savage coined the term Monogamish. According to Quora, Monogamish is when a “couple is in a committed partnership that is socially pair-bonded but has an agreement that partners can engage in some level of outside sexual activity. Not to be confused with polyamorous relationships, which involve committed partnerships that are socially non-monogamous.”
This means that everyone knows you have a bond with one person, and that your commitment is solid, however there are agreed activities that include other people. Does this mean that you have group sex, or can give a stranger a blow job? Maybe, but not necessarily. This agreement could be anything from flirting to the point of what some might deem inappropriate, all the way to bumping uglies. Others might say that their partner can go on dates, have sex, but there must be boundaries and rules, par exemple, you can only spend $50 on any date, and curfew is at 3am. As gross as this analogy might be, I like to think of it as trying on that designer dress, with no intention of buying it. You can play, but you can’t commit because you already have a main love you are committed to.
Another version of modern-day non-monogamy is the New Monogamy as coined by Dr. Tammy Nelson. So one of you has been unfaithful but you want to stay together, with an arrangement of sorts. Again, you have your primary partner, the partner you have made a commitment to, but you have other partners that understand that you will stay with your spouse. The difference between the New Monogamy and being monogamish is a subtle one. New Monogamy comes from a very hetero place, expanding the one woman/one man equation to include others. This can be casual or it can involve creating an additional pair bond, i.e. polyamory. Monogamish, was originally established outside of the hetero construct, you are still the witness to the life of your partner, you build that picket fence together, but you can also enjoy a bit of “foreign” tail on the side.
The key takeaway here is that communication and honesty are essential to having a fulfilling relationship and sexual life. In a Monogamish or New Monogamy relationship, or any other iteration of these endless possibilities, the common thread is an agreed-upon set of rules with your main committed partner. Cheating is about lack of communication and honesty, about breaking a contract. When you cheat, your main partner has no voice, no choice, and they end up feeling like a fool.
Going back to my patients with the newly diagnosed STI... Most of these patients are women who sleep with men, men who these women believed were being sexually exclusive with them, men about whom these women usually now say, “I knew it. I knew he was cheating. They all cheat.” After explaining monogamy, I let them know the alternatives, listed above, and hand them condoms. I suggest they start the conversation with these “unfaithful” partners by saying something like, “it seems like monogamy may not work for us since you gave me some coochie cooties. How about we talk about opening this thing up?” The patients walk out feeling a bit more empowered than when they entered the clinic, though most likely the conversation at home doesn’t go so smoothly. But at least they have some alternatives now.
When someone “cheats,” they are usually first only thinking of themselves and their new lovers, however, when they are discovered, they realize that the effects are far more reaching. The choice usually falls on the “cheated on” to stay or go, to trust again or turn away, but in all cases, full disclosure and honest conversation is the best for moving forward in whatever direction.
Could I do it? Have a Monogamish or New Monogamy relationship? I have three reasons that make me think an open relationship isn’t for me.
1. I do the laundry in my home and I would hate to be washing funky drawers with someone else's love juice on them.
2. I’m an only child and I like to feel special. If my lover was giving their best date game to someone else, I would definitely feel some type of way about that. (However, if I could guarantee that I had adoring and strapping suitors fussing over me, perhaps I would consider the options.)
3. It seems exhausting. Relationships are hard and dating takes work, I already do a shitload of work, do I need to also entertain loverssssss?
Finally, I recently listened to some radio hosts discussing the phenomenon of being “All fucked out” - when you’ve tried all 32 flavors and you plan to stick with the mint chocolate chip you know and love. You think to yourself, “mint chocolate chip works, it’s cool, refreshing with a hint of bittersweet chocolate and I can always add some sprinkles to it or lick it in a waffle cone.” That’s where I’m at, I love my familiar and consistent mint chocolate chip, with all the ingredients written out clearly.