The New Monogamy in this month’s Psychotherapy Networker

The New Monogamy

by Tammy Nelson

How Far Should We Go?

If there’s anything fundamental to the meaning of marriage in Western society, it’s monogamy. In fact, monogamy may be the only thing that remains essential to most people’s idea of marriage. People no longer marry for economic, dynastic, or procreative reasons, as they did for millennia; they can’t be compelled to marry by law, religion, or custom; they don’t need to marry to have sex or cohabit or even produce and raise children. But throughout all of this staggering change, the requirement and expectation of monogamy as the emotional glue that keeps the whole structure of marriage from collapsing under its own weight has remained constant.

Given the almost universal public denunciation and disapproval of infidelity (which doesn’t exclude the barely hidden schadenfreude at the deliciously scandalous goings-on of celebrities, famous preachers, major political figures, sports heroes, or even your office coworker caught in flagrante), you’d think that infidelity must be quite rare. At least nice people don’t do it—we wouldn’t do it.

Except that we would and we do—much more than most people seem to realize. As a culture committed, in theory, to monogamy, our actions tell a different story. It isn’t just that, as therapists, we need to understand that infidelity happens—we all know that already. What some of us may not realize is how often it happens. Research varies, but according to some surveys, such as those reported by Joan Atwood and Limor Schwartz in the 2002 Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 55 percent of married women and 65 percent of married men report being unfaithful at some point in their marriage. Up to one-half of married women have at least one lover after they’re married and before the age of 40.


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or write directly to me, Dr Tammy Nelson at



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