Can We Be Monogamous?
The most common trouble that couples bring into therapy is the issue of infidelity. Sexual affair, emotional affairs, betrayals, long-time or one night stands, it is all about the bond of trust being broken. And it is always painful. Many have been touched by affairs of parents, friends or other family members. We frequently see it in the movies and in the media.
Infidelity (also referred to as cheating, adultery, or having an affair) is a violation of a couple’s assumed or stated contract regarding emotional and/or sexual exclusivity… (Wikipedia). We cannot see a movie or stand at the grocery checkout line, without some affair staring at us. According to Psychology Today, “no one knows for sure how often affairs happen, but statistics suggest they may affect 40 percent or more of all marriages.”
Despite its prevalence, there is a cultural hush around infidelity. People just don’t talk about it. Lonely, betrayed partners, are left feeling confused, scared, ashamed, angry and depressed. There is a stigma of failure and shame that forces it to stay hidden and secretive.
Affairs are ancient, they exist from the beginning of time. The biblical Ten Commandments states “though shalt not commit adultery,” which is an indication that it was happening then, and that society, in order to stay stable, had to guard against it.
I wonder how affairs looked like in the “olden days?” Before there were computers and Internets, there were long-awaited letters, secret glances at the market place and dangerous rendezvous at the royal courts. Now days, with social media, texting, emails, and other electronic and smart phones devices, the affairs world has become ever so sophisticated and complicated.
Given how common infidelity is among married couples, what can science tell us about the capacity of humans to be monogamous beings?
Although we cannot be fully likened to other animals, as humans are unique beings, examining the behavior of animals has long been thought of as a means to help us understand our more primal instincts. It seems that the odds are against monogamous relationships when looking at our animal origins. Only 3 to 5 percent of the 5,000 species of mammals bond for life, including otters, beavers and wolves. The rate of monogamy among primates is about 6 percent.
According to Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of EFT (Emotional Focused Therapy), monogamy, based on deep bonds of romantic love, is natural for humans. First, monogamy shows up in animals who invest time and work in rearing their kids and dealing with survival challenges. Beavers work as a team to rear young, build dams and gather food. They have to coordinate their movements, synchronize efforts, and read each others cues. They depend on each other, and this is an important word, depend.
The second and most potent argument for monogamy claims Dr. Johnson, is that we are wired for it! A huge part of our brain is designed not just for social group interaction but for the intimate synchrony of emotional connection and bonding. The pacing, the give and take, the tuning in, the adapting to the others emotional cues between parents and infants and between adult lovers, are all about bonding. The main message of the new science of adult bonding is that the instinct to reach, connect and rely on loved ones is primary, more fundamental even than sex. Monogamous mammals like us have special cuddle hormones like oxytocin or OT – the so called molecule of monogamy. It turns off stress hormones, turns on reward centers, and fills us with calm contentment and well-being.
Many new models of relationships have been developing to cope and solve some of those issues. In polyamory, the most fundamental element is that of rejecting the monogamous standard, and radically rethinking how you understand, make meaning of and practice love, sex, relationships, commitment, communication, and so forth. I have experienced the surge of the polyamory community, where a complex arrangement where an ‘alpha’ bond, (many times a marriage), is interlaced with other partners, whilst each of the couples is aware, open, and honest about it. At times that includes co-habitation, sharing of house chores, finances, and children, creating rules and regulations and making adjustment as they go. Sounds complex, but those who have been practicing it, swear by it’s amazing power to strengthen the bond between the complex lovers relationships. Others, not less challenging, have chosen the “open relationship” model, at times choosing a “don’t ask – don’t tell” policy and at times employing full disclosure and rules.
Many times, when dealing in my therapy sessions with the painful aftermath of a disclosed affair, the constant sentiment of couples is “we lost our desire,” “we were no longer lovers,” and/or “we do not have any passion in our sex life.” In her book Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel makes the case for possibility of having long lasting passion in a relation. She invites us to explore the paradoxical union of domesticity and sexual desire, and explains what it takes to bring lust home.
Drawing on more than twenty years of experience as a couples therapist, Perel examines the complexities of sustaining desire. Through case studies and lively discussion, Perel demonstrates how more exciting, playful, and even poetic sex is possible in long-term relationships.
As controversial as this may sound, at times, affairs, though extremely painful and devastating, can help to wake-up a troubled relationship. As the sand in the oyster create a pearl, through friction and irritation, so can an affair become the catalyst for the repair needed between the partners.
At times, when there is a lot of openness, care, disclosure, and work to re-establish trust and secure bonding, the end result can be that the couple repair their broken relationship; and though the original relationship had to die first, a phoenix can come out of the ashes. But again, not without a lot of work and help and support, in and out of therapy. There is no forgiving without grieving.
Can the trust be mended? Can you, and will you, ever trust again? That is an important question that the betrayed part in the couple must ask. In my experience as a therapist, it is possible, but again, a lot of work on the relationship has to happen in order for that trust and bond to get re-established.
There is hope for a couple that is struggling with betrayal and infidelity.
I have helped many couples over the years to come out of the ashes into a better, more intimate, more honest and more secure bonded relationship.
Contact me if you need help.
530 692 0680