Studies show that between 30 and 60 percent of married individuals in the United States will cheat at some point in their marriages. Infidelity has increased significantly among married couples in their 20s, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that, “Between 1991 and 2006, the numbers of unfaithful wives under 30 increased by 20 percent and husbands by a whopping 45 percent.” Many people assume that affairs are a symptom of a larger problem in a relationship. But according to the Psychotherapy Networker article The New Monogamy, “35 to 55 percent of people having affairs report they were happy in their marriage at the time of their infidelity.”
So what’s causing so many people to cheat? Some feel it’s a matter of viewing sexuality and commitment as two mutually exclusive concepts. As the Networker article suggests, many individuals in intimate relationships are making exceptions to sexual fidelity or taking alternative approaches to their sexual freedom — and that can work as long as those decisions are agreed upon by both partners.
No matter what the agreement, though, there is one fundamental quality that, if compromised, can destroy any relationship, open or otherwise, and that’s honesty. One might say that the true dangers of non-monogamy lie in the deception. As the Networker article describes it, “The key to these [open] arrangements, and what makes them meaningful within the framework of emotional commitment, is that there can be no secrecy between partners about the arrangements.”
Maintaining intimacy means breaking down restrictions and building up trust. It means staying close to someone without losing your unique sense of self. While it may seem counterintuitive, what I’ve found is that avoiding affairs often means offering partners more freedom, increased independence and open communication.
Here are some dos and don’ts that, based on the principles of open relationships, that can keep you and your partner excited about each other and less likely to grow apart.
1. Hold on to your friendships. Your friends bring out different aspects of your personality that are authentically you, and these relationships help keep you from losing yourself in your relationship. Good friends also offer diverse and distinct attributes to our lives. This counters the unrealistic pressure we put on ourselves to get everything from just one person or one relationship.
2. Expand your world; make new friends; try new things. Research shows that having a number of close friends adds years to your life. When relationship partners shrink their worlds to accommodate each other, the relationship suffers. Instead, meet your partner’s friends and have him or her meet yours. Try new activities together, and be open to each others’ interests.
3. Keep being the individual you were before you got in the relationship. When you give up aspects of yourself, you stop being the person your partner fell in love with. When you mold yourself to suit your partner, whether he or she asks for it or not, you lose your vitality and your relationship suffers.
4. Allow your partner to keep his/her friends (regardless of gender). When you restrict your partner’s movement, he/she will start to resent you and may become less straightforward to avoid dealing with your reaction. Your partner needs to keep his/her friends for all the same reasons you need to keep yours. By letting your partner be free, you ensure that you’re his/ her “real” choice. You don’t want someone to be with you out of obligation, guilt or fear. You want it to be because they love you (and trust you) for who you are and because you love them for exactly the same reason.
5. Don’t lie to your relationship partner, even by omission. This means not engaging in activities with other men or women you are not willing to disclose to your partner. Deceptions may seem self-preserving in the moment but they will only drive you apart in the long run. When people find out they’ve been deceived by a loved one, they will often lose any trust in that person, which then leads to either heightened jealousy, attempts to control or rejection.
6. Don’t talk about relationship problems with other potential love interests. Using someone who is not unbiased as a confidante is unwise and may drive you and your partner apart.
7. Don’t use contact with other people to make your partner jealous. This is a form of manipulation. Even if gets your partner’s attention, he/she will resent you for it and think less of you in the long run.
8. Don’t create false expectations … in other people who may be interested in you romantically. Be clear about your boundaries. If you aren’t, your “friend’s” expectations can lead your partner to feel unnecessarily threatened.
9. Don’t turn your partner into a parent … where you are asking his or her permission to go out or do something on your own. In turn, don’t restrict your partner by imposing too many restraints on his/her actions. This creates a parent-child dynamic of inequality in your relationship that will have a ripple effect.
If our goal is to enjoy a rich and sustainable relationship, it is essential to maintain equality, honesty, respect and individuality. And, in many cases, these characteristics can exist among couples whether or not they’ve decided to be sexually exclusive. Sex columnist Dan Savage has stirred up controversy by talking about unrealistic or unnatural expectations we impose on monogamous relationships, even suggesting that, in some cases, “non-monogamy can strengthen a marriage.”
Yet, for this to be possible, Savage has stressed the unwavering importance of honesty and openness. In an interview with NPR, Savage stated, “For a non-monogomous relationship to function properly, properly meaning no blood, no tears, both persons involved have to agree on a set of rules.”
Whatever this set of rules may be for a couple, whether insisting on monogamy or making certain exceptions, that is for them alone to decide. What matters is that once we’ve decided and agreed upon the terms of our relationship, we must stand by these decisions. In doing so, we offer our partner and ourselves a certain degree of freedom and respect as the separate individuals we are.
We are then free to love our partners for who they are, not as extensions of ourselves or people we must control, watch out for or feel suspicious toward. When two people in a couple accept and appreciate each other’s uniqueness and independence, they’re often surprised by how much closer they get to each other. When we give up some control, we gain much more than we lose.