If you’re part of the ‘sex-positive’ community, you probably know this term – ethical non-monogamy. Outside that community, I don’t think it is particularly well known. But it should be.
We were out with friends last night and they were discussing a couple we both knew, that was going through a separation. Pretty standard story. Couple looked happy superficially, but he was cheating. She caught him… fireworks ensue. As we unpacked it a bit (I’m not too into gossip, but for reasons I’ll explain, their story intrigued me), it turn out that really were a pretty happy couple. They had fun together, were good parents to their kids, had lot of common and separate interest, But he had a much higher sex drive. They rarely had sex, simply because she didn’t want to. So, he got some on the side. His M.O. was to hook up with a single female friend for some no strings attached sex. It wasn’t really an emotional affair, but some pretty regular sex on the side.
When I heard the story, two thoughts struck me:
1. Despite some sympathy I had for the guy, I still can’t condone lying to, and cheating on, your partner. So, what I say next in no way defends his cheating; BUT
2. Something Dan Savage says frequently: sex can’t be both so unimportant in a relationship that you are never willing to engage in it with your partner; yet so important that you will leave your partner if they have sex outside the relationship.
These people need to know about ethical non-monogamy. Ethical non-monogamy is, as I understand and define it, sexual activity with someone other than your spouse or primary partner, but with the full knowledge and support of your partner. The term could apply to swingers who are both having sex with other people; or it may be a ‘hall-pass’ one partner occasionally gets to do something sexual outside their relationship. The rule is, though, in order to be ethical, your partner must know about it and, non-grudgingly, give support.
For this couple, I think it may have been ideal. At least to have considered it before he decided to cheat and she decided to leave him.
In my mind, the critical first step is the open conversation. He should have been able to tell her that he either wanted more sex or wanted more variety in his sex. This desire is natural and couples should be able to talk about it. This admission can then take them in a few directions: (i) she might not have realized and is willing to become more sexual herself; (ii) she may admit that her lack of interest in sex comes from a feeling of boredom and she may be feeling many of the same things; (iii) she may be perfectly satisfied with the levels of sex they are now having and be open to him having some adventures on the side as long as it doesn’t impinge on their relationship; or (iv) she may say too bad and nothing will change – but at least he put it on the table and their would be a chance to reconcile what he wants and what she is willing to give.
I honestly believe they were a good couple, who liked each other and communicated well. He clearly had a stronger sex drive and she is an open minded and reasonable person. It did not have to come to divorce.