The most emailed article from the New York Times this week was a piece on open marriages, “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” by Susan Dominus. I wanted to write about the thoughts it sparked in me because I think it’s relevant for our couples, and also for us as people. We know sex is an important topic, but it can stay hidden and silent, even in the therapy room.
We often see couples who are at odds with each other over frequency of sex, type of sex, and that ever present juggernaut – porn. We are so fortunate to be working in a model where we don’t have to weigh in about what is right and wrong, so I write this not to give us more to explain to our couples, but just something for us to think about as people and as therapists.
When we are not in a romantic relationship, and before we are ever in a romantic relationship, we have a sexual self. It’s ours. Our desire lives inside of us. In an ideal world, we get the opportunity to feel when it is awakened, and who awakens it. Is it the coffee guy? The beautiful woman in the elevator? Reading something? Seeing something in a movie? Or in my case, Vanilla Ice lyrics when I was 13 years old (don’t judge, my taste has improved since then). It is mostly accepted that people will have individual sexual selves, however once you commit to a relationship there seems to be an idea that you would never again have a desirous thought about someone other than your partner.
Reading this article made me think about how rare it is to even have clear conversations on this topic. Understandably, it could be a minefield to bring up with a partner or in mixed company! But then we are left with not having particularly clear and coherent beliefs for ourselves or our relationships.
Our discussions in the therapeutic community can get boiled down to porn – do we think it’s horrible or ok - and infidelity. I wonder if instead we could look at this from a wider lens as a spectrum of how people view their partner’s sexual selves. We don’t have to weigh in, we don’t have to say something is right or wrong, but we can understand people may come to their relationships with different beliefs on what is ok on the spectrum.
Sexual Other Spectrum:
My partner is allowed no sexual self outside of me (no porn, no erotic reading, no masturbating) ——————————>
———————————————————>My partner is allowed a completely independent sexual self (her boyfriend lives with us)
I would venture most of us fall somewhere on that spectrum, but I think the important thing is to think about it as a spectrum. I want us to some time thinking about it in terms of the amount of sexual expression we are ok with for our partners and ourselves, and not just if we see certain things as bad or good.
The author raised some interesting questions, and in particular this sentence stood out to me: “I was instinctively acting out a familiar, but also ridiculous, paradigm of marriage, one in which we collude in the fiction that no one [of the opposite sex] ever draws our interest.” (To make this more inclusive, I would change her wording to “no one ever draws our interest”).
We do collude in this fiction of our desire being solely awakened by our partner, don’t we? Understandably, we show our partners respect and loyalty by not verbalizing attraction to others. And yet, it can create a feeling that it’s wrong and shameful to find anyone else attractive, even if that information is something we keep private and don’t act on. Because my mind likes to make things orderly, I think of this in three categories:
1. Individual sexual freedom – how much do I want to support my partner in having his own sense of sexuality and his own engagement with his sexuality? i.e. masturbation
2. Relational respect – as in, I don’t want to hear my partner tell me he thinks another woman is stunning. I know he’s going to think other women are stunning, I just want those to be inside thoughts.
3. Sexual boundaries – as in, how exclusive do I want my partner to be in his physical and emotional connecting with others?
There is so much in this topic that people have written book after book about it. However, I really wonder if couples ever talk about this with each other. Usually they just learn the hard way if their partner is mad at them for masturbating or commenting on others’ attractiveness. I think it’s notable that in the article the couples talked about how nice it was to actually talk to their partners about their sexual selves, something many of them had never done before.
This huge topic can’t be easily concluded in a blog post, but I hope it sparked some thought that took the dialogue beyond just bad or good, and right or wrong.