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Romance, and negotiating the boundaries of monogamous relationships, are not new subjects. Humankind has been figuring out the rules about who gets to be with who and when for eons, but modern conversations about “staying faithful” have too long adhered to the notion that men want sex, and women don’t.
In a very long and moving piece for the New York Times, writer Susan Dominus interviewed dozens of non-monogomous or “monogomish” couples currently in open marriages to see what additional people in their relationship brought to their life, both good and bad. Amongst the reflective interviews, mostly centered on a couple identified as Daniel and Elizabeth, Dominus explores why jealousy as a barrier to a happier sex and love life is so hard to break down.
“Jealousy may be part of human nature, but social constructs amplify its power, with devastating costs,” she writes.
One of the interesting things Dominus began to note in her interviews was that the majority of the heterosexual couples opened up their relationships at the instigation of the women, including Daniel and Elizabeth. Of the 25 couples, only 6 of them were opened up at the man’s suggestion, and even in cases where it was mutual, the woman were generally more sexually active outside the relationship.
Dominus isn’t sure if this is explained by women generally being more comfortable talking about the state of their relationships than men, but she mentions how evolutionary biology has long centered a man’s need to spread his seed as the driving force behind the mating impulse. Obviously, science has its biases:
It took decades for sex researchers to consider the possibility that women’s fabled low libido might be a symptom of monogamy. An entire scientific field, well chronicled by Daniel Bergner (a contributing writer for the magazine) in his book “What Women Want,” has evolved to try to understand the near-total diminishment of lust for their partners that so many women in long-term monogamous relationships feel. One 2002 study found that men and women in committed relationships shared equal desire at the onset of their relationships, although for women, that desire dropped precipitously between one and four years into the relationship; for men, the desire remained high throughout that period. In his book, Bergner cites research suggesting that women desire novelty as much as men. The recent attempts to formulate medication to address waning sexual interest has been predicated on the assumption that one possible response — indulging an interest in newer partners — would never be practical and could be destabilizing.
So women are as horny as men, and may desire variety at an even higher level to be truly excited about sex, but societal structures discourage women for reaching for what they want. In an open (but committed) relationship, many women are able to find that mix of stability and excitement they crave. It should be noted, however, that that need for stability is just as likely a construct taught to women as the myth of a low sex drive is.
At any rate, everyone Dominus spoke with seemed to say that their approach to non-monogamy had brought sexual energy back into their relationships with their primary partners, and also opened up channels of communication they’d never been able to tap into before.
Dominus spoke with writer Carrie Jenkins, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, who is also married and dating a longterm boyfriend. Jenkins suggests that there is no one size fits all approach to socializing, rearing children, or forming committed relationships, and it wouldn’t make sense for there to be one on an evolutionary level either. Polyamory isn’t for everybody. Monogamy isn’t for everybody. Sex isn’t even for everybody.
“We are definitely equipped with biological mechanisms that support collaboration and bonding and communication, and those have evolved to help us succeed in the difficult task of raising infants,” said Jenkins. “And anything that can threaten those bonds, that’s real pain, that’s real brain chemistry involved. But we are a diverse and adaptive species, so what we should predict is a suite of biological mechanisms that would allow diverse approaches to that challenge of raising children. Flexibility is what is distinctive about us as humans.”
You can and should read the full piece here.