The Future of Fidelity

What is the future of Sex?  Can we, as pair bonding humans, really stay faithful to each other?

Are we destined to cheat? Helen Fisher, anthropologist and researcher, says extra marital affairs have always happened at a very high rate and are only now being reported more accurately.  Current studies show as many as 65% of married men cheat on their wives at least once during their married lives and at leat 55% of women have affairs as well.  Fisher says it is the same across at least five other cultures, world wide. 

If infidelity is not new, perhaps it is the longevity of the human life span that has changed over the centuries and couples are looking for new ways to manage loss of interest in one partner; an inevitable result of cohabitation and long term commitment.

Nena and George O’Neill, in their ground breaking book “Open Marriage” first published in 1972, created a movement toward a sexually liberated, idealist (and legal) partnership between spouses.  The book helped popularize the term ‘open marriage.’   Open marriage defined husband and wife as a more egalitarian union than their parent’s partnership from the 50s and helped couples look at less confining stereotypes of relationships.

However, George and Nena both later admitted that they underestimated the role of jealousy in a committed partnership.  Was it youthful idealism that led them to believe that a couple could have an open sexual relationship with other partners and still maintain a primary sexual attachment to their mates?  Rumor has it that the O’Neill’s, prior to George’s death, had separated.  They did return to their primary commitment to each other – without outside partners – later in their life.

In the 70s, prior to the awareness of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS and with the prevalence of birth control, couples could find freedom in swinging, drugs and a new open sexual revolution while still finding ways to maintain financial and parental connection.

Non-monogamy and open marriage on a sexual level was only part of what the O’Neill’s proposed, other ideas being that men and women should have friends of the opposite sex.  (Note: Interestingly, this concept has recently come under scrutiny in some writings about the topical problem of ‘emotional affairs.’  Some therapists recommend that couples should disengage from all outside friendships with members of the opposite sex.  Perhaps this is an indication that we are swinging back to a more conservative look at marriage and relationship in response to a greater awareness of the nature of infidelity.)

Today, in this era where infidelity is common in marriage, couples in modern ‘open marriages’ are negotiating their fidelity partly as a way to avoid the pain of betrayal.  This new type of attachment includes management of their relationship through negotiation I call “out-fidelity.”  Out-fidelity versus infidelity means that their affairs are out in the open.  Couples can have sexual and emotional relationships with others as long as there is complete honesty and disclosure. 

But will it work?  Can relationships stay attached as the rules of honesty and disclosure change and transparency becomes the rule?  When transparency is negotiated, this affects the boundaries of the whole system.  This boundary issue becomes paramount as couples strive to maintain intimacy with a primary or secondary partner or when there are three or more in a cluster that are trying to create intimate connection and emotional attachment.  

Here in America celebrities and politicians are “outed” every day for their affairs and infidelities.  The lying, cheating and sleeping around seems to fascinate us as a consumer public.  We seem surprised and somehow never tire of the news that yet another congressman or preacher is paying a prostitute for sex.  

Perhaps we are not meant to live long term with partners and stay sexually and emotionally connected fro 50, 60 or even 70 years.  

As more and more young couples come into treatment they are teaching me that they, not I, determine the “rules” of their relationship.  What is “cheating” if the rules are that you can have sex with anyone as long as you are honest about it?

            Can non-monogamy really work?  Can couples define their own fidelity?  What do you think??


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