Claire is a pretty, 31-year-old Park Sloper who studies furniture design. Her husband, Alex, is a 32-year-old Web-design consultant with a fondness for floral shirts. He’s the center of attention at a party; she’s the one off to the side, seemingly aloof but really just shy. That’s why she was shocked when, more than a year into their relationship, she was the one who found herself attracted to someone else.
“I was totally confused, because I’d assumed that once I found ‘the one,’ I would be done with all that,” says Claire. “Going through all this was hard for us as a couple.” But when her husband subsequently got a crush of his own, she was more prepared. “Now that it was his turn, I was in a position to understand,” explains Claire. “So I told him, if he wanted to kiss her, that was okay—but I wanted to know about it, and I wanted that to be as far as things went without him talking to me first.”
For much of human history, monogamy (or, at least, presumed monogamy) has been the default setting for long-term love. Hack the system, goes the theory, refuse to forsake all others, open the door even a crack—and the whole relationship will crash. Any dissenters have been pathologized as delusional idealists or worse. But now a new generation of couples is employing a kind of homeopathic hypothesis: that a tiny injection of adventure will ward off the urge to stray further—as long as it’s all on the table and up for discussion. (And just as with homeopathy, a healthy percentage of the population considers this premise bunk.)
“I realized I really didn’t care what he did, I only cared how he felt,” says Claire. “So we spent many hours discussing our expectations and came up with a deal: Anything above the waist is okay, as long as we tell the other person. If it’s a problem, then we have to say so. And we’ll work it out.” So far, these negotiations have remained friendly. “I think the permission alleviates a lot of the stress of being with only one person for the rest of your life and makes us both feel lucky to have such an understanding partner.”
For years, we have said—to each other, to our boyfriends, to people writing in to our advice column—that monogamy is a choice, and if you expect it to come naturally, then your relationship (or your shot at one) is doomed. In other words, don’t take monogamy for granted; take the urge to stray for granted. But then again, our underlying assumption was that of course you’d choose monogamy, because what other choice was there? That’s what happily-ever-after requires. Although we may crave a fling on the side, the thought of our partner’s doing the same is heartbreaking, and so we agree to fidelity in order not to drive each other crazy.
But lately, these questions have become more than just theoretical. Em is engaged; Lo is in for the long haul with her fella. And we each recently began toying with the idea—independently of one another, and well before we were assigned this article—of arranging happy endings for our boyfriends at a Chinatown massage parlor, as a sort of gift in honor of long-term monogamy. Who knows where the idea came from? Was it something in the air? Pure generosity? Or a way to beta-test an idea? And could we go through with it? Probably, if we handled the arrangements, we agreed over a bottle of red one night at a Brooklyn wine bar. Naturally, we imagined the most clinical of hand jobs administered by wizened, grandmotherly ladies. But still, we took it as a sign of the times and of our evolution.
The idea of jimmying the lock on monogamy is not new, of course. Even before marriage made the leap from an institution designed to protect property to something a bit more intimate (and in recent decades, with the changes wrought by feminism, to a freely chosen option for women), early American communes like the Oneida Community, founded in 1848, advocated nonpossessive love and “complex” (i.e., nonexclusive) marriage. In the fifties, Kinsey’s researchers swapped spouses. And by the seventies, the more daring members of the divorce-slash-therapy generation were experimenting with the form: key parties, organized swinger communities, and—inspired by the 1972 book Open Marriage, by George and Nena O’Neill—sanctioned slutting around.
It never quite caught on, though, in part because the prospects of extramarital relationships (or even temptations) were so heavily skewed toward men, who had all the freedoms and fewer erotic prohibitions. These days, however, a woman is as likely as a man to attend a sales conference in Des Moines. E-mail, text messaging, and online porn and personals provide both men and women with privacy and virtual intimacy. Both sexes stay single longer, and variety is built into the way they think of their sex lives. The increasingly open gay community has dramatized the fact that there isn’t just one way to be two. Even evolutionary psychologists, once stalwarts of the men-cheat-women-cling school, are questioning whether females are innately monogamous. Perhaps this time around, seventies-style swinging and slutting will actually be feasible—and fair.