'Can love ever be plural?" asked the prominent, nine-language-speaking sex therapist Esther Perel at this month's TED Talk in Vancouver.
Perel, who is also the author of Mating in Captivity, the game-changing screed on what happens to sex appeal in long-term monogamous relationships, is now trying to start a new conversation about infidelity. Her hotly anticipated forthcoming book A State of Affairs: Cheating in the Age of Transparency will ask more uncomfortable questions: Why do happy people cheat? Why do we pathologize "cheating" when it's so common? Does an affair always need to spell the end of a relationship? And what would happen if we put just a fraction of the gusto we put into infidelity into our marriages?
At her Canadian TED Talk on March 19, Perel hazarded that we'd do well to collectively begin rethinking infidelity.
She proposed that an affair doesn't necessarily have to be the death knell for a marriage. Rather, it can be an opportunity to consider it all with fresh eyes: "Affairs have a lot to teach us about relationships – what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to," Perel wrote in a piece accompanying the talk. In some cases, spouses can reinvent the marriage. "Every affair will redefine a relationship and every couple will determine what the legacy of that affair will be," Perel said. "Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one?"
The discussion was intrinsically tied to monogamy: "Divorce used to carry all the shame," Perel said. "Today, staying when you can leave is the new shame."
Perel is one in a growing chorus of authors, experts and researchers rethinking how we do monogamy and how we can make it vital. Previously, the therapist has pointed out a painful truth about long-lasting committed relationships: They offer security and familiarity. Which are precisely the opposite forces that drive passion – novelty, risk and the unknown. And yet we continue to expect both from one mere mortal, our spouse.
"Monogamous commitments are really at war with something else we want from our relationships which is a passionate sex life," internationally syndicated relationship and sex advice columnist Dan Savage told the CBC's current affairs radio program The Current on Thursday morning.
Here, Savage argued that monogamy is still held up as the gold standard even though we hold unrealistic romantic ideals in these unions. People have trouble stomaching the notion that their partner will invariably be attracted to other human beings, often falsely assuming that outside attractions negate the core relationship. Savage, meanwhile, is an optimist: If two people are together 50 years and each cheated once or twice, he'd say they're pretty damn good at monogamy. He also suggested treating monogamy as if it's sobriety: you can fall off the wagon but you can get sober again.
The columnist coined the word "monogamish" for his marriage to husband Terry, but said couples can also be monogamish without stepping outside the marriage sexually. This involves comprehending that your partner may have the occasional crush and view some porn for variety. Poignantly, Savage said couples spend inordinate amounts of time "policing each other for evidence of what they should assume to be true" – that we are going to be sexually attracted to other humans.
Also featured was Robin Rinaldi, who opened her 18-year-long marriage to other lovers for a year. She recently penned a much-maligned memoir about it titled The Wild Oats Project: One Woman's Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost. Here, Rinaldi wrote that she felt like she was "living out" Perel's book, Mating in Captivity.
"Most of us want some level of security in life and also some passion. After a long marriage the security tends to increase and the passion tends to decrease. If you introduce something like this, you're adding in that passion," Rinaldi told The Globe in an interview earlier this month.
For a year, Rinaldi moved out on her husband during the week, hooking up with other men and women in a heady San Francisco sex scene. Both she and her husband were allowed to sleep around but they would reunite at home on weekends. Rinaldi described the experiment as "a big storm" that would either drastically alter the landscape of her marriage or "wash it out" (it was the latter; the two divorced after Rinaldi took up with one of her lovers). For all the risks involved, Rinaldi said she was escaping the more monotonous ones in her marriage – that and the crushing disconnect.
"As life goes on and we age and change, often relationships become serially monogamous," Rinaldi said, who isn't convinced there's a difference between this and traditional monogamy.
Evolutionary psychologists have been saying it for a while: We're not built to last. On Thursday, a research review article published in the Review of General Psychology posited that people are hardwired to fall out of love and move on to new romantic relationships. "In the evolutionary past of our species, there were circumstances when it was beneficial in terms of reproductive fitness … to jettison a mate," said Brian Boutwell, an associate professor of epidemiology at Saint Louis University.
"We diss the lie that monogamous marriage comes naturally to Homo sapiens," Christopher Ryan, a research psychologist and co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality told The Globe in 2010. Ryan insisted that when we're talking decades, promiscuity comes easier to humans than sexual devotion. He also stressed that sex – namely affairs – isn't really that big a deal and certainly not worth upending the hard won security of marriage for.
It's all well and good for chimpanzee-fixated psychologists, nine-language-speaking sex therapists and horny wives in San Fran to break it down for us. The challenge lies in actually living through the limits of long-term monogamy and finding a way that works, without irrevocably scorching anyone's soul. Whether you stand with monogamy or one of its cousins, serial monogamy, polyamory or monogamishness, what these authors are ultimately pushing for is more realism between people who are romantically entwined.
"It might be uncomfortable," Perel wrote, "but ultimately that will strengthen relationships by making them more honest and more resilient."