DEAR CAROLYN: While “happily married” to me, my wife fell in love with another man. Their affair lasted several years. She stayed with me but was devastated when he dumped her. I was devastated when she confessed. The damage to our marriage has taken years to heal, and it seems unlikely that we will ever re-establish the level of honesty and intimacy we previously shared.
Based on our and others’ experiences, I have concluded that our cultural obsession with monogamy is a destructive fairy tale. We can all experience love for more than one person at a time, and will likely do so over the course of our increasingly long lives. We respond by engaging in secret affairs, divorces (serial monogamy) and/or by channeling our frustrations into fantasy (pornography, prostitution).
The more honest among us promote “open marriage” or “polyamory” — difficult lifestyles to maintain, particularly in the face of religious prohibitions and community disapproval. What are your thoughts on this seemingly ageless human predicament?
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DEAR J.: Just one thought. Intimacy.
There is no one answer that suits every couple. The people who say that vows are paramount are right, that more than one love is possible are right, that monogamy is an antique concept being tested by modern life spans are right. The people are also right who say arrangements within a couple are not the business of those outside it, except perhaps any children these arrangements fail to serve.
The responses to this “destructive fairy tale” that tend to go horribly wrong — tracking down exes online, secret affairs, porn, among others — are the unilateral ones, where one partner acts in secret, usually in an attempt both to satisfy a desire and leave the committed relationship unchanged. These attempts at having and eating one’s cake are built on wishful thinking: Energy diverted outside the committed relationship is energy drawn from it, weakening it. Plus, secrecy itself changes a couple. If you want the extracurriculars then you can’t have the domestic status quo, and vice versa.
That is, unless your approach, whatever it is, is part of your relationship.
I don’t mean polyamory, which is far from a universal answer, but it has one at its heart: What you do, agree on it. I’ll add: What you think, air it; what you feel, face it. Intimacy alone covers all the variables of connubial blahs and outside attractions.
Since couples who communicate well handle monogamy best, the ideal solution actually precedes the problem: Don’t commit to someone who won’t communicate with you warmly, openly, bravely — or learn to, fast.
I am getting married in August. I have no doubts about him or being married. However, I strongly pushed for a small wedding or eloping, but my fiancé and our families both want a larger wedding.
He’s helpful in the planning, and I have very little interest in most of it. Whenever I’m asked how it’s going or about specific details, I get a little nauseated. I don’t know how to answer and move on without giving the wrong impression. I’m not anxious about him, just the big day and being the focus of everything. I just want it to be over and be married, and talking about it so much is just awful for me.
— Wedding Anxiety
DEAR WEDDING ANXIETY: Please tell me the lone dissenter on a big fussy wedding isn’t the one planning the big fussy wedding — with your fiancé merely being “helpful.”
Because if you are, then I have doubts, even if you don’t.
Doubts because your planning the wedding would mean you couldn’t or wouldn’t stand up to the pressure to fit other people’s expectations.
Doubts because your being planner-in-chief would mean your fiancé couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize how thoroughly he and your families are imposing on you.
Doubts because wedding details are small, even trivial, but combined they draw a blueprint. And I worry about a marriage with the blueprint this wedding apparently draws.
Please tell your fiancé you remain eager to be married to him. Then tell him that planning a big wedding you pushed hard not to have is a source of anxiety and nausea for you. Ask to turn the planning reins over to the people who wanted it, be it to him or to his parents or to yours or a committee thereof. Ask to cut your role down to this: picking your outfit, and showing up when and where you’re told to show up.
These are fair to ask, because he overruled your preference. If he does not recognize that fairness, then I suggest you take it up in the context of premarital counseling. Like I said, flowers and caterers are small stuff, but so are acorns. What they grow into are anything but.
As for what you say to people requesting details, whether you’re chief planner or not: “(Smile.) If I could be married tomorrow, I would.” All honesty, no awful. Good luck.