More Ways Than Two

06.09.11

Is Monogamy Obsolete? New Books Challenge Our Ideas of Fidelity

Anthony Weiner may insist his marriage isn't over, but we've seen this situation play out before. Wives leave husbands, the public condemns the cheating—and, inevitably, six months later, we learn about another scandal. Jessica Bennett on why we need to rethink our notions of fidelity.

As the urban legend goes, the woman is so desperate for a proposal that she cuts out magazine ads of diamond rings and wears them on her finger. In another tale, a girl marks up her calendar with “DID NOT PROPOSE” for each day her boyfriend puts off the looming question. If you judge by the number of Bridezilla shows on television—as well as the thousands of women who’ve made Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him! a bestseller—it’s easy to assume that Americans are just dying to say "I Do."

The reality, of course, is that "I Do" is often followed by "I cheated." And it requires little more than the flip of the remote to find out all the gory details. Call girls. Prostitution. Sexting. A love child. Inevitably, we see wives leave husbands, and public condemnation—and watch it happen all over again six months later. The stories have become so common we could argue doing away with marriage altogether—and many have. "Is it obsolete?" wondered The Atlantic. "It's unnecessary," proclaimed Newsweek. Now new Census data reveal that, for the first time, married couples are no longer the majority. As one sociologist told me recently, speaking at a conference on polyamory: "The system simply isn't working."

But Pamela Haag, the author of Marriage Confidential, isn't so quick to call the whole thing off. Marriage is changing, she contends. But rather than giving up on it, why not simply redefine it in a way that works for each of us? Haag cites research showing that 65 percent of women—and a whopping 80 percent of men—say they’d cheat if they knew they wouldn’t get caught. She spends time with couples whose relationships she deems “Oreo marriages”—traditional on the outside, but secretly transgressive on the inside. She describes “parenting marriages,” centered around the kids; the “life partner," who is perhaps more like a best friend than a romantic partner. And, most interestingly, she talks to couples who are working infidelity into their unions, instead of struggling to keep it out. Marriage, she says, isn't dying—it's just changing. "It’s just getting revised for this century," she says.

Gallery: A History of Multiple-partner Relationships

Many of these couples are what Haag calls the “new monogamists.” She interviews women who hack into their husbands’ emails, those who stray emotionally with online partners they may never meet, as well as those who are OK with it all, employing codes like “the 50-mile rule” (affairs allowed beyond 50 miles of the home) or marriage “sabbaticals” for those who really want a break. Like Weiner, many learn of their partners' indiscretions online. Others employ “don’t ask don’t tell” rules. Still others find out, and simply don't care. “The big romantic standard has always been one strike and you’re out,” says Haag. “But I really think that’s opening up."

It all sounds terribly transgressive—or unromantic. Except that these families aren’t freaks or outcasts, they’re starting to become the norm. (See: Is Polyamory America’s Next Sexual Revolution?) Haag notes that as many as 4 million married Americans consider themselves swingers—and the number of swing clubs in this country has doubled over the past 10 years. Over the past three years, books like Open by journalist Jenny Block, Opening Up by sex columnist Tristan Taormino, and support from the likes of celebs like Tilda Swinton and Warren Buffett have put open marriage on the map. (When asked, in 2009, how he made his open marriage work, Buffett replied cooly, “you have to be secure.”)

There are now online forums for acting polyamorists, a magazine called Loving More that has 15,000 subscribers, perhaps and somewhat surprisingly, the results of a 14,000-person Oprah.com survey—in which 21 percent of people said they have an open marriage. All of that got Haag thinking: Should we stop calling infidelity a problem, and think of it as the future? "Marital nonmonogamy may be to the 21st century what premarital sex was to the 20th," she writes—"a behavior that shifts gradually from proscribed and limited, to tolerated and increasingly common."

She wouldn’t be the first to suggest it: Researchers have long wondered whether monogamy is outdated. (Helen Fisher, who studies the nature of love, believes humans aren’t meant to be together forever—but in short-term, monogamous relationships of three or four years.) Even as far back as the 1950s, Kinsey was noting that 26 percent of married women admitted to having an affair by age 40, and an additional 20 percent had engaged in petting without intercourse, despite the assumption being that it’s men who most often cheat. More surprisingly, 71 percent of the women in this group reported no difficulties with their marriage—even though half said their husbands either knew or suspected there was something going on. "Humans aren't monogamous, we need to get over that," says Ken Haslam, a retired anesthesiologist who curates a library at the Kinsey Institute. "We fool around. We do! And if you don't fool around, you want to fool around."

And yet monogamy is still the deeply ingrained—or delusional—rule to living happily ever after, and our views toward infidelity are comically naïve. "We cheat—and we also roundly disapprove of cheating," Haag writes—to the extent that we find the action more reprehensible than human cloning (really). It's the ultimate hypocrisy—lodged into every corner of our social existence, leading to the downfall of politicians, executives, religious clerics, athletes… the list goes on. It depends on what survey you examine, but more than half of Americans cheat, and yet 70 to 85 percent of adults think cheating is wrong. "We are fooling ourselves if we think people are as against cheating as they say they are,” says Jenny Block. “Jude Law cheated on Sienna Miller, for God's sake. JFK cheated on Jackie. Have we learned nothing from these scandals?”

Surely everyone in a relationship wrestles at some point with an eternal question: Can one person really satisfy every need? What we’ve learned, it turns out, is that the answer may be no. But if you believe Haag, that doesn’t mean the end of marriage—it simply means a revision of our norms. “Giving ourselves the license and permission to evolve marriage is perhaps the unique challenge of our time,” she writes. In other words: Weiner may indeed be an ass. But, as Haag puts it, perhaps we can have our cake and eat it, too. Let's just be honest about our marital motives.