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Monogamish: Is It Cheating If We Agree on It First?

For a monogamish agreement to work, both individuals must be honest about who they are and what they want sexually. Then, when the cards are all on the table, the couple can negotiate a set of boundaries that works.
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Man and woman about to kiss
Man and woman about to kiss

The Urban Dictionary defines monogamish as "a relationship that is mostly monogamous, but occasionally exceptions are made for sexual play," as in, "My boyfriend and I are monogamish, so it's cool if you want to make out with me." What the Urban Dictionary doesn't tell us is that monogamish is rapidly becoming an acceptable, even normal approach to long-term relationships. That's right folks, the days of two people (a man and a woman only, please) falling in love, getting married and having eyes only for each other, from matrimony to the end of time, are fading fast -- about as useful and desired for some couples as that set of ultra-delicate bone china that's been in the family for 87 generations.

Interestingly, the transition from heterosexual monogamy to omnisexual monogamish seems to have occurred almost overnight. Honestly, a few decades ago, when I started working as a psychotherapist specializing in sex and intimacy issues, almost every client I saw had "one person for life" as his or her goal. The rare exceptions to this were gay men, and even they typically hoped to eventually settle down and become monogamous.

Of course, plenty of supposedly monogamous couples have been anything but over the centuries. In fact, research suggests that approximately 20 percent of married people cheat on their spouse at least once. And plenty of people think those mostly self-reported numbers are underestimates -- unless terms like "cheating" and "infidelity" are not as cut-and-dried as most people think. And they aren't. In fact, my professional experience tells me that infidelity (and the emotional pain it causes) is less about sex and more about secrets and lies. Recognizing this, I've developed the following definition:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when intimate secrets are kept from one's primary romantic partner.

Please notice that this definition does not talk about affairs, porn, strip clubs or any other specific sexual behavior. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to a committed partner -- relationship trust. So, to reiterate, in long-term relationships it's not any specific extracurricular sexual act that causes the most pain, it's the lying, the secret keeping, and the loss of relationship trust. Marriages don't end because one partner slept around, they end because he or she repeatedly covered up and lied about that behavior (and probably a lot of other important stuff).

This brings us to monogamish. Monogamish occurs when two people mutually agree (without any emotional, financial or other coercion) that certain types of sex outside of their relationship are okay and don't count as cheating. For a monogamish agreement to work, both individuals must be honest about who they are and what they want sexually. Then, when the cards are all on the table, the couple can negotiate a set of boundaries that works for them. For some couples, online sexuality (porn, webcams, and the like) will be acceptable while in-person sexuality (affairs, strip clubs, and the like) will not. Other couples will have rules like, "never more than once with the same person," or, "as long as we're up-front and honest with each other," or whatever. And these boundaries, when they are based in truth and mutual agreement, tend to work.

Without doubt, the rise of monogamish relationships is courtesy of the Internet. Prior to this technological leap most people weren't exposed to the full sexual panoply, and even when they knew they had a fetish or a same-sex interest or just a yearning to sleep around, it was hard to know if others had the same desire. So instead of feeling intrigued, people felt ashamed, and they sheltered in the port or heterosexual monogamy -- and most of the time their spouse had no clue about their secret sexual urges. This, of course, left a lot of people both sexually and emotionally unfulfilled.

Suddenly, however, people were finding anything and everything they desired online, which told them they weren't alone. As a result, over the course of the last 20 years all sorts of "alternative" sexual behaviors have been normalized, making it much easier for people to discuss their secret sexual longings -- particularly with a trusted, empathetic partner. For many couples this has led to a (happy, healthy, and fulfilling) monogamish arrangement. Instead of feeling shamed and stifled, couples can now talk about and engage in sex, in or out of their primary relationship, in ways that nurture emotional intimacy and build (rather than diminish) relationship trust.

Interestingly, plenty of couples talk openly about their deepest, most important sexual and relationship desires and then decide that monogamy is the right path for them. After all, in a deeply uncertain world a truly monogamous pairing provides emotional, physical, and even financial safety. For many people these relationship plusses rather easily trump any extramarital sexual urges they have.

Other couples, however, feel that a lack of sexual variety will ultimately lead to bed death and maybe divorce. For these pairs, anything that is mutually agreed upon could be in play. In short, they recognize that they can't control their sexual urges but they don't need to lie about them or keep them secret. Instead, they can share honestly about their thoughts and feelings with a loving partner. For some couples, this deeply intimate honesty actually forestalls infidelity and improves the sex life at home. For others, it leads to a monogamish agreement -- extracurricular sex, but with permission. Either way, because of the honesty the relationship gets stronger rather than weaker, with deeper emotional intimacy and increased relationship trust.

No, monogamish does not work in every relationship. But neither does monogamy. Honesty and relationship trust, however, are cornerstones in every successful long-term romance - be it monogamous, monogamish, or something else entirely.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health. He is the author of numerous books, including Sex Addiction 101 and Always Turned On. For more information please visit his website.