Redefining MonogamyWhere do you draw the line on monogamy?

Maya* met Tonya* through mutual friends at a party about ten years ago. They hit it off from the get-go, became close as they found out more about each other and got together soon after. About eight years into their relationship, Maya, 38, realized she had the hots for someone she’d met at work and couldn’t stop thinking about her. This other person, whom we’ll call Alice, was also in a long-term relationship. Although the two of them had never touched physically nor even acknowledged the mutual attraction, Maya spent a lot of time thinking about Alice, meeting up with her every so often, texting and emailing.

Maya was in a monogamous relationship, and sex had only petered out. Although she told Tonya about Alice, she chose not to tell her how aroused and sexually alive she felt when they got together. Maya wasn’t sure if her desire was love or lust, or perhaps both. Was she flirting with Alice or just responding to her provocative banter? Maya worried about these feelings and wondered why she continued to meet Alice despite feeling committed to her partner. Was she being unfaithful? Was she trying to get a flavour of what she felt she’d lost in her long-term relationship? She didn’t dare talk about it with Tonya for fear of hurting her or risk of losing her. They had never spoken about the “what if” if one of them fancied someone else. They were monogamous, and apart from celebrity crushes, expressing a desire for anyone else was off limits. Maya knew she didn’t want to have sex with Alice; the fantasy and the shared feeling of mutual attraction were enough. Each time they met, Maya returned to Tonya’s flat feeling guilty and aroused until unexpectedly, one evening, her arousal seemed to re-ignite their sexual relationship. After a year or so, Maya realized her attraction to Alice had “fizzled out”; today, she says their relationship is “stronger – and sexier than ever”.

Did Maya “cheat” on Tonya? That depends on who you ask. In a survey conducted by comedian, author and Radio DIVA host Rosie Wilby to find out what we mean when we talk about infidelity, 62 out of the 100 participants said they thought exchanging texts and emails constituted infidelity. By this measure, Maya’s behaviour would be considered unfaithful. A further 31 out of the 100 participants might consider Maya’s masturbating and fantasizing about Alice whilst in a monogamous relationship with Tonya to be unfaithful also.

For some in monogamous relationships, any such behaviour involving someone other than their partner is considered suspicious. 25-year-old Lu, is typical of those who believe infidelity means “doing anything you wouldn’t do in front of your partner or doing anything you wouldn’t tell them about”. Similarly, Abbi, 27, explains that in her current relationship, “infidelity would be anything either physical or emotional and acted upon. Anything you wouldn’t want the other person to see. So anything from kissing, obviously sex to flirting by text to the point you had to hide the texts or encouraging someone you know is interested in you romantically.” For Isabelle*, 45, however, it’s a case of what the mind doesn’t know the heart doesn’t grieve over. “A secret fantasy is nobody else’s business. A bit of flirting can be healthy so long as it stays light. We need to be realistic that we will meet people as we go through life that makes us go all a flutter. Suppose you’re genuinely, solidly happy in your relationship. In that case, it can put up with the odd head-turning moment.” Counsellor and psychologist MJ Barker add: “other people who come into our lives in this way can often help us to experience sides of ourselves that we don’t experience with another person – like our partner. This is part of why those relationships can feel so intoxicating, and – if we can stay with that feeling without acting upon it – it may be that we can have the kind of experience described here. However, it’s certainly possible to have experiences like this openly, without having to keep it secret, and indeed to act upon it without the primary relationship having to end, so it feels a bit sad to me that Tonya had to keep it secret and not consider acting upon it.”

In her book Is Monogamy Dead, Rosie Wilby explores the responsibilities we have to each other in and out of relationships and the different ways we choose to negotiate our interactions. It’s a subject close to Rosie’s heart, driven by her own experience and expectations of intimate relationships and triggered by the heartbreak she felt after four meaningful relationships that didn’t work out and the one she found herself in with Jen*, who gave her love, companionship, consistency – and sex if she wanted it. Only Rosie didn’t. The sex bit that is. But as much as she cringed at the thought of sex with steadfast Jen (having not gotten over her last girlfriend), she couldn’t bear to lose the deep bond of friendship they’d developed over the years. The catalyst that rocked her out of her false sense of security was to realise a close friend and serial monogamist was having an affair shortly before she jumped ship from the long-term partner to the new paramour.

This wasn’t part of the deal, she thought. “This was someone sizing up and trying out their next partner while they were still in an existing relationship. It was a kind of non-consensual non-monogamy.” She wondered how many other self-proclaimed ‘serial monogamists’ actually adopted this somewhat more duplicitous model. So Rosie did what most of us would never do: she went forensic on love, sex and relationships and used the treasures she found in her research as material in a string of sell-out one-woman shows that she performed around the country. She learned how to “consciously uncouple” she listened and learned from academics and friends, from people in poly relationships, and how to start thinking and doing relationships differently.

I, too, decided to conduct some research on this subject, admittedly with a far smaller sample and discovered some interesting facts. Respondents told of their deal-breakers – whether in mono and poly set-ups – and the joys and sorrows of their mistakes. In Rosie’s survey, 94 of the 100 surveyed said they felt that having sex with someone else would constitute infidelity, 76 believed that kissing someone was crossing the line, and 73 said falling in love with someone else without any sexual contact was also a no-no. Lower down the list of deal-breakers for those in monogamous relationships was “staying up all night talking to someone else – 31”, “masturbating while thinking about someone else – 14”, “fantasising about someone else – 7” and¨” looking at porn alone – 4”. Only three said they felt none of these behaviours constituted a breach of contract, and two said they had¨” never been in a monogamous relationship”.

The results suggest that most of those who participated in the survey think of a monogamous relationship model. Yet, as 37-year-old Katie observes, those in monogamous relationships often don’t openly discuss their boundaries. “I think problems arise because people don’t communicate around this and instead make huge assumptions about what the other person’s boundaries are based on what their own are, and what might be commonplace within their group of friends, family or community,” Katie explains.  “I think the additional problem for same-sex female relationships, in particular, is that platonic friendship behaviour can sometimes overlap with relationship behaviours depending on the dynamic between the friends. Is it infidelity, for example, to kiss your best friend hello on the lips, and is it different from kissing a person you fancy or flirting with hello on the lips? And until we start to deconstruct actions and feelings, thinking through romantic, sexual, platonic, friendship, the love, we will always struggle to communicate about these things and what makes us comfortable or uncomfortable, happy or unhappy.”

MJ Barker is unsurprised by the findings of Rosie’s survey. “From my experience as a relationship therapist and researching monogamy and non-monogamy, it’s clear that the rules around fidelity are very unclear. Studies have found that monogamous people often assume that they both know and agree with what monogamy means and then realise later that they have different ideas. Looking at online porn, flirting, and being friends with an ex are common examples which one person would regard as infidelity and the other wouldn’t.”

In their book Rewriting the Rules, MJ suggests, “it’s helpful to locate yourself on a spectrum of ’emotional monogamy’ and ‘physical monogamy’ because those things are differently for different people. On the emotional scale, it’s about whether you want only one person who is emotionally a lot closer to you than other people in your life (perhaps a partner) up to the other end of the spectrum where you have several close people at an equal level. On the physical scale, one extreme would be forbidding any physical closeness with anyone who is not a partner, to the other extreme of having sexual relationships with anybody you’re attracted to.”

This kind of reflective behaviour can help ensure that partners are clear about what kind of relationship they’re after. When boundaries weren’t discussed in previous relationships, Katie admits she “kissed other people in relationships and decided the best course of action is to come clean. I’ve done the same and kept it hidden. It never affected how I felt about the person I was with, but it might have affected how they felt about me. I’ve ended one relationship because my feelings for another became stronger than those I had for the person I was with.”

Although she is not currently in a relationship, Katie says she wants to do things differently in the future. “I know where my boundary preferences are – somewhere in the region of ethical non-monogamy flexible – and I would communicate this with any potential partner and negotiate clear boundaries we are both happy with. If you can’t do this, it doesn’t bode well for a healthy relationship anyway, does it?”

Self-described “stay-at-home mum,” Isabelle says she didn’t negotiate boundaries with her partner. Acknowledging that there was a problem in the fabric of their relationship felt too hard to broach, so when she had an affair with a friend while her partner worked long hours, it was only a matter of time before she was eventually found out. The couple fought, cried and shouted as they tried to figure out what to do. “We had kids, and they had to come first. Somehow we did manage to resolve things over time. That whole crazy period feels like a lifetime ago, and we now continue to co-parent our children, and we live across the road from each other. We still do family birthdays and even Christmases together. I don’t know how we got here, but I am glad we did. One thing’s for sure; I’ll never do anything like that again. In future, if I feel my relationship is in trouble, I will be honest and try and be a grown-up about it..”

Discussing relationship boundaries can be difficult for some, mainly if the relationship is based on assumed (rather than negotiated) monogamy. Asking for one’s emotional needs to be met can be bound up with shame, even in poly relationships where there’s an expectation that boundaries will be discussed, but says MJ, “It’s important to remember that there’s no ‘right’ place to be” when it comes to where you sit on the spectrum of your emotional and physical preferences and “people will often be at different places, and may move around throughout their lives. Once two or more people know where they’re each at, they can talk about their relationship agreement. This might involve one person moving closer to another, agreeing to compromise, or recognising that you’re in different places, so there’ll be different agreements for each person in the relationship. If this is too difficult, it might require the relationship changing or ending to encompass those differences.”

Ironically, after challenging the idea of monogamy in her comedy show and book, Rosie has come back to embracing it in her new relationship. ‘But it’s a very different kind of monogamy,’ she says, ‘taking on board many of the values of communication, consent and compassion that were so key to the people I spoke to who were in poly, or multiple, relationships. In my old version of ‘monogamy,’ there just wasn’t enough talking, negotiating or truly hearing one another.’

Rosie Wilby’s book Is Monogamy Dead? is out now.

*Names have been changed.