This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
For a long time, I thought the answer was “no.” And a pretty unequivocal “no,” at that. I thought that people should keep their promises — especially important promises — and if one of those promises was a promise to be monogamous, then so be it. If you weren’t willing to be monogamous, I thought, then you shouldn’t make a promise to be it.
But as the years have gone by, my thinking on this has been changing. My thinking has been changed a lot — or rather, has become clarified — by a series of columns that sex advice columnist Dan Savage has been writing about sexless marriages and relationships… and the unfairness of denying your partner sex and then getting outraged when they seek it elsewhere.
And my thinking was put into sharp focus by, of all places, a recent episode of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” and a passing comment made on the subject by the main character, the call girl Belle.
“Yeah, he’s married. But his wife hasn’t had sex with him for five years, so I suppose they’re both breaking the marriage contract.”
Which is the crux of my new, revised thinking about cheating.
In a perfect world, everyone would spell out their sexual desires and expectations — their Yeses and No’s and Maybes, their Must Haves and No Fucking Ways and Only If You Get Me Drunk And Buy Me Diamondses — early on in their relationships. It wouldn’t solve all these little misunderstandings; needs and desires can change, and people in love can be first-class experts at deluding themselves into thinking their piddly little problems will work themselves out. But the misunderstandings wouldn’t be quite so prevalent as they are now.
In reality, though, we don’t live in a perfect world. The imperfect reality is that there are a whole host of default assumptions that most people make when they get into relationships.
But another of these default assumptions, I think, is sex. It’s also generally assumed that a romantic and sexual relationship will be… well, sexual. (With reasonable exceptions to be made for times of illness or great stress, of course.)
And now, let’s take a look at ethics… and contracts.
Because another thing that’s generally understood in our society is that, if one person breaks their side of an agreement, the other person is under no obligation whatsoever to keep theirs.
I don’t know enough about the law to know if this concept always holds true in legal contracts (although my understanding is that it usually does). But I would argue that it does hold true in the social contract. If you promise to sweep the sidewalk on Tuesdays if your neighbor does it on Fridays, and you start blowing it off, you have no right to expect your neighbor to keep it up. If I promise to help you move if you take me out for pizza after, and I flake out on helping you move, I have no right to expect pizza. If you skank out on your half of a bargain, you have no right to assume that the other party will stick to theirs.
And I think this concept applies to sex — and monogamy — in relationships.
I wish with all my heart that more couples would spell this stuff out: talk about it openly, negotiate agreements they can both live with… both early on in their relationships, and as things shift and change. It bugs me that so many people make unthinking default assumptions about the most important decisions in their lives.
But the reality is that people do make default assumptions about relationships. Monogamy is one; continued sex is another.
And if you dance, you have to pay the piper. You lie in the bed that you make. Plus whatever other cliches you can think of about taking responsibility for your actions. If you make unspoken default assumptions about your relationship — such as the assumption of monogamy — you have no right to take umbrage if your partner also makes unspoken default assumptions… such as the continuation of sex.
And if you break your side of the unspoken agreement, you have no right to act the injured party if your partner decides that they’re therefore no longer bound by it.
I realize this stuff is complicated. I realize that it’s changing. And I realize that it’s not always as clear-cut as I’ve made it out to be here. Sure, you have a right to look elsewhere for sex after five years of a sexless marriage… but what about after one year? Six months? At what point does the contract become void? Plus, I realize that unilaterally backing out on a monogamy agreement carries some responsibilities of its own. Safer sex is one; making a scrupulous, good- faith effort to repair the problems in your relationship before you go a-wandering is another. It’s no fair reneging on monogamy in a sexless marriage if you haven’t told your partner there’s a problem.
I’m just saying: If you’ve given up on sex in your relationship, you have no right to object if your partner gives up on monogamy. Yes, they broke their promise. But unless you specifically spelled out at the beginning of your relationship that your partner shouldn’t expect the good sexy times to keep rolling… then so did you.
This is Part 1 of a three- part series; Part 2 and Part 3 will appear tomorrow and the next day. I realize this is probably a fruitless request, but I’d hugely appreciate it if people would hold comments until the rest of the series is posted. Parts 2 and 3 were written largely in response to comments made when I originally posted this series on the Blowfish Blog, so you might find my response to your comment in on of the later pieces. Thanks.