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  • Joe Kort, Ph.D.

Have You Negotiated Your Monogamy?

Most relationships contain unstated assumptions.

Houston Monogamy Therapy

  • In therapy, I ask couples, “What does monogamy or polyamory or ethical nonmonogamy mean to both of you?"

  • Gay male and lesbian couples tend to be better at talking openly about these things than are straight couples.

  • Restrictions may be unreasonable, unfair, and unlikely to succeed if not negotiated from the beginning.

When I first work with couples, I always ask about their relationship status regarding monogamy or open relationships.

  • Are you monogamous?

  • Do you have an open relationship?

  • Are you polyamorous?

  • Are you monogamish? (This is a term coined by sex-advice columnist Dan Savage.)

Houston Monogamy Therapy

After they tell me the status of their relationships, I ask them what the word means to them. Once I worked with a couple, and they told me they were monogamous. After a few months of working together, they returned from a trip and told me about a three-way they had with someone. I responded by saying to them that they told me they were monogamous. They responded by saying, “We are monogamous; we only play together on vacations.”

So, now, I ask my couples, “What does monogamy or polyamory or ethical nonmonogamy mean to both of you?”

I have often noticed that when I ask couples who are monogamous if they have negotiated their monogamy, they look at me with great confusion. They think that question should only be for couples who are open and engage in ethical nonmonogamy. But this is far from true. I then ask these questions:

  • Can they flirt with others?

  • Can they have an occasional dinner with an ex?

  • Can they enjoy socializing with others without the partner present?

  • Can they privately watch porn?

  • Can they have cybersex outside the relationship as long as they never meet physically?

  • How about private masturbation?

Can they have a relationship with someone on Instagram whom they will never meet?

Often one partner says, “No, absolutely not, we are monogamous” while the other partner says, “Well, I don’t know; those things sound like monogamy to me.” This brings clarity to the need for all couples to negotiate their agreements within their relationship in overt ways and not assume.

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Gay male couples tend to be much better at talking openly about these things than are straight couples and even many lesbian couples. I’m not sure why this is less prevalent among straight couples, but I’m reasonably certain that if couples had negotiated which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t, it certainly would cut down on the number of couples who come into my office deeply upset because some unstated boundary was violated.

Then there’s the question of just how far to go in either limiting a partner’s behavior or limiting one’s own behavior. Former Vice President Mike Pence has made it clear that he considers even having lunch with a female colleague ethically off-limits. Whether this is something he and his wife (whom he calls “Mother”) have negotiated isn’t clear, but it does seem a rather severe restriction for someone in public office.

What Is Micro-cheating?

Mostly because of the prevalence of social media in our lives today, we now have the emergence of a term that is further dialing up such hypervigilance in relationships. It’s been dubbed “micro-cheating.” The opinions seem to be that we need to be watching for such dangerous behaviors as these:

  • Casually flirting with someone other than one’s partner

  • Having an online conversation with someone and failing to mention it to one’s partner

  • Spending time looking at online images of an attractive person such as an actor

  • Looking for too long at someone who is attractive on the street or in the office

  • Repeatedly liking someone’s posts on social media (even if they live in Siberia!)

  • Having ongoing conversations with an ex or someone other than one’s partner

  • Spending money on another person

  • Failing to tell someone who appears interested in you that you’re in a relationship

  • Exchanging emails with someone who is not one’s partner

  • Spending time with people outside the couple’s circle of friends

  • Hugging someone other than one’s partner

  • Masturbating or watching porn alone

Most people I’ve seen online promoting this concept of micro-cheating pose it as an “open door” to more serious acts of unfaithfulness. Is it?

I do think it’s a healthy idea at the start of a relationship to talk about what “monogamy” means to each partner and to occasionally reconfirm what the boundaries are. However, it’s hard for me to imagine one partner saying to the other outside of a therapy room, “Let’s talk about what we mean by monogamy,” without this being met with a firestorm of suspicion and a crisis in the relationship.

Houston Monogamy Therapy

Gay Male Couples

Gay males often talk about what they want sexually and romantically immediately in their dating apps. They often don’t wait for even the first date to be clear about what they want and are looking for. It is a cultural norm that is mostly accepted. A typical personal ad looking for Mr. Right can read like this:

I am into topping but will bottom every once in a while. I am into various kinks and fetishes and am open to yours as well. I like to masturbate and enjoy going having hookups now and then in addition to a romantic love with whom we go to movies, long walks, travel, and make a life together as a couple.

This would be met with great scrutiny if heterosexual singles put this same ad on their dating profiles.

In my therapy practice, couples have come in, for instance, because the wife has discovered that her husband has been watching porn, and she feels very threatened. She wants me to label him a sex addict or to somehow get me to control this behavior. But most often I find that his porn watching is no indication he wants to be unfaithful or is going to be. So, then the couple is, as the therapist Marty Klein has said, fighting over a contract that they never made. The couple’s office visit, then, offers an opportunity to begin a safer discussion about realistic and unrealistic boundaries and let me help them negotiate. We can, for example, raise the question, “Does the fact that his porn watching makes you uncomfortable mean that he absolutely must stop?” According to the online presenters I’ve seen about micro-cheating, the answer is “Yes.”

The reality, though, is that such an expectation might be unreasonable, unfair, and unlikely to succeed if it is not something you negotiated from the beginning. I think of relationship expert, Ellyn Bader who says, “Forbidding a partner invites secrecy.” It can become a power play—which partner will restrict the other person’s physical and mental activity, their actions, and their thoughts? The question becomes, “How much power do you or should you have over your partner?” And even “How much power do you want to have over them?”

Houston Monogamy Therapy

I have found that, when it comes to sex, these types of power plays get enacted much more than outside of that realm. If someone says, "I forbid porn to be watched by my partner," I will ask if they have other places where they “forbid” a partner, and the answer is often no. This is a question I learned to ask by relationship expert Esther Perel who invites couples into these conversations.

There is another approach I heard from a friend who said: “It’s OK to look at and smell all the good things on a smorgasbord, but you’d better eat your meal at home.” This way of thinking works well for some couples—especially if they’ve talked about it—and not at all for others. I know for certain that every couple is quite different in how they approach and resolve the questions surrounding the idea of monogamy.

Maybe one of the good things that thinking about micro-cheating is that it begs the question, “Have you negotiated your monogamy?” And it certainly shines a spotlight on the possibility that women can be as guilty of this as men, while in the past it has mostly been women who have claimed to be the victims.

So, at least for me, this idea of micro-cheating and clearly negotiating monogamy brings up more questions than answers. What are your thoughts?

Joe Kort, Ph.D., LMSW, - Website -


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