Are you willing to negotiate monogamy?
May 19th, 2011
10:56 AM ET

Are you willing to negotiate monogamy?

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him at his website, GoodInBed.

When you take your marriage vows, you’re pretty much making the commitment to never have sex with anyone else ever again. Wow - just writing that is scary.

With the demise of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver’s 25-year marriage making headlines, it’s hard not to wonder if long-term monogamy is possible or even practical.

As a sex therapist, not a day goes by that I don’t see people who are stuck, feeling as if they have to give up on their marriage, or give up on sex - or cheat. My patients have taught me that sex - or a lack of it - is one of the major contributors to marital strife between longtime couples.

Many people don’t want to throw in the towel, however, which is why the idea of “negotiating monogamy” is becoming more popular. From open relationships, to disclosing affairs before they happen, to giving a partner a “free pass,” negotiated monogamy is a way for some couples to stay committed to each other without having to stay sexually faithful.

Such an approach may seem to fly in the face of the concept of marriage - I don’t blame you for raising your eyebrows or shaking your head at the suggestion. But hear me out.

We live in an age when we’re surrounded by countless arguments (or maybe just excuses) against monogamy: Men have a biological imperative to spread their seed and have always cheated (“boys will be boys”); humans are wired for serial monogamy, not one lifelong relationship; long-term relationships beget boredom; people are living longer and longer but half of all marriages fail… Whew.

When you consider what we’re up against, it may not be such a bad idea to give negotiated monogamy a chance before we dismiss it outright as a violation of the sanctity of marriage.

In my own practice, I often raise the option of negotiated monogamy with couples who have worked their way into permanently sexless marriages, or who feel starved for sex - but not with each other. The very concept of negotiated monogamy is a provocative and useful way for these couples to talk about sex and marriage, even if they choose not to practice it.

As with most issues, it’s better to talk about something and understand each other’s boundaries than to guess or cheat or commit to life of silent desperation. And you know what? It turns out that once couples start talking about what they would or wouldn’t allow - strippers, lap dances, flirty friendships, free passes, oral sex with other people, swinging, open relationships - they often tend to get turned on and end up going home and having sex with each other.

After all, the brain is the biggest of sex organ and, as I discussed in last week’s column about fantasies, even just talking about sex can get people interested in actually having sex.

So remember: Taking a marriage vow does not mean taking a vow of silence. If anything, being married should give you a level of trust where you feel like you can talk about anything. And if you actually want to try negotiated monogamy and your partner doesn’t (or vice versa)? Well, at least you’re having an adult conversation instead of acting like children - or former governors.

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