Thursday, July 19, 2012

So My Therapist Says, Vol. 3, Monogamy Edition

The idea of monogamy hasn't so much been tried and found wanting, as found difficult and left untried. - G. K. Chesterton

I should start off by saying that I am aware that my therapist's job isn't to be my friend or my yes person. Those of us who go to a mental health professional do so because we feel there is something wrong. Especially when dealing with people with bpd, therapists often have to point out to a client that the way they see the world not only isn't the way that most other people see it, but it also hasn't been very effective for them in the past. On the other hand, therapists have grown up and lived in the larger mainstream culture, just like the rest of us. For example, it wasn't until 1973 that homosexuality was removed as a mental illness from the DSM. I don't think that all the mental health professionals before 1973 who treated homosexuality as something that people needed to be cured from or treated for were stupid or wanted to do harm. I think they lived in a society that believed that. I also think that they also treated gay people who displayed a number of mental illness and addictions and thought that their sexuality was the cause of those of those problems, instead of those problems being a result of being gay in an intolerant society. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that I understand that my therapist is trying to open up my eyes to a more effective and healthy way of looking at and living in this world, but I think that she is still of this world with all of it's assumptions about what effective and healthy look like.

But this isn't just about stuff my therapist says. It actually started the day before my last therapy session, when I went to see my psychiatrist. To her great credit, her medication check-up sessions are 30 minutes and she often talks to me even longer than that. At this meeting, after we talked about my medications and a few other issues with the bipolar, she complimented me on my rainbow gay pride bracelet and she asked me a question that will be familiar to any bisexual person, "So do you date both men and women at the same time? How does that work?" I explained that many bi people are monogamous within their relationships but their next relationship could be with a man or a woman. I also said that I preferred non-monogamous relationships, though not because I am bisexual. While she was both respectful and genuinely curious about how I felt on this, I knew she probably did not agree. At one point, she asked me, "Do you think that now that you're using the [DBT] skills, that things are going better, your self-respect will increase and you'll start to think that you deserve a monogamous relationship?" I was pretty stunned, too stunned to really explain that I've never preferred non-monogamous relationships because I didn't respect myself. Instead, I talked about the book I've been reading, Sex at Dawn, which uses sociology and evolutionary psychology to question modern assumptions about marriage, monogamy, and human sexuality. I'll explain farther down what I wish I could have explained to her, but first let me get to my conversation with my therapist.

Yesterday, I had my individual therapy session. We ended up talked a good deal more about my developing relationship with a sexual dominant. We'll call him Dom Chaney here. He's in a non-monogamous marriage and, if he and I did begin a physical relationship, it would be his secondary relationship. I've known this since the beginning and am perfectly fine with that. At this point, I want someone I am sexually compatible with and I think that having a serious LTRPR (long-term romantic primary relationship) would be a trial by fire at this point for all my new skills. So, this is fine. Not surprisingly, my therapist questioned me a great deal on this. She started out by saying that she is coming, in large part, from being a therapist who sees couples everyday and she's never, professionally or otherwise, seen a non-monogamous couple who were both equally happy for very long with a non-monogamous relationship. I really wish I had been quick enough on my feet at this point to tell her that is because the couples that are happy with their non-monogamy don't need to see a counselor, and that there is too much stigma for most people to come out as non-monogamous to their friends or family, but I didn't. She also asserted that she wanted to see me in a happy relationship with someone I'm in love with where I can get 100% of what I needed [sexually]. I did interject here to tell her that I see no reason why I can't be in a happy relationship with someone that I love that isn't monogamous, as well as that I think it's unrealistic to expect that you will get 100% of what you need from anyone, sexually or otherwise, whether or not you chose for that relationship to be monogamous or not. Also, it's way to much pressure to be expected to be someone else's 100%. She did not seem swayed by this argument. She also went on to speculate both that no-strings attached sex was unhealthy and that there's a danger of becoming too involved emotionally when in a friends with benefits situation, which seems to  leave sex in a long-term relationship as the only possible healthy option.

I know that I will probably never change most people's minds. But I'm writing this for myself, so that I can put how I feel about monogamy and non-monogamy onto paper in a comprehensive manner for use in the next conversation I have about this, so that I don't regret all the things I didn't say in the conversation.

In addition to my own experiences, I think that the biggest contributor to my non-monogamous ideals, before reading Sex at Dawn, has been reading Dan Savage's advice column since I was a teenager. Through the years, he has answered many letters from people who are in long-term relationships with people they truly love, who they have built a life and a family with, but, for a variety of reasons, are not sexually compatible with. Sometimes this has happened because they were not honest about their kinks, with their partners or even sometimes with themselves, before the became committed. Sometimes it is just being with someone for so long and the waning of sexual interest. Whatever the reason, Savage discourages cheating, which, when found out, will almost always be much more hurtful than the current situation. He usually does suggest that the person talk to their partner about non-monogamous options. In a NYT article from last year, Mark Oppenheimer explores Savages views about monogamy, including that it is to everyone's detriment to ignore that it is often much more difficult that we are led to believe and:
“Given the rates of infidelity, people who get married should have to swear a blood oath that if it’s violated, as traumatic as that would be, the greater good is the relationship,” Savage told me. “The greater good is the home created for children. If there are children present, they’ll get past it. The cultural expectation should be if there’s infidelity, the marriage is more important than fidelity.”
For me, reading Savage's columns all these years, as well as reading his books and articles about him, opened my eyes to the idea that long-term partnerships are much more about the stability they provide, not just for children, if there are any, but also for the people inside them, than to be the end-all-be-all relationship in your life.

Before I wrote this blog post, I asked a few of the non-monogamous people I know to give what their answers are to the questions asked and concerns raised by my psychiatrist and therapist. Dom Chaney just explained how he and his wife had gotten to this moment in time. Without quoting him directly, my sense is that within their almost two decades long marriage, they opened up to each other about things that they wanted to explore and found ways to make that happen, both together and apart. This is something that I've run across several times in speaking with older people in long marriages. Not so much that their marriage needed "spicing up," but that either one or both partners had desires that had been left unexplored when they made the choice to marry, to not let this very special person slip away for wont of the road untaken, but at some later date they were able to be honest about those desires and their partner was either turned on by the idea as well, or accommodating enough to let them explore that. For TyRoy, it seems to be a combination of not wanting the obsessive love that requires one person to be everything to you sexually as well as a sense of sexual adventurousness. I would also venture to guess that he avoids people who require monogamy because of past bad experiences. Of course, I only obtained the opinions of men before I did this and mainstream culture believes that men and women do not think the same way about sex. I'd be curious to hear the opinions of any women who are in or who prefer non-monogamous relationships.

As for me, coming to non-monogamy was it's own journey. Like most people, I thought that monogamous relationships were the only way to go. I also bought into the romcom ideal of one's romantic partner being the ultimate relationship in their life, that if that person wasn't 100% of everything to you there was something wrong, that sexual infidelity was the ultimate betrayal and reason to end a relationship. When I was in monogamous relationships, I was possessive, crazy jealous, and checking up on my partner all the time, as well as scared as hell to completely reveal my own sexual desires because I might lose them, which would have been a disaster in my eyes. But being up my partners' asses all the time didn't help the relationship. They often felt the need to be secretive and lie, while still continuing the relationship, both out of fear for what new crazy would develop at the time of break-up. In addition to this, these "monogamous" relationships were never monogamous in practice. I cheated in all of them and I now know that most of my partners did as well.

When I was about 25, feeling like I'd missed out on all the sex I should have been having in new ways and with new people, exploring first dating and fucking non-exclusively and then exploring more committed but open relationships, I started to feel free from all that crazy codependent shit. I found that when my partners didn't feel like they would definitely lose me by being honest about their desires and actions with other people, I could trust them more and be that crazy jealous person less. I also felt more cared about when they still kept coming back to me, in spite of the fact that they could be with someone else. I also found that I didn't necessarily have to sacrifice being cared for or even loved just because the relationship was non-monogamous. Yes, there were times when I just had sex because I just wanted to have sex. But more often than not, I had friendships or romances with these people. Some of them I still do. Just as I didn't care less for them because I couldn't get all my need fulfilled by them, I don't feel like they cared less for me. Also, just because I would be open to developing a long-term partnership with one of these "friends with benefits," I don't feel like I have to do that or that I'm losing out when that is not the direction it takes. I still value the sexual and romantic time I had with TyRoy and I do not feel like that is diminished by the fact that he and I did not get married. I also don't love him less (love, not in love) or feel that he loves me less just because he loves and is in love with is current girlfriend. It does not have to be a zero-sum game.

I will stipulate that this does not mean that things have always gone perfectly, that I haven't overreacted to perceived (or actual) non-honesty. It doesn't mean that my sex partners have always been honest. Ultimately, the thing that ended my marriage was that my husband wanted to be monogamously committed to another woman, though it was not someone he started a relationship with open and honestly while in our marriage, but a woman who he loved before he ever met me who had finally become single herself. It seems like that could happen whether one is in a monogamous relationship or not. But, overall, I have found negotiated and open nonmonogamy to be the best way for me to negotiate the jealousy and codependency that I had in previous romantic relationships.

Dom Chaney asked me the other night what I thought my preferred non-monogamous long-term relationships to look like. Though I was less committal when I answered him than I am now, I think I'd rather have a monogamish situation, than a truly poly relationship. I want someone in an everyday relationship, every night in my bed, to be my partner. If that person and I were highly sexually compatible, which would include him being sexually dominant and me meeting whatever kink he had, I imagine we would have small dalliances outside of our relationship, but not necessarily anything long-term and on-going outside. If either of us had a kink that we couldn't get met in our relationship, I imagine we would have on-going relationships outside for the purpose of getting that need met. Either way, I think that the biggest components for me would be honesty and honest communication. I'm not as worried that my partner has needs that I don't or can't meet, as long as they express that. I'm not as worried about my partner having sex with someone else as I am about them not telling me about it. I'm not any more worried that my partner will leave me for someone else because they were allowed to have sex with them than I would be if we were monogamous and they weren't. And I do not begrudgingly agree to non-monogamous situations because I don't feel like I deserve all of the love and attention of one person. Maybe I do it because I think we all deserve to be honest about wanting love or attention or sex or kinky play from more than just our primary partner and to be honest about the fact that many, if not most, of our romantic partnerships are not monogamous in practice.

While I'll get to the rest of the things I think we should be more honest about when it comes to monogamy and human sexuality when I finish Sex at Dawn and write a blog post about it, I want to leave you with a few quotes from it:

"Monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate except-if the standard narrative is to be believed-us." p 64

"Think about that. No group-living nonhuman primate is monogamous, and adultery has been documented in every human culture studied-including those in which fornicators are routinely stoned to death. In light of all this bloody retribution, it's hard to see how monogamy comes "naturally" to our species. Why would so many risk their reputations, families, careers-even presidential legacies-for something that runs against human nature? Were monogamy an ancient, evolved trait characteristic of our species, as the standard narrative insists, these ubiquitous transgressions would be infrequent and such horrible enforcement unnecessary." p 98  

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