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Monday, October 10, 2022

The Advantages of Having a Relationship Agreement When You're in a Monogamous Relationship

In my article, What is an Ethical Non-Monogamous Relationship?, I discussed the advantages of having a relationship agreement that is mutually agreed upon by the individuals in the relationship.  But relationship agreements aren't just for non-traditional relationships.  There are also advantages to having an agreement in a monogamous relationship.

Relationship Agreements For Monogamous Relationships

Although many people enter into monogamous relationships assuming they are both on the same page, this often turns out not to be the case (see my article: Telltale Signs You and Your Partner Aren't on the Same Page About Your Relationship).

Once they're in a committed relationship, couples often discover that each of them have different ideas about what it means to be monogamous because they haven't talked about it beforehand.

You might say, "But being monogamous means you've made a commitment to be with just one person!  Isn't that obvious?"  I would respond that it's often more complicated than that.  

Let's explore this further below.

People Are Living Longer: Monogamy Forever vs Monogamy For Right Now 
In her book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Dr. Esther Perel, relationship and sex therapist, says that, in the past, monogamy used to mean that you were with one person for the rest of your life.

But today people are living much longer than they did in the past, so monogamy often means something different today: For many people it means that they'll be monogamous with one person at a time, the person they're with right now, which might not be for the rest of their life.  

As compared to the past, many people no longer think in terms of a forever relationship because there is a recognition that relationships are more likely to end now than they did in your grandparents' day.  This doesn't mean that no relationship ever lasts.  Obviously, many relationships do last a lifetime, but half of them don't.

I don't think most people enter into a committed relationship or a marriage with the idea that it won't last. But, at the same time, most people know, even if it's way in the back of their minds, that about 50% of first-time marriages end in divorce.  And they know those aren't good odds.

Infidelity Has Increased
According to Kinsey sex researcher and social psychologist, Dr. Justin Lehmiller, about 20-25% of people admit to cheating on their spouse, and the rate is even higher among people who are in a relationship but not married.

There are also more opportunities to cheat on dating apps, including dating apps for people who are married but who want to have affairs. There can be additional cellphones with secret calls, emails and texts.  There are social media sites with messaging that make it convenient to cheat. And so on.

According to Dr. Lehmiller, people give various reasons for cheating on their spouse or significant other, including:
  • Sexual desire
  • Anger
  • Lack of love
  • Neglect
  • Lack of commitment
  • Situational factors, including alcohol or being away on vacation
  • Ego/esteem boosting (see my article: Infidelity and the Need to Feel Desirable)
  • A desire for variety
There is No "One-Size Fits All" Standard for Monogamy These Days
While it might have been clear what monogamy meant 40 or 50 years ago, today there are so many factors to take into consideration.  

When two people in a relationship don't discuss what monogamy means to each of them, there are often misunderstandings and hurt feelings when they encounter differences in how they each define monogamy, as we will see below.

Clinical Vignettes: Couples Who Agreed to Be Monogamous Discover They Define Monogamy Differently
The following vignettes are composites of many different cases with all identifying information removed:

Ann and Bill
Ann and Bill were in their early 40s.  Ten years into the marriage, Ann discovered Bill watching pornography one night when she woke up in the middle of the night and went into their living room to see what Bill was doing.  This upset Ann very much because she considered it a violation of their marriage vows.  Bill couldn't understand why Ann was so upset.  To him, watching porn was a meaningless diversion.  Although they argued about it for days, they couldn't reach an agreement.  Ann insisted that Bill seek help in therapy, but he refused.  So, instead they entered into sex therapy as a couple.

Relationship Agreements For Monogamous Relationships

While in sex therapy, they each realized that they had never talked about this issue before and each of them assumed the other was in agreement with him or her.  Ann accused Bill of being a "sex addict" during their sex therapy sessions, and Bill accused Ann of being a "prude."  Over time, they learned in therapy that Bill wasn't a sex addict and Ann wasn't a prude--they just saw things differently.  They were able to work on the underlying issues that were causing problems for them and they eventually reached a compromise.  They also worked on a relationship agreement together and they each had a written copy of it.  The process of working on the agreement helped them to understand each other, avoid problems and it brought them closer together.

Gary and Ina
Gary and Ina dated for two years before they moved in together when Gary's New York City apartment lease was up.  They both agreed to be monogamous.  One day, when he was out with colleagues, Gary went to a local bar and saw Ina having drinks with a very attractive man.  They were sitting close together talking and laughing, which upset Gary. She told Gary earlier in the day that she was having drinks with a colleague, but she never mentioned her colleague was a man and that he was very handsome. Gary was also disturbed to see how close they were sitting and how their body language signaled an intimacy between them. After he calmed himself down, he walked over to Ina and the man she was with and she seemed surprised to see him.  She introduced Gary to Mike and told Gary that she was just about to leave and Mike agreed to drive her home.  

Relationship Agreements For Monogamous Relationships

Later that night, when they were home together, Gary told Ina how upset he was to see her with Mike.  Ina immediately took offense to Gary's words because she felt he was accusing her of cheating.  After many arguments, they entered into couples therapy where they talked about their differences.  Ina admitted that there had been other nights when she and Mike had drinks together, but they kept it strictly platonic. She said she just enjoyed his company.  At first, she didn't see anything wrong with being with Mike.  But over time, Ina realized that, even though she and Mike weren't having sex, they were having an an emotional affair where there was emotional intimacy.  She realized this wasn't healthy for her relationship with Gary. She also realized it could complicate issues at work, so she stopped seeing Mike outside the office.  Eventually, Ina and Gary worked out a written relationship agreement about this issue and other issues, which helped to bring them closer together.

Bob and Joe
Five years into their marriage, Bob realized that Joe was seeing other men for casual sex. He found emails from several men that were sexually explicit with pictures and links to hotels where Joe was meeting them.  This was something they had never talked about before, and Bob now realized that he had avoided the issue before because he was afraid of a verbal confrontation. He wasn't seeing anyone else, but he knew many of his gay male friends who were in relationships were non-monogamous.  Some of them hadn't worked out any agreement about these other relationships. They somewhat knew there were other men, but they didn't discuss it.  Some were in consensual non-monogamous relationships where they worked out an agreement between them.  And others were supposed to be monogamous but they were cheating on each other.  When he worked up the courage to talk to Joe, Bob told him about the emails he found and he expressed his hurt and anger.  

Relationship Agreements For Monogamish Relationships

In response, Joe expressed surprised. He assumed they had a "don't ask, don't tell" agreement where they were basically "monogamish" (monogamish is a term coined by Dan Savage, a gay sex columnist, which means that a couple is committed to each other but they have sex with other people).  Joe said they thought their unspoken agreement was that they could see other people as long as they practiced safe sex and didn't develop an emotional attachment to anyone else.   A few weeks later, they were in couples therapy working out their differences.  Eventually, they worked out a written relationship agreement that they both could live with where they would practice consensual non-monogamy.  They agreed to be each other's primary partner, but they could have occasional sexual affairs with other people as long as everything was above board and out in the open.

Nina and Jill
After dating for two years, Nina and Jill decided to move in together.  They planned to get married in a year.  One day Nina met Jill at a local lesbian bar in Manhattan where Jill often met friends.  As soon as she arrived, Nina saw Jill dancing and flirting with another woman.  When the dance was over, Nina asked Jill to step outside to talk and she told Jill how upset she was to see her flirting with another woman.  Jill responded defensively.  She couldn't understand why Nina was upset because she considered flirting to be harmless.  She said she enjoyed flirting because it was an ego boost for her and for the other person.  Nina told her she considered flirting to be cheating or, at the very least, micro-cheating, and she wasn't going to stand for it.  Soon after that, they went home and they had a big argument.  

Relationship Agreements For Monogamous Couples

In the heat of the moment, Nina told Jill she wasn't sure she wanted to get married to someone who was going to flirt with other people.  Jill was hurt when she heard this and she responded by saying she wasn't sure she wanted to marry someone who was so petty and jealous.  

A few weeks later, when they couldn't work things out on their own, they sought help in couples therapy.  Being able to talk things out in an emotionally safe environment helped each of them to open up.  They soon realized they had never discussed this issue before.  Although each of them thought their opinion was the "correct" one, they also wanted to come to a mutual agreement.  

Over time, Jill realized that even though she had no intention of developing a sexual or emotional relationship with anyone else, she enjoyed the variety she experienced when she flirted with other women.  She also liked feeling desirable when other women responded by flirting back. In addition, she said, with some hesitation, she and Nina had not had sex in several months, and she felt neglected. But since she knew it was hurtful to Nina, Jill agreed to stop flirting.  And, as part of their written relationship agreement, which they worked out over time, they agreed to find ways to bring novelty and sexual desire back into their relationship (see my article: The Power of Novelty to Enhance Sexual Desire in Your Relationship).

The Benefits of Working Out a Relationship Agreement
Although no agreement can resolve every problem in a relationship, there are advantages to these agreements, including:
  • It Sets the Tone For the Relationship: Since both people have worked on it together (as opposed to one person dictating the terms of the agreement), it sets the tone for the relationship.  
  • It Creates an Honest Framework: When the written agreement is thorough and both people have agreed to it, there's no reason to wonder how your partner might feel about the issues you both discussed and no reason to hide anything.  There can be honesty and transparency in the relationship.
  • It Can Be the Basis For Revisions Over Time: Although both people agree to follow it, a written relationship agreement isn't carved in stone.  Individuals can change.  The relationship can change.  Circumstances can change.  In addition, no matter how thorough an agreement is, there might be new issues that neither person thought about when the agreement was first negotiated.
Relationship Agreements Can't Guarantee the Relationship Will Work Out
Relationship agreements aren't guarantees.

It's possible that one person is more invested in the agreement than the other.  Sometimes this is because one person in the relationship isn't accustomed to conceptualizing and communicating on this level.  

Other times one person agrees to go along with the agreement just to appease the other partner, and they might be ambivalent about having an agreement at all.  But they want to just get it over with or they don't want to appear to be difficult.

In other cases, unfortunately, the person who is going along with it has no intention of following the agreement and they hope their partner won't find out they are continuing to engage in the same old behavior that caused problems in the first place.  This might include an attitude like: What my partner doesn't know won't hurt her (or him).

Having a Relationship Agreement Can Save a Relationship
Although it's not a panacea and one or both people might feel a relationship agreement is too time consuming to work out, in the long run, it's better to have an agreement than not to have one.  

Ideally, it's better to have an agreement before making a commitment to enter into a monogamous relationship and before problems begin.  This can save a lot of heartache in the long run.  But most people don't see a reason to work on an agreement until there are problems.

A relationship agreement allows each person to think about issues they might not have thought about before, to communicate their needs to their partner, and to learn about their partner's needs.

As part of the process, there might be some trial and error as each person gets to live with the established agreement, but a relationship agreement can save a relationship.

Seeking Help in Couples Therapy
Relationship agreements can be tricky for a couple to work out on their own, especially since there are emotional issues at stake and the possibility of hurt or angry feelings as well as emotional triggers related to unresolved trauma.

Couples Therapy Can Help Save Your Relationship

Working with a couples therapist can help to identify each of your needs, understand the underlying emotional issues involved, compromise if necessary, and renegotiate as things change (see my article: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples?)

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I am a sex positive therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.