There is a growing conversation about open and polyamorous relationships happening right now. More and more people are exploring what it’s like to allow themselves to become romantically and/or sexually involved with multiple partners. One of the cornerstones of these types of relationships that helps keep partnerships on track is a document that outlines agreements about what behaviors are okay or not allowed. A relationship agreement is a framework that helps set the parameters for openness to other relationships or experiences. It consists of items that two people agree to respect during the course of their relationship. For example, an open couple may agree to safe-sex only practices with partners outside of the primary relationship, or that each partner must tell the other if they start a new sexual relationship with someone else.
If creating this framework helps establish a clear code of conduct for non-monogamous relationships, I think using relationship agreements in monogamous relationships could cut down on the emotional turmoil that cheating causes.
Growing up, most of us experienced monogamy-normative messages. Monogamy is expected and encouraged. Being told to wait for “the one” or being expected to narrow down who you’re dating to a particular person you commit to is so common that it’s rarely questioned. But what monogamy means has actually changed as our culture has changed. In a recent talk by Esther Perel during her promotional tour for her newest book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, she discussed how monogamy once meant being exclusively with one person for life. Some of us still receive this message, especially those with religious upbringings, but what most of us believe monogamy to mean today is commiting to one person at a time in a long-term relationship. That means that we have come to accept that a person can have a series of monogamous relationships in their lifetime. We’re okay with serial monogamy now — just be faithful to the one you have while you have them!
In this digital age when an ex or a new lover is just a "like" away, I believe that monogamous couples should start using relationship agreements to help define the terms of their monogamy.
If commitment and fidelity are the things to strive for in monogamy now, I’d say we’re not doing a great job. It’s estimated that about one in five heterosexual Americans have cheated. In this digital age when an ex or a new lover is just a "like" away, I believe that monogamous couples should start using relationship agreements to help define the terms of their monogamy. I’d like for more people to start thinking about what their expectations of monogamy are. We take it as a given that two people will eventually commit to one another and become monogamous, so we fail to examine and discuss the many ways in which monogamy (our personal definition of monogamy) can be violated.
There is no one standard of monogamy.
People have been doing monogamy in different ways forever. We just don’t talk about it. Here are some guiding questions to help you think about the type of monogamy you prefer: What does it mean to be monogamous? Does monogamy apply to sex only, or does it involve emotional intimacy as well? Does it mean that your only sexual outlet is your partner? Does sexting violate monogamy? Do you know how your partner feels about these things? Have you ever talked about it?
There’s an incredible opportunity to hone in on what monogamy means within your relationship. Some people have a big problem with their partner watching porn or masturbating within a committed monogamous relationship. Other folks are more accepting of these things, as well as online and in-person flirtations. The goal is to consider what feels right for you and your partner and make those items explicit.
Relationship agreements set the tone for the relationship.
Like non-monogamous relationship agreements, monogamous relationship agreements can create a framework for maintaining the integrity of the relationship. Having a conversation about the nature of the monogamy you are choosing together can be a great step in understanding what behaviors would or would not feel like betrayal. When we don’t know how our partner would feel or we think they’ll respond negatively to something like meeting up with someone we used to hook-up with or starting a flirtatious text exchange with a colleague, we tend to hide these behaviors from our partner. They could have little to no effect on the partner, but the fact that these things are concealed can feel like a major betrayal when they are discovered. That’s why it’s best to have a conversation early on about what you both expect from each other.
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Transparency can deepen an emotional bond.
When you can be honest about the things that make you feel most fulfilled in a relationship, it helps the other person see you and love you for who you really are. If you know that you are someone who loves to flirt and send sexy messages, and you know that those things have no effect on your commitment to your partner, you can discuss that and see if there is a way to have that part of you expressed in the open. If you can find ways to agree to have these behaviors integrated into the relationship, you can eliminate the sneaky, deceitful elements that are often interpreted as cheating.
There might be some trial and error.
Agreeing to something now doesn’t mean that you have to adhere to it forever. Over time, monogamy can transform into something more “monogamish,” a term coined by Dan Savage to indicate arrangements where the relationship isn’t exactly open, but isn’t fully monogamous. Or perhaps there are things that one person agreed to that just don’t feel right when they are actually done. Perhaps allowing sexting with other people actually causes more friction in the relationship than expected. Go back to the drawing board and make your edits together.
Also, having relationship agreements doesn’t mean that your relationship will be immune to infidelity. Cheating can happen no matter how much you communicate and plan, but it’s important that you have some shared understanding of what the terms of the relationship are so that you can hopefully bounce back quicker if a transgression occurs. Being able to sit down over the list of shared items that you agreed to is a good starting place to understand what isn’t working and hopefully will give some guidance on how to revise.
Relationship agreements have been a tool used by non-monogamous couples to help cut back on some of the misunderstandings that can arise from having multiple partners. I think this approach could be incredibly useful for monogamous couples that want to deepen their understanding of each other's sexual and emotional needs. The first step (which might also be the hardest) is communication. Monogamy is assumed for so many of us that we hardly ever stop to consider what it means in our relationship until something happens and we feel betrayed. Brainstorming a list of things that will create a safe experience of fidelity within the relationship could help to avoid those “oh shit” moments as well as deepen your bond as a couple.