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Is sexual monogamy realistic?

posted 25 May 2015, 19:32 by Suzi Wallis   [ updated 29 May 2016, 22:54 ]
The subject of sexual monogamy has been very present in my counselling room lately. There seems to be a general expectation in the Western world, that everyone who enters into a long term relationship will be sexually faithful to their partner. This is something that is often assumed, and not discussed.

With the variety of culture, ethnicity, religion, family expectations, schooling and education, is it unrealistic to expect everyone who lives in a particular area to conform to any behaviours (apart from those that the law defines as illegal)? Isn't that like expecting everyone who lives in a particular area to have the same hair, skin and eye colour too? 

From a biological perspective, sexual attraction (also known as limerance and lust) are designed to bond a male and female to reproduce, and ensure that the male remains present for long enough to ensure the child's survival. Historically, the expectation of sexual fidelity has long been expected from women almost exclusively, particularly when they were perceived as chattels through marriage. Sexual fidelity created assurance of children's paternity, which is important when it comes to inheritance of title or goods. 

The effect that sexual infidelity has on relationship partners is varied and complicated, and suitable for another article at another time. What I want to stimulate discussion about is the expectation of fidelity, and why it is so often not discussed in relationships. Attraction to other people is a natural by-product of being a sexual being, and the decision to act on attraction is one that we can all make, or not make, countless times in our lives. Expecting yourself or your partner to never find another person attractive is unrealistic, and can lead to unnecessary disappointment and pain. In a strong relationship (and ideal relationship in my book), an attraction would be discussed with your partner, and their support obtained to turn your focus back onto your primary relationship.

If you are very tempted to act on a sexual or emotional attraction to someone outside your relationship, it may be time to ask yourself some important questions:
  • Is there something that I'm needing from my partner that I'm not currently getting?
  • Is there a lack of emotional or physical intimacy in my relationship?
  • Am I holding resentment towards my partner that I need to express, in an adult and respectful way?
  • Am I feeling under pressure somewhere other than my relationship (work/family/hobbies/other commitments) that I am trying to avoid?
  • Is there an area of my life that needs change, that I am currently in denial about?
  • Am I projecting my partner's attraction/flirting/inappropriate behaviour onto myself?
  • Do I feel respected, appreciated and loved by my partner?
It's also worth defining with your partner what your boundaries are with regards to infidelity - for some, flirting or talking about your relationship with another feels like just as big a violation as sexual contact might. Knowing what your partner's boundaries are means that you are more likely to respect them.

There may be many more questions that will come up for you as you read this. I encourage you to discuss this topic with your partner, friends and family. The more you discuss it, the more you will be aware of your own behaviour and boundaries, and have the opportunity to become a more conscious relationship partner yourself.

Further reading

  1. For further reading, this article in Psychology Today refers to a concept called Mate Ejection, which is a process by which a partner ends a relationship - the genders can do this very differently. 
  2. This book takes you through a process about whether to stay or leave your relationship - I recommend reading it in its entirety before making a decision.
  3. If you have already acted on an emotional or physical attraction, this book may be worth reading - it provides information for both partners, and helps you to make short, medium and long term decisions about the future of your relationship.

Suzi Wallis | May 2015