“Cheating” is a loaded word. It can mean the end of a relationship. If the relationship survives, it can change a relationship so drastically that the relationship is never quite the same. These days, talk about open marriages, swinging, and polyamory is sparking questions among monogamous couples who fear infidelity, or have experienced it. In relationships that are based on consensual non-monogamy , communication about the parameters of the relationship are common, frequent and, expected. Unfortunately, this practice is not as common among monogamous couples. Often couples assume that all parties have the same understanding of infidelity and it is never discussed until someone crosses the other persons’ line. At that point, it can be detrimental to the relationship.
Many incidents of infidelity could be avoided if couples took the time to work through a monogamy agreement. The following are some principles that can inform a monogamy agreement, followed by some areas to discuss as part of your agreement.
PRINCIPLES OF A MONOGAMY AGREEMENT…
Autonomy and Respect in Relationships
Agreements are not the same as rules. I do not advocate a list of rules with a list of consequences to be enforced by the other partner. When a relationship is based on rules it can quickly change a partnership into a policing/parenting type situation. I haven’t met anyone yet who genuinely wants this type of relationship with their intimate partner. When discussing agreements, each person will need to take responsibility for their own insecurities and triggers which may be based on previous relationships. While it is reasonable to ask your partner for support in these areas, it is not appropriate to expect a lifelong agreement that is based primarily on unresolved fears and unhealed wounds from previous relationships. Do some work on your own fears and insecurities. Expect to re-visit them when you re-visit your agreement.
Privacy versus Secrecy
Privacy can be a part of respect in a relationship. Privacy is not the same as secrecy and it is not a justification for acting in ways that you know your partner would be unhappy with. However, each of you will need to determine what aspects of your relationships and sexuality you will want to share with each other and what aspects you are okay not knowing about, or, are unwilling to share.
Privacy might extend to things like social media, texts, or emails. Ideally there would be enough trust in a relationship that each person would not feel a need to “check” on the other, but at the same time neither would feel a need to hide anything either. The idea that checking phones and social media, bank accounts, etc can prevent infidelity, is faulty. There is always a way to hide things that you don’t want another person to see, it is up to each of you to decide if your level of distrust might require further evaluation of the relationship as a whole, or if there are issues that need to be worked out.
Hopes versus Fears
Start your discussion in each of the following areas (add more if you think of them) by sharing about your hopes in each of these areas. Often couples start with their fears. When one person starts with fears, the other person may find they spend a lot of time trying to calm fears or defend their own hopes. If a couple starts by sharing their hopes, each person may be surprised, at various points in the discussion that they don’t even have to worry about their fears, because what they feared the other person wanted was not true.
Of course, your partners’ hopes may spark some fears in you, and this is okay. Take note of them. I strongly urge each of you to take ownership of your own fears. You can ask each other for agreements to help lessen those fears, but this should not be an indefinite thing if the agreement only addresses one persons’ fears are addresses and the other person’s hopes.
When sharing your hopes, each of you may need to write them down and scale them from 1-5 with 5=something you really don’t want to miss out on in life and 1 = “it would be nice, but I could do without this.” Do the same for your fears with 5 =”I don’t think I could live with as part of our relationship, at least not at this time” and 1 = “It makes me uncomfortable but I can life with it.” Try to priorities the 5’s in your lists as things to address in your agreement.
MONOGAMY AGREEMENT TOPICS…
This is an area that is often left un-discussed. Check to see if each of you have any concerns about the role of masturbation in your relationship. Is it something you will each do alone, are there times when you might do this together? Is it something one person enjoys but the other does not? What are your fears about your partner’s masturbation habits?
Marcus likes to masturbate when Joan is away on business trips. He would prefer not to have to let Joan know each time he does this and doesn’t always want to share his fantasies with her when he does this. However, Joan is uncomfortable with Marcus doing this, feeling that he doesn’t necessary need her and fearing that he will decide that this is true. After some discussion about this, Marcus and Joan agree that for the next three months, when Joan is away, Marcus will text her when he plans to masturbate and, if Joan is free, she will Facetime with Marcus for an online “date.” Joan agrees to talk to a couple of friends who have mentioned masturbation, in the past, to see if she can get more perspective on this situation. After three months, they’ll talk about this again.
Thinking about your partner thinking about someone else can make some people uncomfortable. Sometimes people are worried about their own fantasies, “If I fantasize about someone I know, am I at higher risk of cheating?” “What if my fantasies are disturbing, things that I would not be comfortable doing or having done to me in real life? Does this mean something is wrong with me?”
Fantasy is about the ‘unreal’ and does not give a clear indication of what our actions will be. When we are angry, we might fantasize about punching someone in the face, but most of us do not act on this. Fantasies can be cathartic, in that they allow the mind to process feelings and ideas that would not serve us to act on.
Sometimes, when couples are looking for adventure in the bedroom, they might ask each other about their fantasies, thinking that this will inform them about where to start with any new activities. It is ok to ask about this, but you will need to clarify what part of your partner’s fantasy, if any, that they would actually want to act on. There is often a large discrepancy between fantasy and desire.
A good exercise to help with a conversation about fantasy and desire, is for each person to list all of the fantasies or ideas that they have ever heard of and then combine the list and have each person write on a separate piece of paper, whether this is something they’d love to do, are open to considering or are not interested in, at this point.
Sometimes couples will agree that they don’t want to know if the other person fantasized about someone they know. This can be an element of privacy within the relationship. And, of course, each person will need to decide what they are willing to share about their own fantasies.
Some couples choose an agreement that is based on sexual monogamy with erotic non-monogamy meaning that each person feels free to fantasize about others. This may or may not be shared with their partner.
This is often a sensitive area for couples. I strongly encourage people to educate themselves about porn, about ethical porn and the effects of porn. See Porn & You; Ethical Porn & When you find out Your Partner Uses Porn.
Like fantasy, the type of porn someone enjoys watching does not necessarily indicate what they would actually enjoying doing in real life. See the article listed in the above paragraph for areas of concern around the type of porn watched.
It is not uncommon for couples to have difficulty coming to an agreement about the use of porn in their relationship, or individually. In these cases it is important to be honest about your perspective and not pretend to agree with something that you do not. If one of you wants to use porn and the other does not and does not want you to either, do not say that you won’t use it if you intend to go ahead and use it secretly. It is worth continuing to work on understanding each others needs and concerns to reach an agreement that works for both of you, and not only for one of you.
If you both agree that porn is okay, I strongly encourage you to look for and pay for ethically made porn.
The Grey Areas of Porn
If you have both agreed that porn is okay in the relationship, you still may need to sort through some specifics:
- Is porn something you will use together, separately, or both?
- When would the person who uses porn (if both are not using it) most likely want to use it?
- Is live porn okay?
- Paid porn? (NOTE: I do recommend paying for porn in order to ensure it is made ethically and that you are supporting ethical porn – see Ethical Porn for more on this).
- What kinds of porn are you each interested in? What kinds make you uncomfortable? (NOTE all porn depicting underage actors is illegal, if you come across any you will need to report it, see Cybertip for more about this. Also, porn that depicts animals is considered unethical. When considering BDSM porn, I recommend that you do some research to understand what constitutes ethical BDSM. Check out Leatherati for more on this. Also, “9 Ways to Know You’re Watching Ethical Porn” talks about BDSM in porn).
- What about watching live streaming online porn depicting only one person where you can message that person?
- What about exchanging pornographic pictures with another person, someone you don’t know?
Some of these areas won’t seem very gray to some of you, but I can assure you that not everyone has the same view of each of these items listed above. Check and see where you and your partner stand on these and make sure you are listening to each other to be sure you have the same understanding.
For more on porn in your relationship, check out the podcast “Is Porn Sabotaging Your Relationship?” by Pleasure Mechanics.
In an earlier post, Jealousy in Relationships, I spoke about friendships and how couples can find themselves questioning the nature of their partner’s relationships with some friends. This area of the monogamy agreement should be treated similarly to the others, starting with hopes for the types of relationship each person wants to have with their various friends and then taking ownership of and addressing fears. I don’t advise a list of rules, per say, about what kind of contact each of you can have with your friends, in particular, the ones who fit the profile of someone you might potentially be sexually attracted to, but like the other areas that, you will need to work together in order come to some honest agreements.
Regarding heterosexual couples, in particular
Unfortunately, we live in a society where men , especially heterosexual men, are not given much permission to be physically or emotionally affectionate with other men in the same way that women are. Men have similar needs for affection and emotional connection (See Men). While some of these needs can be met with an intimate partner (of any gender), is is important for each person to have close friends outside of the relationship for the sake of each person’s wellbeing and for the health of the relationship (see Not Finding ‘The One’)
Among heterosexual couples, I’ve seen problems arise in scenarios like the following:
Luis and Judith had been friends since high school. They had once talked about dating but both agreed that they did not want this kind of relationship with each other. When Luis met Cynthia, he talked to Judith about her for hours. Judith gave good advice and Luis credits her for the success of his and Cynthia’s relationship and the fact that they were now married and expecting their second child. Cynthia has never expressed any negative thoughts about Judith but Luis sometimes wonders if she feels slightly uncomfortable with Luis spending time alone with Judith. Lately, Luis and Cynthia have been struggling. Both are exhausted from having a toddler and a baby on the way and their sex life is negligible. This past weekend, they had an argument and Luis left the house and went to Judith’s. He did not spend the night, but the next day when Cynthia asked where he had gone, Luis had been nervous to tell her, worrying that Cynthia would imagine the worst, but told her anyways. Cynthia did not respond well, accusing him of having an emotional affair with Judith and asked Luis to cut off ties with Judith. Luis loves Cynthia and doesn’t want to harm their relationship but also doesn’t want to cut off his friend, his ‘best friend,’ besides, Cynthia, if he’s honest with himself. Luis feels stuck.
I think it is worth looking at potential hopes and fears that Cynthia might have of Luis continuing his friendship with Judith.
- Judith has helped Luis get prospective on his relationship with Cynthia in the past, which has resulted in a stronger relationship for the two of them. This could happen again.
- Luis may find that he is able to better work through problems in the relationship with more empathy and creativity when feeling supported and heard. This is something Judith can provide as she is not directly impacted by the issues in the relationship.
- Cynthia does not need to be Luis’ emotional support in this issue, during a time where she may feel emotionally hurt by him and can, instead focus on having her own needs met elsewhere, by friends or family, or by Luis once he has more to give.
- Luis may find that he has difficulty separating emotional support and affection from sexual connection due to a lifetime of being socialized that females are for sexual connection and that men don’t need any other kind of emotional connection.
- Luis may believe that only female friends can provide this type of support and not take steps to expand his circle of connection to also include male friends, leaving him consistently reliable on female support.
Luis may fear that without Judith he has no other emotional supports and loses a long time friend. He will likely feel isolated and at times when there are issues between himself and Cynthia, have no where to let off steam or get perspective. This may cause more conflict in himself and, potentially in his relationship with Cynthia.
Other areas to discuss regarding friendships and other relationships:
- Physical contact with others
- Time spent with others
- Money spent on others
- Areas considered private that one partner would not want shared with others versus areas that each would like to confide in others about in order to obtain emotional support and perspective.
If you are able to share your hopes and fears in each of these areas, honestly, without trying to control the other person or hide from the other, you will have a great chance of avoiding cheating in your relationship.
For more on monogamy agreements, see the“Monogamy Agreements” by Pleasure Mechanics.
For more on relationships see:
Also see After You’ve Cheated