How to Make Monogamy Work—Even If You Don't Really Want To
A committed relationships has benefits that are worth the sacrifice.
I recently woke up from a dream in which I was making out with an old flame.
That might be underselling it. This was full-on horny-as-hell mouth-****ing with excessive use of tongue. We were kissing like it gave us life, and it felt like it would go on forever—right up to the moment when I had to pull away to take my wedding ring out of my mouth...
As far as dream metaphors go, it seemed a bit overkill. The ring could have just fallen off, or grown too tight around my finger, or my wife could have called.
I was making out with someone I'm not actually supposed to make out with, and my brain naturally (obnoxiously) decided to intervene with a reminder of my sexual and emotional commitment to one person. But there were any number of ways to interrupt the proceedings without magically transporting the symbol of that commitment into the space between our tongues. I guess subtlety isn't my brain's strong suit.
I should clarify that, within the dream, I wasn't cheating. Before we kissed I had a distinct sense—the hazy certainty of dream knowledge—that my wife had given the go-ahead on making out with this other woman. If she hadn't, I wouldn't have allowed myself to do it.
Even in my dreams I'm too much of a goody-two-shoes to let myself have some unauthorized fun. Occasionally, since my wife and I have been together, I've had dreams in which I'm single and have had romantic or sexual encounters with unknown women. In one instance I vaguely recall having given a timid, closed-mouth kiss to someone else—while knowing I wasn't supposed to—but that's as far as my dream-self will allow things to go.
I suppose that's a good thing. The biggest strength of our marriage—what I value the most about the way my wife and I work together—is an openness and emotional intimacy that wouldn't allow me to keep that kind of indiscretion from her. So the impulse to resist temptation—rather than create a secret I know I won't keep—is ingrained in my subconscious.
That openness means we don't go through our struggles alone. We share our lives, our thoughts, and our anxieties as much as we can—sometimes our conversations sound more like therapy than anything else. Better to be honest than to let something fester between us. The biggest secret I'm keeping from her at the moment is this dream I had...
In the moment after I pulled the ring from my mouth the dissonance of the moment broke through the fabric of the dream and pulled me back to my body, lying in bed. I opened my eyes and lay there with a deeply sad erection, recalling the truth that my wife had not made any allowance for third-party makeout sessions—not since the early days of our dating, when I was more insistent about non-monogamy.
I couldn't get back to sleep.
Rejection of Monogamy
When something is upsetting me, I have a tendency to sigh heavily—again, subtlety is not my strong suit—and I had to hold back the impulse so as not to wake my wife, because I didn't want to explain what was wrong.
My wife knows that I have outlets for fantasizing about other women. She can handle that, and wouldn't really be bothered about a sexual dream involving someone else—as much as my subconscious seems to think it's off limits. But the fact that the dream involved this particular old flame—and that I was upset to remember our monogamy—that would have hurt her.
The truth is that I never really wanted our relationship to be monogamous. I wasn't looking for a throuple or a polycule, or even sex, necessarily. But there is something about the excitement of chasing arousal with someone new—kissing and touching an unfamiliar body, finding a shared rhythm, breathing each other in and pulling into their warmth—that I never wanted to give up.
I don't know if I'm built differently—if the rejection of monogamy should be thought of as a variant sexual orientation—or if I'm just more shameless than others about my selfish urges. Maybe I'm just like my asshole uncle working through his fourth marriage. I tend to think that some form of non-monogamy—or monogamy with exceptions—is just a more natural arrangement, but maybe these are the kind of thoughts that lead people to keep a divorce lawyer on retainer.
Before my wife and I were married, we tried to make a semi-open relationship work, and it just didn't. She didn't share my drive for novel physical intimacy, and she couldn't let go of the thought that I was looking for a way out—that my desire for that kind of excitement was seeded in dissatisfaction and that it would lead to me finding someone I wanted more.
Monogamy as a Replacement for Community
I can't blame her. We are all culturally indoctrinated to believe in the idea of a soulmate—that the purpose of romance is to find the one person who can provide us with everything we need. The rates of infidelity, divorce, and unhappy marriages should be enough to dispel that myth, but it's drilled into our heads from such a young age that no amount of reasoning is likely to make a difference.
Finding "The One" - Esther Perel www.youtube.com
It taps into a sense of missing connection that people have likely had for as long as cities have existed. We're evolved to live in small, tight-knit groups—like other apes. That's the kind of community our brains are built for. Instead, most of us live in close proximity to thousands or millions of strangers, with very few close relationships.
Even before social distancing magnified universalized social isolation, this was a growing problem. Without the security of a few dozen people we can comfortably rely on, we put more and more strain on the handful of relationships we have left. They have to be everything.
We lean on them to provide the emotional support that absent community would offer, so we are rightly terrified by the prospect of losing them. We also frequently suffer from the sense that something important is missing—that we are unmoored or alien in some deep, fundamental way.
So maybe my wife was right to be scared. As much as I believed that I was only interested in chasing some fleeting excitement, maybe that would have inevitably led to a sense that the grass was greener in some other relationship—that I could erase that sense of lost belonging by loving someone else.
In either case, when I agreed to spare my wife that pain by committing to monogamy—and when we later sealed our commitment with some legal documents and an elaborate ritual involving rings—I threw away my chance to pursue that excitement.
Society is shifting slowly toward more acceptance of open or polyamorous relationships, but generally—especially for people who want kids (we do)—monogamy is still the default. So I defaulted. But that didn't change the way I feel…
An Imperfect Life Worth Living
After that dream, I spent a couple days brooding internally about what I had given up, making overly-dramatic comparisons in my head about gay men forced to live in the closet. Then I got over myself and remembered how much I love my wife.
She knows this is something I think about and struggle with from time to time, and it didn't seem worth bothering her about a dream, the details of which would have dredged up unhappy memories. So now that dream is the secret I'm keeping from her.
I should tell her—should talk to her about it in our next "therapy" session—but I'm afraid there's nothing new to add. I still want what I want, but our relationship—our plan for a life and a family—is too important to me to let that desire get in the way.
So I brood now and then. And I fantasize frequently—with some help from visual aids. And these days I try to will myself to have more vivid dreams…
Our marriage wouldn't work if my wife didn't understand and allow me these outlets. It wouldn't work if we didn't occasionally talk about hypothetical loopholes or special circumstances in which the excitement I miss might be on the table—even if those never come to fruition.
There are a hundred little ways we keep things balanced for each other, and without any one of them we would start to drift apart. But the effort we each to maintain that balance—for ourselves and for each other—is enough to keep us strong.
As it stands, things aren't perfect. But they don't have to be. I want things I know can't have. Sometimes I still resent that, and sometimes my wife still worries that what I really want is a way out. Sometimes we irritate each other or tune each other out. Other times can't get enough—stay up late making each other laugh.
We aren't soulmates. Those don't exist in real life. We're two people committed to a shared happiness—two people making the compromises we need to in order to build and maintain that sense of security and connection—to make an imperfect life that's worth living.
By giving things up for each other—for "us"—and sacrificing some of our selfish individualism, we really can build some of that sense of belonging and community—even if it's a very small community.
As far as I can tell, that's about the best monogamy has to offer. And even if it's not the dream of everything I want—of a license to make out with other woman—it's better than I ever expected my waking life to be.