I’m recovering from ankle-replacement surgery* and watching far too much TV and far too many films. Why is it that mainstream TV shows and films never show ethical, consensual non-monogamy as a relationship choice that works for many? We only see sexual exclusivity as the gold star of relationships, and when someone strays from the monogamy agreement, love turns into hurt and hate — almost never into a renegotiation of what the couple wants the relationship to be going forward. (Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” is the only exception that I can think of, and it’s not mainstream.)Don’t get me started on how rarely we see older-age relationships portrayed in any way other than traditional, if they’re portrayed at all! Even the new Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” made me cringe at the stereotypical portrayal of older people and relationships. Yes, the men came out as gay and in love with each other instead of their long-time wives, but even they lapsed into spats and pain when it came out that one of them had either a past one-night stand or a last-night tryst with his ex-wife. Why not just say, “Yeah, these things happen and will happen and because I love you, I’ll work to understand and accept — let’s talk”?And the sweet, vulnerable, free-spirited, hippie Frankie played by Lily Tomlin? Why isn’t one of those cute, ex-convict artists emerging from her bedroom from time to time? (I have to say that as much as I’m dumping on this series, Frank Waterston is wonderful and adorable and the sexiest person on the show. He’d be welcome in my house anytime.)
Back to reality: sex therapists, researchers, and educators know that the sexual exclusivity model works for some but not for all. For others, ethical and consensual non-monogamy (which isn’t cheating, because both partners agree to it) keeps many relationships strong. Pioneers like Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence and TED talk speaker on “Rethinking Infidelity,” and Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, authors of Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, have done brilliant work demystifying the causes and effects of infidelity and whether human beings are monogamous creatures.
My favorite podcaster, Dan Savage, talks about this often. He coined the term “monogamish” to describe couples who are committed, intimately bonded, and who sometimes have sex with others. The partner might want to know all the details or might not want to know anything, depending on the couple’s agreement. Savage also says that when a couple has a monogamy agreement — no sex with anyone else — and one of them strays once in a while, the strayer is doing “a pretty good job at monogamy.”
Please don’t misunderstand me — I’m not “promoting” non-monogamy or any sexual lifestyle. I’m just saying that I know many couples who stay together happily and intimately because they acknowledge that sexual exclusivity is not right for them. Let’s not judge them or say (as I’ve heard some people righteously insist) that they “don’t know how to be committed to another person.”
Those of you who are in consensually non-exclusive relationships, especially after age 50, I invite your thoughts here. Was this always the kind of relationship you wanted? Or did you come to it because you tried to embrace monogamy and it didn’t work? I hope you’ll share your views and experiences. (If you have trouble posting a comment, please email me and I’ll post it for you.)
* In case you’re curious about my surgery:I was in a near-fatal auto accident in 1979, which, among many other injuries, shattered my right heel and crushed my ankle. For the past 36 years, I’ve walked and danced on an ankle that barely moved and often caused pain. I sometimes described my foot as “a block of wood with nerve endings.” I am extremely fortunate that now a reliable procedure is available that replaces a damaged ankle with a new, mobile one! I had the surgery in November, and I expect to be back on the dance floor in February!