Monday, May 3, 2010

Let’s Talk About: (In) Fidelity.

Conversational post between duchess and Pearls N the Hood. Full disclosure: both of the authors are currently in non-married monogamous relationships, but both have also been in non-monogamous relationships (which might be a strong descriptor for a few of the instances in question) in the past..

Marriage and family. The big white dress. The partner who adores your every quirk. The adorable children who are always clean, never throw tantrums in public, and astonish all adults they meet with their cute antics.

That's what women are expecting, right? Okay, not really. We all know that marriage will probably involve a lot more compromise and a far fewer picnics in the park than we might wish for. And our children, well, perhaps the best we can hope for is that they don't throw a tantrum during our sister's wedding, where we, as the matron of honor, can't leave the altar without everyone looking at our every move.

And we all know that what works in one marriage probably doesn't work in all marriages, after all, the way we live our lives definitely isn't the way our neighbors, colleagues, or even our best friends live theirs. There can be similarities, of course. But on the whole, people live their lives in ways that make sense to them at the time—not in ways that make sense to everyone else. And marriages are going to be like that too.

Of course, there are infinite questions and compromises that take place in a marriage. In this conversation, we'd like to just explore one --fidelity. What does it mean? Does it mean that once you say "I do", you have sex with your spouse and only your spouse, for the rest of your natural life? Does it mean you're each free to sleep with other people as long as you're discreet and don't bring the details home? Or does it mean something entirely different?

duchess: To continue the policy of full disclosure stated above, I'll flatly admit that for most of my life (despite a rather scary and illogical addiction to shows like Say Yes to the Dress and Whose Wedding is it Anyway), I never really considered marriage to be something I wanted. I might've occasionally pictured myself in one of the lacy, white concoctions I saw on the television, but I never pictured actually walking down the aisle. However, I'm now willing to admit that yes, marriage might be a possibility (but certainly not a definite!).

Pearls: Without question, I am a marriage girl. I used to dream that I'd go off to college, meet Mr. Right, get married after graduation, and start a family soon thereafter. This sequence is especially ingrained in little southern girls. But…HA! The world has schooled me on this. I did not meet Mr. Right in undergrad (though, I may have temporarily believed so). And while I am in a relationship that perhaps has marriage potential—he pretends to enjoy watching Say Yes to the Dress with me which is points in my book—four years after graduating I am in no hurry. I actually believe in marriage as a family construct. So, until I'm ready to have a family, by which I mean children, I am fine with not having a ring on it.

duchess: But the question we're trying to address here is, of course, a slightly more pointed one. Not whether we will or won't meet the Right One (that's a function of time and a waiting game, I think), but once we do, will we want, demand, or even give complete fidelity forever and ever? (And by fidelity, I mean a negotiated, consensual faithfulness or lack thereof, not sneaking around and cheating on the other partner, which I think we can all agree is a scumbag move.) But for myself, will I one day be ready to pledge to be completely faithful to one person for the rest of my life? I have to say my first instinct is no.

Pearls: And my first instinct to you and Oscar-winning actress/comedian Mo'Nique (whose open marriage situation is now well-known) is YOWZA! I can agree with your modern love definition of fidelity. It used to be that it just meant one sexual partner for life. Period. But, fidelity can just be a mutual trust between a couple. Still, an old-fashioned girl like me thinks a ring and a vow should mean that my mate wants to be a one-woman man. Forever. And Ever.

duchess: But also important—do you want to be a one-man woman, forever and ever?

Pearls: Probably not if George Clooney or Justin Bieber (when he's legal) comes along. Barring that—per a ring and a vow—I'd absolutely want to be a one-man woman.

duchess: I'll admit I like the idea of true fidelity. The truth is, under all my cynicism and insistence that such things just can't exist, I'd love to be with a partner who wanted to be with just me forever (and who I wanted to be with forever too). But I think eventually, one of us might get bored. And rather than destroy my partnership or marriage over sex (assuming it was otherwise happy), I'd want both of us to have other options. And I don't just mean finding a mistress (and actually as an aside, what's the equivalent term for a woman's out of wedlock sex partner, assuming he's a man?). There are other options too—swinging, threesomes, etc. I have to admit I'd probably leave at least the possibility on the table.

Pearls: These days with Tiger and Jesse tramping about all over the place, it certainly seems like just an "idea", huh? Anyway, it is lovely. But aren't there other sex-life remedies out there that don't involved extramarital sex? Can't we use our imaginations? I'm game for other "spice it up" remedies. I mean, if it's all about being bored in the bedroom. But, who knows why people cheat. That's why we have rehab. By the by, I totally agree, duchess. We need a male "mistress" equivalent. Women cheat too.

duchess: Tiger and Jesse certainly don't have any class at all. There's no question about that. But, in my mind, it's not because they had extramarital sex. It's because they lied, they hid, they skulked around (although they obviously weren't stealthy enough to stop from getting busted), they had extramarital sex without their respective wives' consent, permission, or knowledge. And that's atrocious. If I find out a partner lied to me about something big—fidelity, honesty, massive money issues, etc.—the relationship would be over. Immediately. I can't take being lied to. But if my partner was honest? Well, I care a lot more about honesty, love, and emotional fidelity (i.e. I couldn't take my partner being in love with his mistress) than about who he tumbles in the sheets with once or twice.

Pearls: I agree that emotional fidelity is of the utmost importance. I just can't reconcile emotional fidelity with sexual infidelity. I think that the commitment has to be to both at the same time or what's the point of making the commitment. If you want to be single, by this I mean what box you check on your IRS forms, as someone once put it to me, then be single. But how can you be married and still playing the field? I couldn't live with a man who I call "husband" who is also banging other chicks, to be quite frank about it.

duchess: If I was absolutely confident my partner loved me and just me? I probably could. I say "probably" because, while I like the idea, I've never actually had negotiated infidelity with a partner I loved, and am not completely sure how I'd react to the idea in practice. Which is, of course, why I would try it out before I got married. But I know of plenty of people who make negotiated infidelity work, and I guess the truth is that it just appeals to my rational, logical mind. I hate being driven solely by emotion and when I think about it logically, I think what's the harm? It's just sex, right, and many of us have had meaningless sex. But as for what my emotional reaction will be, I guess I just won't know what happens until it happens. But as long as we're open and honest and trust each other, I'm willing to take the risk to find out.

Pearls: Duchess, I really like that you say you'd like a trial run at this. Do you think your doubts might be your inner sex-conservative screaming, "he just can not put 'it' anyplace else, dammit!"? Because that's what my inner (and outer) sex-conservative is saying. What is your most ideal situation? You've said that you'd like to be in an honest relationship first and foremost. If you were the Disney Princess, would you and Prince Charming be old-school faithful to each other, if it were your call? And, just a question that I've always sought an answer to, what exactly is "meaningless" sex? I have never understood this term. Please define it for me.

duchess: As far as the definition of "meaningless" goes, I fall in love easily, but it rarely matches up with my sex partners. I like them (usually); they don't annoy me. But they aren't typically who I call when the chips are down, they don't bring me soup when I'm sick. That's what my friends are for. While that's not precisely "meaningless", I suppose that's what I meant. And I guess my thoughts on the process are muddled because, to be honest, I don't really know the answer for certain. My inner romantic (who I often try to shut up) loves the idea of one true love for a lifetime, but my inner cynic (who I rely on far more) insists that such things can't exist, that they're just a façade. My logical and sex-positive side (which pretty much always wins out) says emotional fidelity—not physical—is the way to go. And so I guess my ideal situation would be an open and honest relationship where we can talk about our desires—all of them, including the ones involving sex. I suppose I'd be more comfortable with the two of us as a couple exploring other options—threesomes, swinging, etc.—than us doing it independently, but I won't rule that out. To be honest my ideal relationship depends on my partner just as much as it does me, and until I meet that person, I really feel like I can't nail it down (pun intended?) any more than that.

Pearls: I can see your point of view here, duchess. I guess we'll call it a truce or at least just agree to disagree for now. Who knows where we'll be in 5 years on this subject.

duchess: I agree—who knows? In five years, I could be in a monogamous relationship and you could be on a swinger's listserve (okay, at least one of these is not very likely). But the point of this wasn't to agree, anyway.
Obviously, we don't agree and we don't expect you, our readers, to agree with either one of us. But both of us think that talking, disagreeing, and exposing each other to different points of view, are important parts of being women. We can be each others' greatest allies.

So now it's your turn to tell us. What's your ideal marriage or partnership arrangement? Is physical fidelity a requirement along with emotional? Is negotiated infidelity something you'd ever consider in any circumstance? Or, are you not exactly quite sure?


  1. Thanks for the coffee chat, gals, I think you both make excellent points! As for there not being a male term for "mistress," I think it's no surprise: the word mistress serves a very specific social function--it's the way we transfer blame from unfaithful men to the women with whom they stray. If there weren't a word, if you couldn't call her a mistress, we would have to acknowledge that she's just the woman the unfaithful man happened to shack up with, and not the creator of the situation, an object of scorn, or a mysterious femme fatale, where the fatality is the faithful wife's marriage. The word mistress is what allows Tine Fey to construct a comedy bit on the premise "for every Sandra Bullock, there's a Michelle McGee; for every Elin Nordregen there's a Jaimee" instead of saying there's really just a lot of a-hole men!

  2. So what's really interesting when thinking about the language, is that we also have a word for a man who's stepped out on, cuckold, but no female equivalent. Also, I am under the impression that cuckold is a very bad word (is this right?) and mistress is relatively neutral (the connotation for me is more sultry lady of leisure than bottom-feeding low-class whatever).

  3. Well, the word cuckold has a very specific meaning, and an evolutionary-biology origin: it refers to a male who invests in a child that's not his. It's derived from the cuckoo bird, which lays eggs in others' nests. In an evolutionary biology framework, males want to maximize the success of their offspring, so generally choose to invest in their offspring by one female. If this female also has sex with other males, the male may end up investing in someone else's genetic material, which will be selected against by evolution. So being a male and being cheated on is bad, because you may be cuckolded. As for females, evolutionarily, they might not mind cheating as much, because they care about getting the male's investment. Whether or not he also impregnates other females will only matter if it also divides his investment. "As long as he comes home to me," anyone? I absolutely don't think we should use nature as a benchmark for societal acceptance, but it IS interesting to think about where these words come from, and how it might inform our associations with male and female cheating.

    Now, we'll stop derailing the conversation and bring it back to Pearls and Duchess's original point: How do you feel about the idea of "negotiated infidelity" within a relationship?

  4. Interesting site and discussion! :)

    I'm very very monogamous myself, and plan on being so for the rest of my life. But that's because I'm with a very monogamous dude.

    I think that both monogamy and nonmonogamy are morally neutral. There are ways to do both in service and in disservice of the relationship, if that makes sense. I'm not loving the term "negotiated infidelity". I think it suggests polyamory (when done with the consent of all parties) is necessarily without faith. It's not traditionally faithful, but I think it shows a lot of trust on the part of all parties involved.

  5. Yes, RMJ, I think you're absolutely right, and that's why duchess says it's emotional fidelity that matters to her in thinking about "faithfulness." I'm also in a monogamous relationship, and honestly think I am just a monogamy kind of girl, but I love that you use the term "morally neutral." That's exactly how I feel--it's how you feel about some form of relationship that determines whether it's good or bad.

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  7. I agree RMJ, that non-monogamy and monogamy can both be done in service and disservice of a relationship. I won't speak for duchess, but besides the term "negotiated infidelity", which may seem contradictory (since if it's a negotiation, is it still then "infidelity"?), but I think you two are actually saying similar, if not the same, things. I got from duchess that she agrees that the trust involved in negotiating any type of non-monogamous relationship is way more important than the open agreement sex part to her, if that makes sense? I'll let her speak for herself though.

    As for me, for some reason, the term "morally neutral" doesn't sit well(perhaps, it's the conservative roots). I understand what you mean, but I just like monogamy, I guess. Especially, if I'm married. I can't even wrap my brain around other arrangements.

  8. My wife of 30+ years (good marriage, we love each other) has stated flat out that she has very little interest in having sex. When we talked about how this doesn't work for me, she said, "go out and buy some sex, but I want to know about it ahead of time". It sounds as if she invented "negotiated infidelity" a day or two ahead of the CNN show. I rejected the "let me know ahead of time" as unreasonably controlling but not the offer to allow me sex outside of our marriage. I don't know how this will turn out. I'm not too excited about buying sex but the possibility is now on the table.


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