Monogamy, without the “-ish”: A humble and definitely not cool defense of the closed relationship

Here's why I'll be keeping my own marriage shut tight

Published August 13, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Concept of love (Getty Images/SvetaZi)
Concept of love (Getty Images/SvetaZi)

It's not said often enough: The concept of marriage is berserk. What hope can there be to stay in love with one person across decades when you're both changing and evolving (as well you should), and when the chances are minuscule that you'll both be changing and evolving in the same direction (as well you won't)? So if a lasting marriage or partnership is your goal and you told me your open relationship is what's making it work, I'd salute you. Meanwhile, I'll be keeping my own marriage shut tight.

Like marriage, monogamy is a fishy concept: It's basically the way we take our sweeties off the market. Another way to look at it: Monogamy is what you do if you would circle "more" to complete the following statement:

It would hurt (more/less) to know that my partner is having sex with someone else than it would hurt to turn down sex with someone else.

Two people who would circle "less" are the authors of a couple of sturdy new books I've just read: "Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution," by Nona Willis Aronowitz, and "All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire," by Rebecca Woolf. Both authors are open-relationship enthusiasts and practitioners. (Probably not irrelevantly, both authors are more than a decade younger than I am.) I suspect the fact that I would circle "more" means that I'm less sexually evolved than Aronowitz and Woolf, and I also suspect I should feel some embarrassment about this, but it's just not taking hold.

Of course I'm attracted to other guys, but I don't even like to think about the fact that my husband of 22 years could possibly be attracted to other women, although I accept that this is true. There are, I understand, legions of people made of sterner stuff than I am. Figuring I might benefit from exposure to their thinking, the other day I clicked on Catherine Pearson's recent New York Times story, "Are We Still Monogamous? And 6 Other Questions to Ask Your Partner," which led me to Susan Dominus's 2017 New York Times Magazine article, "Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?," which led me to conclude that her interview subjects' "pro" argument is built on a foundation of quicksand-dusted wishful thinking.

Isn't sexual attraction often the gateway to falling in love?

Stressed repeatedly in Dominus' piece is the notion that open relationships can work if the participants commit to putting the brakes on sex when it's on the verge of morphing into something more meaningful. "Within the new notion of monogamy," Dominus writes, "each partner assumes that the other is, and will remain, the main attachment, but that outside attachments of one kind or another are allowed—as long as they don't threaten the primary connection." OK, but how can one know that the outside attachments won't turn threatening? For some couples in open relationships, Dominus writes, "that meant that they would each have unattached sex but not do anything crazy, like fall in love with outside partners." How, exactly, can that be controlled? Like sexual arousal, falling in love can be involuntary. And isn't sexual attraction often the gateway to falling in love?

As I was reading Dominus's piece I detected some principled disingenuousness among her interviewees — I'm going to call it sexual virtue signaling. This might be at least in part a product of these assiduously signal-y times, as I also sensed sexual virtue signaling in "Bad Sex," Aronowitz's largely superb book. I was dumbfounded when, after writing at length of her actively libertine sex life, Aronowitz admits that she isn't especially orgasmic. Wait a second: So the scads of sex she's having, some of it within open relationships, isn't even particularly arousing to her? This made me wonder how many people who live as libertines aren't libertines at heart so much as libertines in spirit — that is, enticed by the idea of being libertines. Might the same be true for some of the subjects in Dominus's story?

One married man she interviewed rhapsodized like so about his open communication with a woman he was sleeping with:

I could share my love for my wife with her, and not…even be awkward, even though she's naked, lying on top of me—I really felt like it was kind of beautiful. And it struck me that she could have gone to this other place, and been insulted, "How dare you talk about that, you have me here now." But instead, she kind of saw it as a beautiful thing, too.

Did she really, though? Did it not occur to this man that this woman might be smiling through gritted teeth in effort to telegraph her cucumber-cool tolerance?

I don't even like to think about the fact that my husband of 22 years could possibly be attracted to other women, although I accept that this is true.

For me the most preposterous argument for the open relationship in Dominus's story is distilled in this pull quote: "For the nonmonogamous, jealousy presents an opportunity to examine the insecurities that opening a relationship lays bare." Must jealousy reflect insecurities that necessitate examination? Why can't jealousy be just an honest and logical response to the news bulletin that one's partner finds someone else sexually appealing?

I know that some couples do this, but I have never once indicated to my husband when I have found someone else alluring. In what way, I've always wondered, would this be helpful? I remember that early on in our relationship he made a remark about finding a young Audrey Hepburn adorable, after which I internally registered that in a side-by-side comparison I would not stack up against a young Audrey Hepburn. This did not make me feel good. I must have given my husband a look to this effect, because he never mentioned Audrey Hepburn, or any other crush object, living or dead, again.

Is this provincialism on my part? Or is keeping mum about sexual yearning for another person just basic kindness, or tactfulness, or good manners? And would it be a stretch to posit that the reason my husband and I, two decades in, still love having sex with each other is because we've kept alive the delusion that we only have eyes for each other? I wouldn't say we're a perfect match — we're comically bad communicators, and about four times a year I want out, and then it blows over — but I can tell you that if this marriage is going down, it won't be because of sex.

Even if I could know in advance that straying would lead me to quiver-making sexual adventures, I'd have to ask myself: What price the orgasm? Sometimes I think the promise to be faithful is just a stand-in for any promise that two people in a partnership might make to each other to prove the magnitude of their devotion: Instead of promising to stay faithful, could it just as well be, "I promise never to remove that SpongeBob mug from the kitchen counter if you promise never to move it either"? Maybe promising to be sexually faithful is no more or less stupid than that, but isn't this the only concrete proof a person has of a partner's unyielding devotion? And for a promise to mean something, shouldn't it be difficult to keep?

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By Nell Beram

Nell Beram is coauthor of "Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies," a former Awl columnist, and an original member of the Magnetic Fields.

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