Monogamy in the 21st Century

When I was 24, I started seeing a guy who was charming, intelligent and handsome. He had a double Master’s from two prestigious schools, a comfortable job and my family loved him. We moved in together, folded each other’s laundry, cooked together and read books side by side before turning off our bedside lamps and sharing a kiss good night. But a year into our relationship he told me, “I don’t think I can be happy in a monogamous relationship.”

I was crestfallen. Though it explained the times I got angry with him for being insensitive toward my feelings: lingering on how beautiful a friend was or checking out another woman while we were together.

These hints of his desire to stray were things I wrote off as carelessness; however in truth, they were his first attempts to communicate a forbidden curiosity.

We began to discuss our relationship concerns in long, openhearted conversations in the pale light of our bedroom. They were brutal and sobering, but I was grateful for his honesty at the cost of my pain. He apologized for the distress his confession had caused but he stood his ground. I kept waiting for it all to go away. I’m sorry, honey, I take it back. These conversations ended in tears and hugs and our unwillingness to give up the relationship.

Though something told me to run, my inquisitive side got the best of me. Why and how did he come to feel this way? Was it our youth, a generational thing? Or something more personal to him?

His reasoning was that he didn’t believe married couples were actually happy having one option for a sexual partner. His parents’ sordid relationship and long running unhappy marriage had much to do with this, but that did not change our situation. It only solidified it. “I just think having the occasional option for variety can stop things from getting dull,” he said. What I heard was, “You are not enough and I do not want to commit to you.”

Turning the situation on him didn’t help either. “Don’t you want to have the option too?” he asked. A part of me was devastated, the part that wants your partner to be the slightest bit jealous because they’re afraid of losing you. And here he was giving me away. Did I want the option? Over time, would I want the attention of someone new, the heady rush of cat and mouse? I sat with the question a while.

As time went on without resolution, our physical connection dwindled. I’d catch myself wondering in the middle of lovemaking, “Do you wish you were with someone else right now?” Knowledge of his desire to pursue an indiscretion devalued our intimacy almost immediately.

I had a decision to make. Was the pain of giving him permission to explore worth giving myself more options? Furthermore, was it possible that by introducing variety into our intimate life we could develop a deeper trust?

No matter how I tried to rationalize the benefits of such a dynamic, the same question kept rising in my mind: What is the point of our commitment? What are we committing to? No matter what the answer was, I knew it had a deadline: until things get old.

We live in a time that is obsessed with convenience — everything from doorstep delivery to countless options on Amazon to instant notification gratification. Over a dozen dating apps advertise the limitless romances we could have at our fingertips. How do we just choose one and be satisfied with our choice? How can we experience the value of commitment in a culture that prizes options over sacrifice? I decided that by denying myself I would become closer to the thing I wanted and was willing to give: devotion.

Monogamy may not be for everyone. But for many it is both the reward and pitfall of relationships.

It is the challenge to rediscover the person we love. When it comes to love, its beauty and difficulty are one and the same. The lengths we go to find it and be true to it are what make it so beautiful.  

During our last monogamy conversation, my then boyfriend came into our room to talk. “I think I have a right to ask for this,” he said.

“Yes,” I answered. “And I have the right to say no.”

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