People often ask if my boyfriend and I are monogamous. Since I write about sex and relationships—and I’ve done things in the name of my craft some consider needlessly risqué, such as lap dancing, naked body sushi modeling, and sugar daddy dating—the question never surprises me. The certainty with which I answer “yes,” however, surprises most inquirers.
I’ve never been much of a romantic. I didn’t parade through early adulthood expecting Prince Charming to reveal himself by way of knowing glance before escorting me down the path to Happily Ever After. The concept of the one is too neat and fatalistic for me, so I continue to ponder whether meeting the right person is more important than developing the will to commit. When it comes to the long-term, I would never dare argue that monogamy is the only relationship construct that works. Still, it’s what I want.
The ability to intellectualize that monogamy is an unreasonable expectation for biological reasons doesn’t preclude the desire to aspire to it. I was reminded of this recently while speaking to a class at Indiana University called Ancient Love, Modern Sex. Twenty minutes into my guest lecture, a handsome, floppy-haired student of about 19 asked whether I was saddened while researching a story about AshleyMadison.com, a website that facilitates affairs. The notion that so many couples cheat—enough that a website with millions of users exists expressly to service their philandering—saddened this young man. Intrigued by his reaction, I posed two questions of the class. First: How many of you believe monogamy is a practical lifestyle choice, considering what you know about human biology? (Roughly 10 percent of the students raised their hands.) Second: How many of you want to be in a long-term monogamous relationship one day? (Nearly 100 percent of the students raised their hands.)
Even to those who recognize that the strongest love isn’t necessarily sufficient to thwart straying—who understand that humans live long lives and temptations are bound to arise—a tidy, faithful forever after can sound appealing. It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve seen Unfaithful, or how many sex-centric scandals we’ve watched unfold in the news. We know that people cheat, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or economic class. Yet we fly in the face of reason by seeking a lifetime of fidelity with someone special.
I’m not psychic enough to tell you whether my boyfriend and I will manage to remain monogamous, let alone whether you and your partner will. What I can do, however, is provide some unsolicited advice based on limited life experience regarding how to build a long-term relationship free from the nagging feeling that your partner’s destined to cheat.
1. Pick a partner whose sex drive matches yours
People are as varied in libido as they are in shape, size, and color. Some are legitimately addicted to sex while others identify as asexual and the rest fall somewhere in between. I’m guessing you wouldn’t recommend that a sex addict search for love in a nunnery, so why settle down with someone miles away from wherever you stand on the libido spectrum? The trap of mismatched sex drives is that one person is likely to end up feeling sexually deprived (or hyper-sexualized) and resentful. So be honest from the outset, no matter how tempting it is to make false claims designed to please. It’s counterproductive to exaggerate or understate how often you “want it” or how often you masturbate. Sexual health and mental health are linked, so it’s worth paying serious attention to compatibility in the sack as you assess whether or not to move forward together.
2. Own your own sex appeal
Feeling desired is not entirely the same thing as feeling desirable. Everyone should do what he or she can to make their partner feel beddable through regular compliments and such, but it’s also important to feel sexy independent of secondary affirmation. The ol’ put-your-oxygen-mask-on-before-helping-another philosophy applies. When we don’t feel good about ourselves—on the inside or outside—naked human contact is the last thing we want. So take responsibility for your personal seductiveness quotient by doing whatever you have to to feel good. For me, that means running three to four times a week, reading a lot, and spending a certain amount of time each day completely alone. If you have to do yoga, or listen to positive subliminal messages while you sleep to be in the right mindset for intimacy, go forth already!
3. Keep rebooting the newness
It’s easy to get sucked into a routine, but the beauty of routine life is that the simplest changes can make everything seem exciting again. New doesn’t have to mean agreeing to a threesome or introducing handcuffs and a whip. I was shocked, after years of Brazilian bikini waxes, to learn that my boyfriend didn’t mind pubic hair. His appreciation for the au naturale me was arousing on an unprecedented level, and led to fun play. Novelty between the sheets doesn’t even have to start with anything remotely sexual. Any new activity—jogging, traveling, cooking, spelunking, meditating, theater going, camping, or reading aloud to one another—can trigger the release of dopamine in our brains. That love-drug high is always one fresh pursuit away.
4. Embrace jealousy
Jealousy is demoralizing, especially within a relationship. No one wants to catch their partner checking someone else out or communicating with an ex over Facebook. But jealousy’s negative connotation isn’t completely deserved. Scientists view it as an evolutionary adaptation designed to keep us on our toes. So rather than get angry when you find yourself captive to the green monster, recognize that you’re experiencing a universal human emotion and use it as inspiration to work on your relationship. A little friendly competition never hurt anyone.
5. Have sex when you don’t want to
In a Salon piece about marriage, renowned biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher counsels couples to “Have sex regularly, even if you don’t feel like it.” Genital contact triggers our dopamine systems, which reward us with enhanced “feelings of romantic love.” The release of neuro chemicals during orgasm also promotes attachment. But you shouldn’t wait around until you and your partner are both in the mood to copulate, says Fisher. Essentially, it’s unwise to assume that simultaneous excitation will occur often enough to encourage the amount of sex required for ongoing pair bonding. There are benefits to engaging in sexual activity to please your partner regardless of whether you’re in the mood—something scientists call sexual communal strength. A study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science concluded that couples ranking high in this measure were better equipped to sustain long-term desire. If the data isn’t enough to sway you, just think of meeting your partner’s needs as leverage for negotiating who has to unload the dishwasher later.
Bonus: 5 Things I’ve Learned From Being Monogamous For 5 Straight Years
1. It’s not actually that hard, if…
…you’re attracted to your partner and you have great sex. Sexual chemistry is absolutely critical to relationship longevity for couples that plan to be exclusive. At first, physical attraction might not seem all that important. You might think you can look past your inability to imagine yourself boning your significant other because they’re so damn hilarious, witty, or, let’s face it, rich. A few months down the line, however, when shit gets real, you can’t rely on humor, intellect, wealth, or kindness to lure you into someone’s pants. We’re sexual beings by nature, and mutual attraction is crucial to establishing—and especially maintaining—romantic love. If you want to be monogamous, do yourself a favor and pair up with someone you desperately want to bang.
2. There will be hiccups along the way.
No matter how madly in love you are, it’s unreasonable to expect that things will always go smoothly in the bedroom. There will be times when your schedules and sex drives are totally misaligned. One person might be immersed in work for several weeks in a row and too damn tired or stressed out to think about doing it regularly while the other’s in professional La-La Land, always at the ready for a little heavy petting. In addition to logistical obstacles, you’re bound to face problems related to mismatched levels of desire. One person might be horny AF for a stretch while the other only feels marginally inspired by the idea of naked play. The important thing to remember is that this isn’t an indication of trouble, necessarily. It’s okay to fall out of sync once in a while as long as you’re both committed to realigning eventually. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to have sex when you’re not absolutely dying to. If we all sat around waiting to be aroused at the exact same time as our partners, no one would be having very much sex.
3. It’s your job as a couple to keep it fresh.
Unless you’ve established otherwise, sex is part of the relationship equation. Yes, it’s your job to make sure that your partner is sexually satisfied. Just as it’s their job to ensure your sensual fulfillment. Maintaining a healthy sex life is contingent upon two people’s willingness to take ownership of their responsibility to each other in the sack. This is where straightforward, brutally honest communication comes in. When your needs aren’t being met, pipe up. There’s no downside to voicing your wants and concerns (unless of course you’re dating a raging asshole, in which case you’re probably better off breaking up). Additionally, you need to be proactive about finding new ways to keep things interesting. The passion shouldn’t wane completely before you’re exploring different methods of spicing things up. The more you experiment, the closer you’ll become. Even when things don’t exactly go as planned.
4. You will both face temptations.
It’s entirely normal to be attracted to other people, even when you identify as one half of a happy, healthy, thriving couple. Your sexuality is part of who you are as a human being, after all, and you can’t just turn that part of yourself off as you go about your day. So don’t expect your partner not to flirt with members of the opposite sex. They will probably even toe the line of appropriateness once in a while. Remember, you’re not dating a robot. You’re dating a person. On the flip side, don’t be too hard on yourself for batting your eyes coquettishly at a hot stranger on the subway, or bantering suggestively with an attractive colleague. Sexual energy is powerful, and you can channel it into creativity and productivity. As long as you set boundaries and avoid situations in which things are bound to go too far, there’s no harm in a little innocent play. Know yourself, and your limitations.
5. You have to trust each other, or you might as well split.
Sometimes, you’ll feel compelled to interrogate your partner. You’ll want to know exactly what went down at the strip club that night, or why they came home so wasted after that catch-up dinner with “an old friend.” You might even get the itch to cybersnoop, thirsting for evidence to corroborate some inkling or gut feeling you can’t quite shake. Even the strongest couples are susceptible to relationship doubts and questioning. When suspicion takes root, understand that it’s perfectly normal to entertain insecurities now and again, especially when it comes to fidelity. Fact is, we’re territorial creatures, and a little jealousy is natural. But you don’t have to let those pesky uncertainties win. If you want to maintain a loving relationship, you’ll have to choose to trust your partner over and over again, just as they’ll have to choose to trust you. If you can’t control your imaginations or prevent yourselves from making crazy accusations constantly, your relationship is probably broken anyway, so you might as well move on. Intimacy is rooted in understanding and accepting each other wholly—including every single sign of vulnerability, and in spite of every single hesitation you experience along the way.