Non-Monogamy: Hold the Wrath?

Post-Affair Desire for Non-Monogamy

I encounter many cheaters who, after their affair is discovered, make sudden pronouncements about how difficult monogamy is, how it’s unnatural, and how they really want an open marriage. Exploring this generally highlights that they don’t want an open marriage at all, as the very idea of their spouse having sex with someone else makes them really uncomfortable. Yet, this thought trajectory from ‘I was in a mutually agreed, committed and monogamous marriage’ to ‘I want an open marriage and don’t support monogamy’ is not at all unusual.

This article, written by Wendy Plump, isn’t that different. However, it seems to confuse the advocacy of social acceptance of consensual non-monogamy with a Plump brand of ‘let there be no stones cast nor consequences experienced for screwing around’. It makes an interesting read.

Hold the Wrath:

One of the things that surprises me most about infidelity is that anyone is shocked to the point of awe when it happens.
I’m not talking about the wife or the husband, who may certainly be blindsided; they have every reason to assume the most abiding loyalties from the marriage. I’m talking about everyone else — those standing on the outside looking in, full of judgements. Why are we so shocked that adultery occurs, and that marriage — especially a long marriage — can be haunted by a partner’s attraction to someone else?

This is straight-up cheater-think. Cheaters often minimize the damage done by an affair by making it a jealousy issue, but what haunts people isn’t their partner’s attraction to someone else - the damage is not caused by that attraction.

The damage is caused by the behaviors attendant with the secret pursuit of turning attraction into an affair. The real assault isn’t a quickie in the back of the family SUV but in how it exposes the spouse to physical and emotional harm. The sordid hook up in a sleazy motel isn’t the biggest issue that people face in infidelity - it’s the betrayal, the dishonesty, the gaslighting, the manipulation, the lack of value and respect. What haunts people is that their spouse assaulted their well-being with such heinous disregard and selfish intent that it is deliberate abuse.

People view the “sin” of infidelity with such fury that it brings about all sorts of ruin from outside the marriage, regardless of how the couple chooses to deal with it. It is viewed with such condemnation that the couple doesn’t even get to choose their own course of action; the public does it for them — people who don’t have to live with the consequences. Is this necessary, or even right?

This is a simple attempt to dodge the consequences of her behavior. Ms Plump is suggesting that we should just keep our noses out of others’ business and not let her infidelity have ruinous consequences in other aspects of her life. The truth is, our actions speak to who we are. Cheating is an example of unethical, selfish, opportunistic, entitled, and manipulative behavior and those character traits can have consequences on the rest of us - it’s not unreasonable to decide that I don’t want friends, employees, or the person managing my pension fund to be someone who behaves in that way.

In Ms Plump’s ‘Book-Deal-Ahead’ hyperbole, she’s suggesting that the public somehow chooses how a couple responds to infidelity. There may be disapproval, judgment, and a change to some relationships with the couple but they are not compelled into any particular course of action by the faceless ‘public’.

The ‘Back off out of my business, bitch,’ attitude that Ms Plump is suggesting is quite common in cheaters. It’s quite common in abusers too. It’s the cry of those who believe that they should be somehow exempt from the negative consequences of their deliberate and shitty choices - they shouldn’t be.

There are about 121 million married and cohabitating [sic] Americans right now, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If I had to guess, I would wager that infidelity has, in one way or another, affected about 120 million of them — even if it’s just through a neighbor, or a friend, or a physics professor or an actor or a movie watched on a Saturday night. If this is true for even a fraction of married America, it seems like it would be smarter to punt the scorched-earth policy towards adultery and allow, instead, for a moment of pause.

Adultery is so firmly attached to the ideas of sin and damnation that no one wants to go over there for a closer look, which is a missed opportunity. There is the larger issue of why people have affairs. It makes sense to grapple with that once in awhile, if only to flex our own marital perspectives. I have grappled with infidelity from both sides, as betrayer and as betrayed. So I know that the why deserves more scrutiny than it gets. Sadly, it is one of those issues like alcoholism or gambling or teenage pregnancy that — wag your finger at it all you want — happens nonetheless.

It’s an interesting switch to the term ‘adultery’ despite her inclusion of unmarried cohabiting couples. Let’s be clear - IHG’s condemnation of infidelity is not founded in any hellfire and brimstone preaching about sin and damnation; it’s a stance against abusive, unethical, and damaging behavior towards others. And yet Ms Plump would have us all believe that it’s just puritanical nonsense and have us shrug, whistle, and reach for a banana nut muffin.

For all Ms Plump’s ‘grappling’ with both sides of infidelity, how would that play out if we switched the prettier, more palatable language of ‘betrayer and betrayed’ to ‘abuser and abused? Should we still be admonished to keep our interfering noses out of that behavior and to keep our judgment of the abuser and our support and help for the abused to ourselves, because the “couple have chosen” to deal with it themselves?

What if that abuse was going on in 41% of all marriages? Are we still to keep quiet and do nothing when almost half the married population is experiencing domestic abuse? Is that STILL something for which we shouldn’t impose sanctions? Would Ms Plump STILL say that what goes on behind closed doors is nobody else’s concern? What about racism, homophobia, ageism? If something doesn’t affect us directly, would she have us continue keeping our interfering noses out of it and not take a stance against it?

Infidelity is not harmless. It isn’t as simple as, ‘oh woe, I’m upset’ or ‘monogamy is unnatural, get over it’. Infidelity rarely happens without other attendant abuses, and the psychological and sometimes physical damage can have long-term and debilitating affect on the victim.

Yes, some people’s outrage at infidelity is based on their religious doctrine and I agree that one’s religious views should not be imposed on others. However, secular censure of infidelity is not as easy to dismiss - there is a broader social issue here about whether or not we create and/or tolerate a cultural environment that supports or encourages unethical and abusive behaviors … and we should not miss the opportunity to that a closer look at that.

Not everyone who commits adultery is a demon. Not everyone who remains true is a saint, or even necessarily a good spouse.

While the use of saint and demon is a colorful embellishment, I agree in principle: It is completely possible to behave abominably in a relationship and still not be a racist, or rape and pillage, or abuse children, or drown puppies in acid. Cheating doesn’t mean that there aren’t good aspects to someone’s character and certainly being faithful doesn’t mean there aren’t terrible and heinous character flaws. That a cheater is honest on their tax return though, isn’t a good foundation on which to base your decisions for the future of your marriage.

The issue of whether someone is a good spouse is a red herring. Dissatisfaction with your spouse doesn’t cause or entitle you to resort to abusive, unethical, and damaging behavior. If your spouse doesn’t measure up to your expectations:

  1. Fix it or
  2. GTFO or
  3. Put up and STFU.

It’s really not tricky.

Monogamy is a challenge for many adults. It was a huge one for me, and for my husband. There is much to be weighed during a commitment of decades. There are the promises, the circumstances surrounding them, the beauty of the union versus a natural inclination to others, the happiness of the marriage versus the happiness you suspect is available elsewhere.

 “… the happiness of the marriage versus the happiness you suspect is available elsewhere“? Also known as trying on an affair partner for size while you evaluate if they or your spouse is the better deal? All while staying snug and cozy in the financial security of the marriage? (Though, why choose when you can lie and deceive your way to having both, right?)

Monogamy can be a challenge for many  adults, I agree. But if you find it such a challenge, it’s ethical to declare that before making that challenging ‘commitment’ to a monogamous marriage. And if you did commit to a monogamous marriage in good faith at the outset, and yet find later that you no longer wish to maintain monogamy, either honestly renegotiate the terms, or ethically and honorably exit the relationship.

Plump’s romanticizing the beauty of a union and then tempering it with the allusion that the marriage vows were ‘circumstantial promises’ not worth resisting the ‘inclination to others’ for, is a prime example of cheater-speak word salad … aka nonsense. Let’s be real: When an affair is discovered, there is a lot of weighing of the cost of divorce, alimony, child support, custody issues, and the loss of a certain lifestyle - it’s all such a terrible inconvenience, with some really pesky consequences. It doesn’t sound so romantic all of a sudden, does it?

 It is a rare spouse who never, for one moment, considers the tidal pull of another. That consideration is painful for both, even if nothing happens. But when it does happen, does it really need to be fatal? Having been through both ends of adultery, I think divorce is a lot worse than recovering from a spouse’s affair. I do not think there should be more infidelity. I just think there should be less divorce because of it.

Having been through both divorce and infidelity in different relationships, I can assure Ms Plump that dealing with infidelity is far worse than coping with a respectful, courteous, and honorable divorce.

It’s much easier for someone to minimize the emotional toll of an affair when they too have inflicted the same pain on someone else by the same actions. It’s bound to shift the perspective and create a greater sympathy for the ‘plight’ of the misunderstood, demonized and hapless victim of humanity’s inability to be monogamous.

We should be careful not to confuse consensual non-monogamy with infidelity though. If someone is happy to be in a non-monogamous marriage/relationship, that’s fine - there is no judgment or criticism of it from me. However, having an expectation that everyone else should hold that same viewpoint, is absurd.

I do agree entirely that there should not be more infidelity. But I disagree there shouldn’t be fewer divorces as a result of infidelity - there should probably be a lot more. I would even go one step further and say there should be fewer marriages in the first place by those who ‘struggle with the challenge of monogamy’ and resisting whatever tidal pulls they encounter during their day.

This is not an argument for betrayal. It is just a solicitation, if that’s the word, for more understanding. And some serious reflection about why we pile so many expectations onto the fragile back of marriage. When those expectations are dashed, we react by condemning the cheater and yanking their achievements — no matter how justifiably earned — out from under them. General David Petraeus provides just the most recent example of our collective wrath towards cheaters. His storied career was over within hours of the revelation. That is too pre-emptive for someone like me. But it really should be too pre-emptive for everyone else, too.

And by ‘too preemptive for someone like me’, Ms Plump must mean cheaters, I assume? It’s worth stressing again that infidelity is a symptom of the broader issues arising from the world view and personal narrative of the cheater. Bad choices, character flaws, and selfishness do not manifest in isolation, and the Petreaus example is no different - he wasn’t simply banging his married ‘biographer’ and it was those attendant issues that forced his resignation.

Had Petraeus been the owner of a small business in Townville, Yawnstate USA he likely would not have suffered much in terms of material consequences to his infidelity. However, Petraeus was a senior officer in the US military and served as the Director of the CIA, and he was bound by the General Articles (Paragraph 62 of Article 134 deals specifically with adultery) and the UCMJ. When he committed adultery, gave his mistress what he characterized as highly classified information, and lied to the FBI about his improper possession of that classified material, he chose to knowingly and deliberately break a slew of laws and codes, and if was for those crimes that his military career ended.

It would be misplaced to pity Petraeus because his ego, entitlement, and damaging choices resulted in ‘yanking his justifiably earned achievements’ - nothing got yanked from him that he didn’t bring upon himself. Furthermore, after his resignation he landed lucrative gigs teaching at CUNY and as the Chairman of an investment company, where his bio page heralds his achievements without even a wink to any plea deal for the criminal charges brought against him. It’s hardly wholesale and disproportionate ruination by a collective puritanical social wrath.

I wonder if there isn’t a better way of dealing with the lure of infidelity apart from the single refrain, “Don’t do it!” Adultery happens anyway, often and everywhere.

Well, heck … murder happens anyway, often, and everywhere. As does child abuse, rape, physical assault. And let’s face it - we can’t stop every bad act, and as a society we rely quite heavily on the approach of ‘don’t do it’ or there will be consequences.

Ms Plump is not really wondering how to stop infidelity, she’s suggesting that we accept it and don’t make the cheater suffer the consequences. I’m going to continue to vote no on that proposal.

There are so many reasons given for it. Boredom. Sex. Loneliness. A longing for connection. Some of them are fair reasons. But in the case of long marriage, I wonder if infidelity isn’t simply a matter of wanting to feel again the way you did when you first fell in love. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine you will never feel that level of passion again, or extend it to anyone else. That is a lot to give up forever. Monogamy has to be worth it. It isn’t, always.

There are so many excuses and rationalizations for infidelity and I’ve heard oodles of them - but I haven’t ever encountered an explanation for it that passes the test of reasonableness. “I was bored so I gaslighted, manipulated, and damaged you,” is an excuse as witless and asinine as, “I was bored so I hit you.

If the sacrifices and constraints of monogamy aren’t worth the benefits of it for you, then ethically exit the monogamous relationship in order that you can be freely non-monogamous forever if you wish! It’s not rocket science.

We use the phrase “teachable moment” in reference to the lessons that arise for our children about bullying or fighting with siblings or sharing their toys. Infidelity is a big issue for married people along the same lines. The prevalence of it in our culture and in our lives could be considered a teachable moment for the adults in the room.
As for the why of infidelity, that is for every coupled adult to puzzle through. Considering the millions of marriages and couples out there, that is a lot of potential whys. And about that many answers, too, all of them useful as cautionary tales to take up and read and learn from if ever we are shocked to the point of awe by our own circumstances.

We explore the ‘why’ here quite often: Articles like The Infidelity Megafecta, Who Stopped You?, Their Needs Your Faults, and How Could You? are just a few. But ultimately, the why is irrelevant in so many ways. What is relevant is that the cheater behaved in harmful and unethical ways, to their benefit and your detriment. What is relevant is what you then do to ensure your safety, security, and protection in the future.

The teachable moment in infidelity is this: Your cheating spouse is willing and able to behave in ways that cause you material harm in the pursuit of getting their jollies, all while enjoying the benefits of being with you, while you are harmed by their actions. You would be well advised to rethink your situation.

Infidelity is Not Open Marriage

It interests me that while Ms Plump advocates less outrage at affairs, she still holds marriage (though presumably a quasi-traditional notion of it) as an institution that she feels should be preserved and fought for, even if fighting for it means a relaxation of the mutual expectation of monogamy.

All of this is perfectly fine, but why not just come out and say, “I support open marriages and believe that as a marital choice, it should not be vilified”? I’d agree with her. But there’s a big difference between:

  1. a couple choosing at the outset to base their marriage on consensual non-monogamy
  2. being too scared to act after infidelity, feeling trapped, bullied, or manipulated into turning a blind eye to a series of infidelities.

To attempt to blur the lines between infidelity and open marriage is duplicitous - they are not interchangeable. To suggest that we should accept a disingenuous version of infidelity-based non-monogamy as a marital model is insulting to those in genuine consensual non-monogamous relationships, it is damaging to those who are victims of infidelity, and it is clearly self-serving for cheaters.

I choose to enter a relationship that aligns with and honors mutually stipulated and agreed standards of behavior and expectation. If my partner then fails to honor the agreed expectation I fully reserve the right to exit the relationship (and if that requires a divorce, so be it), despite Ms Plump’s own personal brand of finger-wagging about my choice to do so. Those of us who do choose monogamy will not be shamed into open marriages or accepting infidelity simply because some others see it as a puritanical, unrealistic, or outdated relationship model.

I entirely support consensual non-monogamy as a relationship choice. However, my support of someone’s right to choose a non-monogamous relationship is contingent on it being agreed and mutually defined at the outset, before a third party is introduced to the mix.


“I'm not a teacher, only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead - ahead of myself as well as you.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

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