Red-Hot Monogamy

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.

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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.

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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.

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More From Our Special Marriage Section:

Even stellar relationships lose their spark over time; here are the ingredients of a lasting, fruitful partnership, and techniques for weathering the the stormy times: What Your Marriage Needs to Survive

When Tom Forrister transitioned from female to male, his same-sex marriage became a federally-recognized, “traditional” marriage. The one constant was the bond he shared with his wife: My Exemplary, Everyday Marriage

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

Guys may think leaving is the right thing to do for the sake of the family, but according to family lawyer David Pisarra, there are a few things they should know before—and after—they walk out that door: A Guy’s Divorce Survival Guide

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

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. I appreciate that this article starts by stating that it addresses only those who WANT to be monogamous– though I’m not sure “disdain” is the right word for people who don’t. Presupposes judgment & all that. I know plenty of poly people who don’t disdain my choices just because they aren’t the same as theirs, & I return the favor. That being said, being monogamous entails not flirting or fantasizing about other people? I’m not sure I agree with that. Wait; I’m SURE I don’t agree with that. This sounds more like one person’s path to functional monogamy; it doesn’t sounds like a general recipe for success.

  2. Sprung, but this article is very, very flawed.

    You can be happily monogamous & watch porn occasionally. You can be intensely monogamous & still flirt good-naturedly with other people. I love my wife & I’ll never cheat on her. But I will watch porn (sometimes with her) & I’m definitely going to continue to masturbate. The 1st trimester is a sex desert.

    I’m sure you were describing what’s worked for you, and that’s great. But to come out & say men who watch porn likely have less satisfying sex lives is, well, just wrong.

    • You may feel fulfilled sexually whilst consuming porn in your marriage, but does your wife? My boyfriend watches porn, and I am often denied sex when I want it because he’s been busy gratifying himself.

  3. Female Feedback says:

    I would think monogamy becomes easier if you have the capacity to identify with and empathize with your child’s experience (including having access to your own childhood experience, including its emotional content)?

    Also if you have a wife who has a good libido and energy herself? And we tend to need to have jobs, agency in the world, in order to really get access to our libidos.

    I love the book Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch for its discussion of how two psychologically “differentiated” people can have sex many, many times and each time is different. If the man or the woman are objectified or emotionally “fused” or are in a one-up/one down relationship, it becomes routine and gets old pretty fast.

  4. Um – the painting American Gothic features a FATHER AND HIS DAUGHTER – please choose more appropriate artwork??

  5. While I do agree that there are many challenges to abiding by relationship agreements, it’s worth noting that there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy. It’s entirely possible to have more than one sexual/emotional partner without lying or deceiving. The question, I think, is what someone’s reasons are for a particular relationship structure and what motivates them to make the choices they do. But that’s not saying that ethically non-monogamous people feel disdain for monogamous people, any more that queers feel disdain for heterosexuals. Most of the polyamorous folks I know respect other people’s relationship choices, regardless of whether they differ from their own.

    Your story of your masturbation patterns makes me wonder if you’ve every explored masturbation while staying present to the experiences of the moment, rather than sinking into a fantasy. Just as it’s possible to enjoy sex with another person while being mindful and present (rather than getting distracted by fantasies or porn), it’s possible to do the same when you’re solo. In fact, for some, this is the distinction between self-love and jacking off.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s great that you’re suggesting that people who choose to be monogamous, rather than simply accepting it for lack of any other options, can do so mindfully and with enthusiasm. The world would be a better place if more people put their hearts into their relationship decisions, whatever they might be.

  6. womansview says:

    It’s so validating to hear a married man express what I’ve come to feel after twelve years of marriage. It’s an easily misunderstood concept the author is expressing and it’s most definitely not easy to accomplish. However, the idea of reserving your sexual energy for your partner is the definition of married intimacy. I’m a serial flirter and have had my crushes and I’m sure my husband is no different in his personal time than any man but we have realized that there is a difference to how we feel about each other when we make an effort not to let our sexuality leak out like that.

    Maybe this ideal can’t happen all the time, it doesn’t have to be so black and white, but the goal is what’s most important. It’s too easy to dismiss the whole thing by saying ‘I’m not stopping masturbating’ or ‘I’m not going to stop flirting’ I think the point is that when you are creating real intimacy with your partner, with intention, those activities truly do take away from that and you need to be honest about that and be willing to deal with the consequences.

    It would be too complicated for me to address pornography, I don’t have issues with it in theory but I think it has become a very damaging thing and too easy of a way to pretend we are getting something we think we want.

    All that being said, everyone is different. I’m just happy that this writer got the sentiments right and risked sharing his thoughts about it. Thank you.

  7. I feel inclined to point out a few things about the subject; given that I had recently begun spending much time learning about polygamy which was, until now, alien to my experience. Though these points might not be relevant to your personal life they do matter in terms of our society’s conceptions of human mating, our relationship to relationships if you will.

    The first point is that in terms of American society, in fact most first-world societies, presumptive monogamy is not just seen as a form of relationship but that it’s the “best” way or “only way” to have a successful, healthy or worthwhile relationship with another human being and/or raise children. It is not seen as an equal but as a better form of human relation; to the point which the idea of there being another, equally viable, form of relationship is met with such bombastic furor sometimes one would think it was Communism during the McCarthy era. This visceral reaction to the possibility of monogamy not being the ideal form of mating has sometimes gone so far as to paint polygamy as a modern-day uncivilized hedonist activity of devoid of the caring and nurturing typically ascribed to monogamist couples.

    In fact this presumptive superiority of presumptive monogamy is false, as there are numerous examples of loving and nurturing polygamous relationships who raise well-adjusted children. All that matters in a household or relationship is that it is a safe and loving relationship not what prefix is attached to it. The term “presumptive monogamy” is used to exemplify a key facet of this form of relationship, that this isn’t a decision made by each part but is simply expected. For all the faults that come from this system when it goes wrong the blame is on the individual, not that the idea that monogamy as being the best and only way to have a relationship might not actually be true. In other words it’s thought to be a problem with a large percentage of humans, not the restrictive ideal they’re trying to follow.

    As far as your claims of unnatural but beneficial things, this has severe flaws to it. The human desire to better one’s life and increase survival for yourself and others is completely natural and has led to these sanitary and medical innovations. There are also many examples of unnatural things that do not wholly benefit life and make it worse such as nuclear weaponry.

    To summarize: the problem I see with monogamy is that the idea of different forms of human relationships cannot be tolerated, let alone seen as equally viable, in monogamy’s presence in how it is conceptualized. Monogamy, even though it shares the classification of an “invention” of humanity, isn’t any better than other forms of relationship. In fact the conception to which currently other forms of relationship are seen as inferior or intolerable isn’t very good at all.

  8. Flood, I’ve bent over backwards to make clear monogamy isn’t for everyone, and there’s nothing in this piece that suggests that it is even the preferential option for most people.

    What I object to from many of my poly friends is the implication that those of us who are drawn to monogamy are somehow brainwashed, or at the least, haven’t considered the alternatives. I have considered the alternatives, and experimented with them, and found them wanting.

    Your mileage may vary, and that’s great. But please remember that a great many people still want a healthy, vibrant, passionate, enduringly monogamous relationship. I am writing for those folks.

    • Fl(numerous O's)D says:

      Obviously I would never make the assertion I knew what another person’s experience was, outside of what you’ve written about it of course. That’s one thing I tried to convey in my post that this wasn’t about your choice to be monogamous but what I have seen of the issue in general. Case in point: I actually wasn’t aware that the claim of monogamous individuals being brainwashed was being made. Especially as a monogamous person myself with friends of all sorts of relationships. I haven’t seen, experienced, or heard of any claims meant to de-legitimize the decision to be monogamous. So that is certainly a surprise to me.

      • I’ve definitely experienced disdain from people because I’m not interested in poly stuff for myself. There’s a quiet (and not so quiet) pressure that suggests I’ll eventually break down and be poly, or that wanting just one partner to myself is selfish and impossible. And frankly, I don’t believe I’m going to find anyone anymore who wants to work on monogamy, especially the “work” part of it. I find the sexual climate to be really hostile these days, which is why I just don’t sleep with anyone or have relationships. Grim but true. I adore what Hugo has written here but I’m not so naive to think that I’m actually going to find that in a guy. I want to do the work, but I have to keep that information to myself.

  9. Great observations, and kudos on your willingness to share your personal stories so openly. I’ve noticed a pattern of people being very threatened by that approach on this blog, but I think continuing on with that style and openness is really the only way to have meaningful conversations on these issue. It’s always a risk, you too it, and I’m impressed. My favorite may be the “who cares if monogamy is natural” point. I hear you, brother Hugo. And I appreciate you.

  10. Never try to post with a 2 year old nearby. Sorry for the errors, hope it made sense!

  11. Feminists have ruined monogamy for women and men. Here’s the proof: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plkeKMTDM9g

  12. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    I have some doubts about ethical non-monogamy, having practiced it in the early 80s. I think the remedy is actually either discreet affairs (on either partner’s part.) or strict monogamy.

    In a open poly relationship, you and your partner become preoccupied with the other’s activities and think and talk about them far too much. There’s usually emotional hardening and withdrawl. This is all disguised by a surface cheerfulness that’s pathetic.

    Discreet stepping out is preferable.

  13. I stopped reading when I read ‘masturbation’ and 4th wife. If this is really the ‘good’ men project (a value judgment concept to begin with), I think I almost feel sorry for the rest of the country and the world. But I don’t. You’re scum. And probably Christian, too.

  14. Susan Maria says:

    Monogamy has lifelong positives; we have been able to build from years of relational commitment our successful little kingdom, pushing through the challenges we are not ignorant of our present imperfections and limits. Our sex is the best ever we mean ever – this is where he thrives and our intense connectedness is where I come to thrive. We love the one on one marriage, it’s how we both learn and live best – it’s us!
    (KS) The GMP articles I found either cement your own values while reading or opens room for further personal consideration, and discussion. The scope of experience in these subjects are button pushers and I have had a few pushed unexpectedly… but I keep coming back to visit.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hugo Schwyzer, Elizabeth Gaucher. Elizabeth Gaucher said: Hugo Schwyzer on the difference between monogamy and monotony http://t.co/fnRbwkG CONNECTION. Preach it, Hugo! #Ilovemyhusband […]

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