This weekend I saw the movie The Front Runner, about Gary Hart’s failed presidential run in 1988.
In today’s world, it seems downright quaint that someone could be driven out of public service for an extramarital affair. But watching it play onscreen with 30 years of hindsight was fascinating.
There was one line in particular that struck me. It was when Hart told his wife Lee that a story would be out the next day about his affair with Donna Rice. It apparently was an open secret in Washington political and press circles that he had “a zipper problem.”
Lee replied, “The one thing I asked was that you don’t embarrass me.”
The movie’s implication is pretty clear – he lived the senatorial life in Washington, DC, while his wife and kids lived at home in Colorado. When they were apart, he could satisfy his “needs” as long as he kept it quiet and she didn’t have to deal with any rumors or gossip.
I have no idea if the real-life Harts actually had that agreement.
But it got me thinking.
Recently I spoke with a woman whose monogamous marriage has been suffering from the fact that she and her husband have significantly different libidos. When he doesn’t get the sex he wants, he’s mopey. When she feels pressured for sex, she shuts down emotionally. They’ve played this response cycle out so frequently that it has cut grooves in their marriage that exacerbate every other non-sex-related discomfort, large and small.
She has been toying with an idea: allow him to get his sexual needs met elsewhere so he doesn’t feel deprived and she doesn’t feel put-upon.
“Could that work?” she asked me.
The viability of this arrangement is in the details.
- What safeguards does she need in place to feel that an additional sex partner isn’t threatening the integrity of her marriage?
- Does she want to know everything … or nothing …or somewhere in between?
- What will she do with her own time when she knows her husband is engaging with another woman so she doesn’t drive herself crazy?
- Is he allowed to have an emotional connection with the outside lover, or just a sexual connection … and if emotions aren’t allowed, how is that communicated to the third person and policed within the primary relationship?
- What if she decides at some point in the future that she would also like to seek sex outside the marriage – will that be allowable?
These issues can only be addressed through open and honest dialog.
Everyone will have a different tolerance – for instance, my tolerance is that I am primarily monogamous but I am open to my partner kissing and fondling another person as long as I am in the room to see it happening. I actually enjoy seeing my partner have pleasure with other people. But my tolerance does not extend to sending my partner out into the world to have sex with others when I can’t see what’s going on. My brain is a cauldron of worst-case scenarios and I would be a bundle of doubts and insecurities and blame and fear.
I have friends who are the exact opposite – they are happy to let their partner have encounters with others as long as they don’t have to see, hear, or know anything about it – much like Lee Hart in the movie. They don’t mind the action happening, but they don’t want to have any mental pictures of it.
And then there are people who can’t tolerate the idea of their partner kissing or touching anyone other than them – and that’s okay too.
What’s problematic is when the two partners have different needs and no one is talking about it. It is a recipe for resentment, guilt, despair … and eventually for cheating.
Let’s posit that you want to stay together. Outside of the bedroom, you have a happy relationship and a good life together. So here’s the question: if your libido doesn’t match your partner’s, or if your life circumstances force you to be apart for long periods of time, or your partner is physically unable to make love, or your partner is mentally/emotionally incapacitated and unable to give consent, or any of a hundred other scenarios where the sex needs of both partners can’t be met within the primary relationship… must you go without for the rest of your life? Or, if you are the one with the lower libido, must you give in for the rest of your life?
Please hear me – I am not advocating cheating. Far from it. I am advocating open and honest conversations about how you both get your needs met.
We have a cultural assumption that monogamy is the be-all-end-all of relationships; that we are meant to marry one person and stay faithful forever. But many in the sex-positive community will point out that it’s kind of crazy to believe that the only successful relationship is one where you have to die in order to get out of it (“til death do us part” is still part of the traditional marriage vows). And if you were miserable during all those years of waiting to die, was it really a successful relationship?
What if the path to a happier relationship were right in front of you, but it took a giant heaping scoop of bravery to step off the well-worn path on to one that will better suit you and your partner?
For the record, my suggestion to the woman asking about whether an open relationship could work for her and her husband was this: if their finances allow for it, they might consider him creating an ongoing relationship with a sex worker. There are plenty of sex workers who have caring, long-term relationships with clients, and the commodified nature of the relationship helps to keep boundaries in check. I also suggested that they set up a three-month check-in now so they can renegotiate after they see how it’s working.
You might be wondering why in the world I’d call this a“good girl’s guide” to handling mismatched libidos when I’m talking about engaging outside the primary relationship. It’s because I no longer believe that being a “good girl” is about playing nice, smiling through the pain, and tolerating whatever you’re given. I believe that taking control of our sexuality, speaking up for our needs, and talking honestly about what really matters is the essence of goodness, kindness, and integrity. That’s the kind of Good Girl I want to be!
If you’d like to talk about how you and your partner can both get your needs met, even if it’s in a non-traditional way, send me an email at Leah@GoodGirlsTalkAboutSex.com.