I have a handful of related questions to answer this week. One reader asked how she might improve the sexual relationship she has with her spouse, whom she adores but who has a lower level of sexual interest. Another woman in a similar situation wrote me to ask about navigating the non-exclusive sexual relationship she'd proposed to her husband. A third person wanted more specifics about how he might include more frequent and heart-centered, meaningful sexual practice into his marriage. Last, a younger woman in a fairly new relationship asked whether the dramatic decrease in the frequency of the sex she and her partner were enjoying was her "fault."
The theme that ties them together is that the partners in these relationships have different desires about sex. While there is a pervasive belief in our culture that women have lower levels of desire for sex than men in general, and adventurous sex in particular, the data doesn't fully support that stereotype. Levels of desire for sex do vary across people, just not reliably by gender.
To complicate the situation, we seem to expect that our sex lives will suffer as our commitment in a relationship deepens over time. Zsa Zsa Gabor lamented, "I know nothing about sex, because I was always married." A quick look through Craigslist (go ahead, I'll wait) demonstrates just how many people there are even in Humboldt desiring something new and different.
Some couples, like the reader above, decide renegotiating their monogamy agreement is a solution to their differences in desire. Some try therapy, with varying degrees of "success." These approaches aren't mutually exclusive. Couples moving from a sexually exclusive partnership to one that includes other partners often hash out the framework of their new arrangement with a therapist.
What about the adventurous approach, then? The decision to explore sexuality with partners outside the primary relationship shouldn't be taken lightly. We live in a small community and stories of breaches of discretion abound. One friend, for example, was shocked to find herself added to a Facebook group for those in open relationships. Nevertheless, for some people, monogamy isn't the relationship structure they find most satisfying.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not in that camp. I think non-monogamy is great, in theory, and for other people. Those committed partners choosing this path successfully have one thing in common: a clear and well-defined agreement. Those agreements often change over time, but the partners honor them. At a very minimum, those agreements include discussions about safety, discretion, defined acceptable behaviors, contexts, partner choices and mechanisms for clear communication, like a contract that spells everything out, including a date for renegotiation. There are a variety of good books on this subject.
One thing I think never works is cheating. In this context, that means adding partners and experiences outside the committed relationship in secret. There are plenty of reasons this is a bad idea. Let's start with the obvious: Partner A has secret liaisons outside her relationship with Partner B. Partner A contracts a sexually transmitted infection and passes it to Partner B. Partner B had no opportunity to protect himself/herself from this transmission, because she/he didn't know the risk in the first place. It's just a lousy thing to do to another person.
As if that weren't enough, the emotional fallout from cheating is serious. It often leads to symptoms of trauma in the betrayed partner that take months or years from which to recover. Nightmares, flashbacks, and triggers abound. Many relationships don't survive. There are ethical ways to leave and mature people don't pick unethical ones when they're not happy in relationship.
Those couples that successfully navigate the waters of open relationships do so with deep care and respect for everybody concerned — not just thinking of themselves, but also the needs of additional partners. They are good at delaying gratification. Surprised? Rather than traipsing off after every bright, shiny person passing their way, those in good open relationships discuss the potential traipsing beforehand. Another quality shared by successful poly relationships is that the primary relationship is strong. Those trying to hang onto a broken relationship while exploring new options at the same time aren't likely to do well with either.
Differences in sexual desire are notoriously tough to resolve. Therapeutic approaches often help couples explore the meanings each partner attaches to this difference. Why someone wants to open a relationship is important. Will these new experiences be about love? Will they include sex the other partner doesn't enjoy? How does each partner expect it to affect the primary relationship?
Truthfully, we therapists don't actually change the level of desire of either partner very often. But we might help couples feel more satisfied in their relationships. Non-monogamy is one example. The desire difference remains, but the higher-desire partner has his or her needs met another way. If there is an underlying relationship problem, resolving it sometimes changes the level of desire. However, there are many ways to improve sexual satisfaction. Start with honestly communicating with each other, then consult a good therapist. Endeavor to behave ethically. Relationships evolve and desire naturally ebbs and flows over the life of them. Making your relationship more complex is a big and potentially difficult choice — and only a few can make it work.
Melinda Myers is a Humboldt State University psychology lecturer, owner of Good Relations and a clinical psychologist practicing in Arcata. Information presented here is not intended to provide specific treatment advice. Consult www.ncamhp.org to find a licensed clinician who can help with individual concerns.