Is Monogamy In Marriage Unrealistic?

(As originally published on Huffington Post Divorce, May 23, 2011)

After years of handling divorces, I thought nothing could shock me. And then a client told me about Ashley Madison, the website for “The discreet who want to cheat.” Their slogans are: “Life is short, have an affair,” and “When divorce is not an option, isn’t it time for” One of their websites has a flashing button you click to “Get laid now.”

I’m evidently out of touch, because a lot of people know about this website–including 7.8 million members who pay a fee to cheat on their spouse.

My client learned about Ashley Madison the hard way. She was home with three young kids while her husband was surfing Ashley Madison at work. He connected with a married woman and the rest is predictable. They exchanged emails and texts, had sex for the first time in the back seat of a car. It went on to become a full-blown affair, and at one point the lovers even went to my client’s home and had sex in her bed while she and the kids were out of town.

No surprise, my client left her cheating husband. The “other woman” is in the midst of a divorce herself. Their cover was blown when the other woman’s husband found the emails and called my client to tell all.

Affairs are as old as time, so why did this client’s story bother me so much? The shocker for me is an entire website created just for the purpose of cheating. It calls into question the American concept of marriage, which leads to other questions I will raise at the risk of offending many:

• Is monogamy a reasonable expectation in marriage?
• Is monogamy the main reason marriages fail?
• What would happen to marriage (and the divorce rate) if monogamy were no longer required?

I never thought I’d say this, but I am starting to think that monogamy causes a lot more problems than it’s worth.

As someone who has been monogamously married for 13 years, I don’t have personal insight into cheating. But as a divorce lawyer who’s been privy to intimate details of married life, I have a lot of thoughts on the subject.

Certainly, there are cheating spouses out there who weren’t good at marriage at all, and the affair was merely the final straw. But I’ve also seen married men (and women) who loved their spouse, loved their kids, wanted to remain a family, but the deal-breaker was they just couldn’t envision having sex with the same person “until death do us part.”

The idea that monogamy is natural is absurd. We know that past civilizations–and countries throughout the world today–don’t share our American concept of monogamy. We, as Americans, hold onto this cultural norm even thought the institution of marriage was created at a time when most of the population died around 30. This idea of living and mating with the same person for life does seem to be causing us a lot more trouble now that marriages are expected to last 40, 50, 60 years. We even have a term for it now–the “gray divorce”–which is quite common these days as retirement-age couples split after decades of marriage.

Giving further fuel to the debate is the recent finding that only one creature in the animal kingdom is 100% monogamous for life– the Schistosoma mansonii, a parasitic worm that lives in the human body and engages in lifelong copulation with its mate. The other eight animals we used to think were strictly monogamous–wolves, vultures and some birds–are failing the test. Using sophisticated techniques to monitor these animals, scientists have discovered that even these loyal creatures “cheat” in certain situations, such as when their mate can’t perform.

And then there’s the biological difference between men and women as they age. Women’s sex drive typically drops as women move toward menopause, while men’s libido usually declines at a slower rate. I recall my divorced mother wearing a button in her mid-forties that said, “So many men, so little time.” About a decade later, she told me she and her girlfriends had decided to change their buttons to: “So many restaurants, so little time.”

In my own community, we have a pragmatic OB/GYN who is “famous” for sitting down with his female patients at their 50-year annual exam for “the talk.” Although I’m not yet 50 (and so haven’t been privy to this talk), I’ve been told it goes like this:

“Testosterone is what determines sex drive. At age 50, a woman’s testosterone level is, let’s say, about “90.” Your husband, at the same age, will probably have a level of about “600.” So you see the problem. To stay happily married, here’s what I suggest: go home and tell your husband what we discussed. Tell him that whenever he wants to have sex, you are willing. Often it won’t be for your pleasure and that’s ok because you’re doing it for him, in the same way you would make him a meal if he were hungry. And he is welcome to make it end as fast as he wants. And then, maybe once every few weeks when you feel like true intimacy, you make it a romantic event and on this occasion it will be for both of you.”

(Supposedly the best part of “the talk” is at the end, when the good doctor concludes with a success story to drive his point home. He references a patient of his who has had this arrangement with her husband for many years now, and they have taken it to a whole new level of cooperation—the wife gets to read during the serviceable acts!)

Accounts like this make me laugh while at the same time making me think. If keeping a marriage together boils down to this kind of arrangement, perhaps monogamy is indeed a troublesome thing—unnatural at best, and a marriage-wrecker at worst.

At the moment I reach this conclusion, I then think of my own marriage. I can’t imagine it being the same if I and my spouse—even with each other’s blessing—were to be out there satisfying our sexual urges with other partners. The biological facts may convince my head, but my heart is a whole other arena. Jealousy, possessiveness, security and trust are real human emotions and needs which, for most people, cannot be kept in their proper place without monogamy.

The best information I’ve found in favor of monogamy comes from Shirley P. Glass, a psychologist who studied marital infidelity. Ms. Glass’ research showed that fidelity is entirely possible in marriage and that people are in control of what happens in their relationships. The whole idea of “I wasn’t looking for love outside my marriage, but it just happened” is a complete fallacy.

In her book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert sums up Ms. Glass’ findings like this:

“Though the human heart may indeed be shot through with bottomless desire, and while the world may well be full of alluring creatures and other delicious options, it seems one truly can make clear-eyed choices that limit and manage the risk of infatuation.”

Perhaps this is why I can’t approve of a website like Ashley Madison, even knowing the logical arguments against monogamy. If fidelity is entirely possible, as Glass concluded, couples don’t need this temptation. Ashley Madison feels too much like a beer-selling stand at the exit of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Fundamentally, because I’ve seen too many spouses and children emotionally devastated by an extramarital affair, I still believe in starting a divorce with dignity and maturity. My advice remains the same, whether I believe in monogamy or not: If you are going to leave your marriage, get out first and then turn to Leave Ashley Madison out of it. If a parasitic worm can resist temptation, so can you.

  • Tina Swithin

    Very interesting!