Monogamy isn’t just not sleeping with other people—it’s about doing everything you can to stay connected to your partner.
The word monogamy isn’t sexy. It sounds an awful lot like monotony, which more than a few guys think is no accident. Fidelity, its near synonym, is only a little bit better. Whenever I hear the word, I think of the Marine Corps’ motto, Semper Fidelis. And then I start thinking of marriage as military service from which there is no leave, just a permanent tour of duty in terrain alternately placid and terrifying, dull and deadly.
But that’s how I feel about the words, not about the ideal they express.
I’m not interested in the debate over whether monogamy is “natural.” It isn’t natural to do lots of very good things, like use toilets instead of peeing our pants. Nature is cruel; in nature, a high percentage of children don’t live to adulthood. In nature, Thomas Hobbes said, most people lead lives that are “nasty, brutish, and short.” Agriculture isn’t natural, antiseptics aren’t natural, and monogamy isn’t natural. But our lives would be poorer without them.
Some folks disagree, and that’s fine, too. The problem isn’t with people who have the courage to make clear their disdain for monogamy. The problem is with those of us who want the benefits but not the constraints of monogamy, those of us who want endless novelty and everlasting security at the same time. Physical and emotional infidelity—and porn addiction—usually have their roots in that mix of the hunger for something new and the fear of losing what’s safe and familiar.
To me, being a “good man” means matching my language and my life. Integrity, a word that we often associate with masculine goodness, means to be integrated: what one says and what one does are congruent. We might be more coarse and vulgar when we’re hanging out with our buddies than when we’re eating dinner with our family, but our basic identity doesn’t change.
So if we pledged fidelity to someone, we do everything we can to be faithful. For some guys it’s easy; for others it’s more difficult. (And of course, how hard we have to work at being faithful fluctuates over the course of a relationship. For some guys, it fluctuates in the course of a morning.) I know about the difficult bit: I’ve been married four times. And I was unfaithful in one way or another in each of the first three marriages. It’s only in this fourth marriage, now in its sixth year and with a 2-year-old daughter at its heart, that I’ve had a chance to learn and practice “positive monogamy.”
I was chronically unfaithful in my first marriage, episodically unfaithful in my second. I did much better in my third, save for periodic bouts of porn use—and save for a view of monogamy as a necessary but unpleasant burden I had to carry. My capacity to be faithful grew over the course of three marriages, but my joy at being so never did. By the third marriage, I thought of monogamy as a kind of monastic discipline. I didn’t sleep around, I stopped flirting with strangers, I stopped my little intrigues with women I knew here and there. And I measured my progress like an athlete measures painful training.
Not surprisingly, my third wife was unimpressed by my heroism. My sense of duty was far too obvious, and that bugged her—rightly so. Who wants to be with someone who is willing to be faithful and even succeeds at being so, but who also invariably makes it clear that it’s damned hard work? And so that marriage failed too.
Reassessing my view of fidelity took time. It took therapy, and it took conversations with friends and mentors. But before I started dating the woman who is now my fourth wife, I realized where I’d been wrong. I hadn’t understood the power of positive monogamy. (Forgive me if this sounds like cheesy self-help-book stuff.)
Monogamy, I came to understand, is a lot more than what we don’t do with other people. It’s about where I choose to put my sexuality, not where I don’t. Monogamy isn’t just not sleeping with other people, it’s about doing everything I can to stay connected to my wife. To put it simply, it’s defined as much by intensity as by exclusivity.
What does “intensity” mean? It means directing all of my sexual energy (still formidable in my 40s, thanks) toward my wife. Not out of a sense of grim obligation, but out of love for her and what we’re creating together. What does that look like in concrete terms? For starters, it meant weaning myself off masturbation, a process I began while I was engaged to my fourth wife. I went from masturbating to visual images to masturbating to fantasies about past sexual experiences. But I realized quickly how that fell short too. Fantasies are edited productions: when I was jerking off to 10- or 20-year-old memories, all that I saw in my head were the “hot parts.” The awkwardness of those past realities was always left on the cutting-room floor of my mind. Sex with my fiancée couldn’t compete with that.
For a while, I only masturbated to thoughts of my future wife, replaying our own sex in my head. But it was still orgasm without connection and without much effort on my part. If I masturbated to a past memory, I tended to have less energy and excitement about making newer ones. I realized I needed to be a better steward of my libido. I wanted to send it all to one place; not only not to other women but not into my own head. Unreleased horniness wasn’t my fiancée’s obligation to soothe. But my pent-up libido could be the impetus to be a more passionate—and present—partner.
Marriage isn’t for everyone. Monogamy isn’t for everyone. We know we have choices today. We can divorce, again and again if need be. We can find love in myriad forms outside of the lifelong commitment to one other person. But a lot of people still want that ideal of sexual exclusivity, whether their reasons are rooted in tradition, morality, a desire to protect and nurture children, or their own sense of what romantic love is all about. And given that monogamy is now more of a choice than it ever has been before, it’s worth choosing to do well.
That means more than just not sleeping with, flirting with, or fantasizing about other people. It means finding in one other person the sexual healing that Marvin Gaye sang about. It means bringing that healing to them as well, the healing that we can only give when we come—as best we can—with single-minded intensity and undivided hearts.
More From Our Special Marriage Section:
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The nightmare of family court is enough to deter a guy from even thinking about tying the knot. Marriage: Just Don’t
Encouraging princess culture—however innocently—contributes to the sexualization of girls. Men can be part of the solution to the “princess problem”: Men and the Sexualization of Young Girls
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For all the stories written by and for women on this issue—and there are few—men are more likely to be absent from the public dialogue about intentional childlessness. Why aren’t men’s stories also being heard? Two Is Enough
As Gabi Coatsworth’s son’s bipolar disorder gave way to full-blown manic episodes, she watched her husband slip deeper into drink and detachment: Reading Between the Silences
If you’re married and using Internet porn regularly, your sex life—the one with your wife—is probably a lot less satisfying than it could be: How Porn Can Ruin Your Sex Life—and Your Marriage
Men are more promiscuous than women, but that doesn’t mean we should buy the cultural fallacy that men are programmed to cheat; the vast majority of men are happily, naturally monogamous: Are Men Natural-Born Cheaters?
Tom Matlack talks to married men to find out when they knew their wife was “the one”: She’s the One