How do you deal with monogamy?
November 26, 2014 7:21 PM   Subscribe

I find it very hard to cope with extramarital attractions that are cropping up several years into my marriage. What gives?

I started my current long term relationship when I was in a very bad place in my twenties - depression and substance abuse issues, mess of family and health troubles etc. Due to this, my libido was really low, let's say displaced, for a decade.

We lived together and were busy with grad school, several international moves, then we married and had a kid, bought a house, settled down. Our marriage is going strong and I admire and love my partner, whom I believe to be an exceptional human being and an extremely good fit for me. We make a great team and he is my best friend.

But recently I feel like I'm surrounded by men I find attractive, and I'm sorry to say, I love it. It brightens my days and brings me joy to flirt even with strangers (I had never enjoyed this before). I try to channel these energies into other fields like music, art, I exercise a lot, I keep busy. But I feel like this flirty persona is the real 'me' that after all these years of difficulties and stress, I've finally found. I've grown into my skin, and to discover men find me sexually attractive - and vice versa - is such a thrill. It's like a whole different world - like somebody switched me from mono to stereo, or from black and white to color vision. I wouldn't want to go back to being blind to all this.

But it's also putting me in uncomfortable spots and sometimes advances are hard to resist. Ultimately, it fills me with dread to imagine that I'll be in a marriage for the rest of my life, and that I'll never have another man.

I know - this seems like something that should have come up much earlier, like before getting married, but back then I was never strongly interested in other men in a sexual way and assumed it would just stay like that...but now, oh boy. I didn't even know women could feel that way, I thought that was reserved for guys! I feel like I'm resisting a constant barrage of temptations, And what to do about it?

All the answers I find when I research this start with the assumption that my marriage is somehow deficient - that it's missing something deeper. But after some consideration, I don't think it is. I think we're doing great as a couple and both of us are happy individually, too. We have great sex, communication, respect, etc. It's just...sometimes I feel like I need more than this one man, in a purely physical sense. I realize that putting it out there in the cold daylight like this makes me sound like a total asshole, but there it is.

Have you dealt with this? How did you get through it? I understand, therapy, etc., but I'd love to hear how you personally dealt, or deal, with being in a monogamous relationship, and having an active libido and strong physical cravings for other people. Is it just always a struggle? How did you turn it into something that works for you long term? Or is everybody else just having affairs right and left and not telling me about it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You're not an asshole, it's totally normal.

You can: (1) tamp it down - flirt to get that infusion of energy, but not have sex with other people; (2) bring in some sort of extramarital exploration with your husband's consent; (3) have discreet extramarital sex without your husband's knowledge.

People, especially on this board, will tell you that (3) is unethical to one's partner and always harmful to the relationship. However from what I've seen of people around me, I tend to believe it is quite common. Someone told me once the universal need for occasional strange is the whole reason the convention industry exists. This is a point of view that draws a lot of ire; but people's expressed attitudes just don't match up with what I have observed at work. YMMV.

Dan Savage writes a lot and publishes a lot of letters from people who have figured out some variation of (2) - he calls it "monogamish" - they make interesting reading.

You're human, not an asshole.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:32 PM on November 26, 2014 [10 favorites]

I think honestly that traditionally the way to deal with this sort of thing is through fantasy, in whatever forms. Porn, erotic literature, romance novels. Slashfic. Soap operas. Fiction lets you keep the adventure and romance (or just the sexual novelty) in your life even when your life gets pretty ordinary.
posted by Sequence at 7:56 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was about 37-41 (I'm 42) I had a big surge in my libido.

A few things could be happening:

1. A natural increase in libido.

2. A need for validation from the opposite sex. Perhaps an emotional need for others to find you attractive or worthy.

3. Your marriage could be fine, but maybe you're missing something on a personal level. It's not the marriage, it's you.

If you're mostly content as an individual it could be just a simple case of hormones. It's not uncommon for women to have an increase in libido in their thirties and forties.

I have been through this recently. I had been somewhat preoccupied for a couple months with people finding me attractive and sexually desirable. I never cheated, I never really flirted heavily, but had a lot going on in my mind. For me, I think it was an increase in libido mixed with a fear that my looks were diminishing with age. I never wanted to cheat, I just wanted people to like/want me. I wanted to be noticed by my husband and if other guys noticed me, great. That proves I'm still sexually desirable. The hormones were bathing my brain. I have calmed down.

Things that helped me:

1. Focusing on my husband and children.

2. Focusing on what I can offer as a friend and a human being.

3. Delving deeper into personal growth. I've had therapy and it helped a lot. David Schnarch, Bruce Tift, and John Welwood are my favorite people at the moment.

4. Focus on friends and building friendships rather than flirting. What's real about strangers finding you attractive? Not much. It's a distraction and a waste of energy really.

Monogamy is a perfect vehicle for personal growth (see David Schnarch). Instead of dreading monogamy, try to view it as the wonderful and powerful thing that it is. You can further deepen the intimacy with your husband. Your behavior may be normal for the most part, but the more you're preoccupied with flirting and the opposite sex, the more disconnected you are from your husband, and yourself.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 8:06 PM on November 26, 2014 [20 favorites]

This is pretty common for women in their thirties. It will fade in your late thirties/early forties.

fingersandtoes has pretty much laid out your options. In my experience, choosing between these is going to depend on what your husband is like:
- Option 1 has the potential to cause a lot of grief in your relationship if he's the type who gets jealous.
- Option 2 is only going to work if he's not at all jealous - and he might expect you to give him the same freedom, so how jealous are you likely to get?
- Option 3 will work only if you can keep it a secret - just bear in mind that (a) it's a timebomb sitting inside your marriage for as long as that marriage lasts; and (b) when affairs end, it can hurt just as much as any other relationship ending, but you won't be able to tell anyone about it, least of all your husband who is the one person who knows better than anyone how to comfort you when you're sad.

My advice would be to focus on improving communication with your husband to the point where you guys can talk about this sort of thing. Because if you can't, none of the optins above are open to you.
posted by Gwendoline Mary at 8:09 PM on November 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

There is a very very big gap between thought and act. You can be attracted, feel good, enjoy the sensations, all without acting on them. Which, seriously, includes flirting beyond whatever limits you and your partner have.

I think this does include fantasy because seriously, how often is new partner sex actually great? Or, more accurately, how often is it the peak of sex compared with an experienced-in-you partner? It's easy enough to fantasise that Random Dudeface will know just how to fuck, but in reality? Probably not that great. Fantasy can be good for letting off steam but I think it can also be a reinforcement of whatever it is you think you're going to get out of these interactions.

In other words, let it roll off you, enjoy the moment, and return your focus to your relationship, if that's what you want to have long term. If you want to fuck strangers long term, that's a different ball game.
posted by geek anachronism at 8:39 PM on November 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

If you do step outside your ring, even if your husband is onboard, you're pretty much risking a well-built life to have sex with someone. Once that genie is let out of the bottle, do don't get to tell it to go back into the bottle. Sometimes, with some people -- yes. But if you should happen to fall for someone, or they should happen to fall for you, or should your husband fall for whoever it is he is having sex with, or should your husband fall apart behind this, or or or or ... You don't get to decide. Things happen.

Maybe 25 or 26, I dated this young lovely a while, rolled around in her bed, and she in mine, and in talking it came out that she'd been in this great marriage, she loved him, he loved her, blah blah blah. She left that marriage to roll around in various beds with various guys.

I couldn't believe it.

Here she had what I did not have, and could clearly see how few others have, and she tossed it out the window just to fuck some mopes? What? The? Fucking? Fuck?

I got the fuck away from her, pronto. No way did I want to risk being near her. I just couldn't stand her. I saw her as a huge fool. I still do.

I realize that I'm wrong-headed in over seventy-four ways here, and that human beings have all kinds of strengths and all kinds of temperaments and can achieve all kinds of things that I can't achieve. I've never been on a space walk. I've never knitted a hat. I've never skinned a cat. Etc and etc. And maybe you, and your husband, and whoever else gets involved in this thing are space-walking super-stars, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Great.

But if any of the links in these chains is weak or gets blown out by lust masquerading as love, the three people that are the most important in your life -- yourself, your husband, and your child -- will go through changes, the courses of which you cannot begin to fathom.

Don't step outside that ring. I'd give pretty much anything I have to have what you have, and so would many others. It's incredibly valuable. Don't risk it.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:00 PM on November 26, 2014 [28 favorites]

Yeah, monogamy is tough sometimes.

It sounds as if you've only thought about these things, and never acted on them? If so, then you're being guided by fantasy, not reality. Have you tried porn? Which would keep it in the realm of fantasy, but maybe it would sufficient?

I almost wonder if you should try an "experiment", and engage in some very limited physicality with some man who is up for it, and then see what you feel like when it has moved from the realm of fantasy to reality.

One thing to be aware of is that, despite initial intentions, affairs very rarely stay unemotional. Which means a painful breakup, probably of the affair, but possibly of the marriage.
posted by doctor tough love at 9:22 PM on November 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

you're totally not being an asshole. is your husband open to discussing these attractions? is your husband open to you getting your fires stoked by flirting (not going over a previously agreed upon line) and then coming home and using that energy up on him? have you guys tried roleplaying as different people, including maybe one of you leaving the home for a couple days and meeting up in a sleazy bar? i think there are a lot of things you can do in your marriage to get a bit of strange in before you start thinking of opening the relationship up. also - if your husband is as good of a dude as you say he is, don't cheat on him - because then you really would be an asshole.
posted by nadawi at 9:26 PM on November 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

Betraying the person who loves you most in the world, i.e. "Option 3", is very unlikely to be a path to real happiness for you. I don't personally find behaving unethically to be a real option, though I know many people do. In my view, they're assholes. You're not.

I'm not saying not cheating is easy. It's probably one of the biggest challenges most of us have when we're in relationships. Can you try to find a way to channel this sexual energy towards your husband.
posted by hazyjane at 12:11 AM on November 27, 2014

I'm admittedly pretty crotchety and irritable, but I've dealt these type of attractions by spending MORE time with the object of the attraction/crush. I inevitably become annoyed by them and happily go back to my totally great, non-irritating husband.
posted by mchorn at 6:20 AM on November 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Flirting is fun. The excitement is definitely fun. But it's fun because it is pretty fleeting and you don't know the person and they haven't disappointed you yet. And they look at you and treat you like this amazing wonder when your husband and partner can regularly fail at that.

I love romance. Love it. Love flirting, etc, the earliest parts of dating are the best. It mostly tends to peter out at 3 months and you find yourself looking again for that guy who treats you like you're the most amazing woman in the world, wondering why you're wasting time with a guy who gets stressed at work and wants to camp out in front of the TV again instead of taking you out.

Then you start flirting, tell the guy you were seeing you want to break up, and you're out there again. It's fun, but it's not really real. It's not a real place to feel good about yourself, you know? It's like a great fantasy but it has an expiration date and it takes a lot of time and energy provided the strangers you like flirting with aren't people you just want to make out with in a parking garage and ignore afterwards.
posted by discopolo at 6:30 AM on November 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Think it through to the very, bitter end. Imagine what would happen after the great sex. Your husband would be devastated (they always figure it out) and, if the man you cheated with has feelings for you, it could be difficult to disengage. You could be inviting someone dangerous into your life, and your child's life. It's never worth the risk. Find thrills in other places. Jump out of an airplane, run a marathon, anything, really, to build your self-worth in ways that do not include being attractive. As a woman, I can tell you, it is nothing to find men who want you. They are everywhere. They come in droves. I could order sex like pizza and never have to pay for it. It isn't anything special to have men want you. But it is special to have a lasting marriage. It is special to be the mother of your child. So that is what I do- I focus on the things that make me special and I leave the easy stuff alone.
posted by myselfasme at 6:50 AM on November 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

You can
1) let that sex energy out in your interactions, and then go home and f** your husband silly
2) follow the fantasy through to the conclusion; imagine the betrayal and hurt on his face; imagine being divorced; shuttling kid back & forth
3) as mchorn said, eventually they say something stupid and you think "wow my partner is SO much better than you"
4) groom your appearance more to let that energy out, get into hair & makeup
5) have a pre-canned response that warmly closes the flirtation. Like he says "I'd love to get to know you better. My place at 9pm?" and you purr "I would absolutely love to... but my husband doesn't share very well. Sorry (wink)." and then sashay away. (Then see #1)
6) get into David Deida - he talks about how to take that sexual openness to cosmic levels. (forgive the poor production quality and just keep watching. Trust me. He talks about that technicolor experience you are going through, and how to nurture it yourself and with your partner) Take a course with your husband?
7) talk to a single-and-looking (or divorced) woman in her mid/late 30s; if you've got something good keep it!
8) watch good porn with lots of build up
9) remember often people are more confident when they have someone (so it's easier to find a partner when you already have a partner); this well of options may dry up if you were a divorcee. Would you revert to awkward and insecure if you didn't have hubby at home?
10) seriously, check out David Deida. You can enjoy the energy of the interaction and make it almost spiritual.

Don't feel bad about having sex energy and being a sexual person. Relish it!

But trust me, one in the hand is worth two in your bush.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:34 AM on November 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

What do you expect your husband to do with his extra-marital attractions? Do the same.
posted by MattD at 8:26 AM on November 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

holy hell, i am shocked at how judgmental some of these responses are!

you're just fine. you can choose a lot of different paths right now! there is no right / wrong, there's just what you think will meet your and your partner's needs best.

i happen to be one of the women who decided that, after all, monogamy was *not* for me. i left a long term relationship, we sold our house... i am happier than i have ever been in my life.

my romantic life is hard to describe, but it brings me so much joy, love, and sexy time that it's just ridiculous.

i am in my mid-30s, and i didn't even know that the kind of life i have was possible, because i had never seen it represented before. but what a delight to find out that it is.

my hope is to never stop being surprised by all the different things people get up to in their romantic lives. i wish you so much good luck! you're already so far ahead of the game by being in tune with how you are feeling, which is such a great start :)
posted by crawfo at 10:21 AM on November 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

As you've figured out, this will require a good deal of soul searching. Just a small warning, don't have anothe child to save your marriage. It never works.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:35 AM on November 27, 2014

Is this really a threat or a thrill? Sometimes this feels like a grey area. Maybe it's just a thrill or attention you seek and that would give you your fill. When I find myself in these situations, I think it through a bit and talk about it to my partner. when talking to my partner, I don't frame it as a threat (if it's not) and kinda chat about it as if it was a fun thing that happened while reassuring my feelings for them. i also talk to my friends in a "omg he's so hot" conversation. Sometimes talking things through helps to clarify and/or fulfill the need for attention.
posted by PeaPod at 11:38 AM on November 27, 2014

You are not an asshole. It's great to be seen as attractive, alluring, sexually exciting.

I am old. My romantic adventures nowadays center around the love of my life, plus a few daydreams and occasional remembrances. I went through a series of relationships, some of which could be described as being polyamorous. Others were simply monogamous. I wouldn't go so far as to describe myself as having been promiscuous, although I may be using that term in a more narrow sense than it deserves. Also, I've been on both ends of betrayals in monogamous relationships--this was not a chronic tendency, as it happened once in each case, but I still feel the weight of the deeds.

Looking back, if I could lead my life in a rational way, I would have limited polyamorous activities during my twenties and thirties, and after that, I would search for a strictly monogamous relationship.

My experience with infidelity is that it chews on you as much as it does the partner you've betrayed--also the person who is complicit with you turns out to be some back-door type of guy instead of the attractive man you thought he was. It's not worth the wear and tear.

I saw good advice above. If you can, find a way to talk about his with your partner. You may open a door you didn't know was there. If you have a seriously wise confidant, talk it over with them. See a counselor for ideas.

The best case result is that you and your partner come up with an idea that rings the bell for both of you. The next best result is that you realize that just being sexy and attractive is enough, and cheating on your partner isn't required to scratch that particular itch.

The next best is coming to the realization that you are not really in a space where you want a monogamous relationship, and you and your partner decide to split the sheets. Some hard feelings, but not only is your integrity intact, you show respect for your partner.

After that comes various degrees and flavors of betrayal, which scratch the itch but produce a rash...the rash being the wounds you inflict on your partner and yourself. The wounds probably will heal, but they will leave their mark. This won't necessarily make you out to be an asshole. But at the bottom of this particular pit you find yourself rationalizing your behavior and marginalizing the feelings of your partners. This is sort of where assholery begins to assert itself, and, because you begin to see yourself that way, it's hard to change back.
posted by mule98J at 1:37 PM on November 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

What's worked for me is to use that sort of thing as a prompt to ask myself what it is exactly that I'm not getting in my relationship and how can I get that withing the bounds of my marriage. You don't necessarily get the thrill of the new with that approach, but you also don't embark on an endeavor that is about 95% certain to destroy your life for a good long while.
posted by hoanthropos at 3:08 PM on November 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have two book recommendations for you: 'sex at dawn' and 'what do women want: adventures in the science of female desire.' (I'm on my phone so can't link). The science in both may be imperfect, but I think you'll find it a relief to encounter a more varied and relatable description of female desire than the one you usually see in pop culture. I know I did. What one does with that knowledge, though, is not quite as clear. Let me know if you figure it out.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:58 PM on November 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Desire and Wanting of any kind- whether sexual or unsexual is never the "real you". Whenever a desire takes hold of you, the real you becomes replaced by the desire as it takes you over.

"All cravings are the mind seeking salvation or fulfillment in external things and in the future as a substitute for the joy of being." - Eckhart Tolle

I would suggest taking up meditation and gratitude exercises. (There are many. One exercise can be writing down all the wonderful things that make you grateful for your spouse once a week).

Another thing that helps me sometimes (it's also an old buddhist trick) is that when you see someone or something that you desire try to imagine the parts of that person that are not so savory. For example, you can imagine how having an affair with this person they turn out to be nuts and they stalk and then beat up your husband really bad... (stuff like that actually happens in real life, so it's not that much of a stretch). Or you can go simpler than this and just visualize all the parts of their bodies that are not so sexy. Like how thick their saliva is at the back of their tongue and what's in their intestines at the moment etc... The Buddha himself actually recommended this trick as a reminder to everyone that life on this earth can never give anyone ever lasting beauty and happiness. Maybe it sounds a little depressing when I say it, but trust me- when you read the scripture it's not. I had to learn this the hard way myself. I once wanted someone really badly and unfortunately for me I got what I wanted. This person turned out to be completely different than who I thought they were and they almost destroyed my whole life. Ever since then it's easy for me to imagine getting the thing I desire and it turning out really bad for me... Once I think about that the desire for it weakens a lot.
posted by rancher at 5:11 PM on November 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't have an affair. You will likely be found out, or confess from guilt. The reality of that ending your relationship is a big deal. Your husband will be devestated.

I suggest cutting back on the flirting. We have no "real" personality. We just have things to do.

Also I think poly is usually a bad route for a long-term monogamous couple. Better to start out with from the beginning.

When you have a crush, think of it more as a series of feelings about a person. Then when the feelings come up, acknowledge them and let go.

Finally, I would give strong consideration to a divorce before this becomes a problem. I'm perfectly serious, as it appears you are not happy to maintain a monogamous relationship with this man.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:09 AM on November 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree with other posters that this is something that happens to many women in their 30s.

You also already know that this is socially taboo, but also need some kind of support to figure it out.

It does sound as if you have an ideal marriage, and if you want to keep that, it is yours to keep. It is your life and you get to decide how to live it. Choosing to keep your marriage is the most socially acceptable thing, but it may not be the right thing for you. That's ok. It is completely acceptable for you to make the choices that are right for you, no matter what society says.

It is unlikely that your husband is the best person to turn to for support here. You need to work your thoughts and plans out a bit more before you talk to him. You need your tribe of women, and not just any women, because some will judge you harshly. You need to look around for women that might be experiencing something similar to what you are experiencing. Look for friends, or friends of friends, that are going through a divorce, or a woman with a long string of boyfriends. Look for women that live a bit wilder than you and most of the world, the women that aren't holding onto the corporate job and the PTA position for dear life. The straight and narrow women won't understand this.

Spend a few months having lunches and drinks with these women, and you will slowly learn that your situation is quite common. You will see how they choose to handle it, and you will be able to make some decisions about your right path.

After a while you will know how to navigate this situation, and then you can talk to your husband about the future you want, whatever that may be. Between here and there I think you may find yourself in some sticky situations.

It's a very difficult place to be. You need to think both of what makes your day to day life happy, and making sure you don't regret losing out on the life you want and love, either the love you don't know or the love of your husband.

If we were having drinks, one of the things I would tell you is to look closely at these flirty men. Are they actually any better than your husband? Do you really want to leave him for one of them? It seems the adage of "the good ones are taken" is true. But if you want to live a life alone or only somewhat attached, there are plenty of flings to be had.
posted by littlewater at 2:54 PM on December 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

These feelings are totally normal. For a lot of women, their thirties is when they grow into their confidence - especially married women who don't have to worry about attracting a man. All of a sudden, they're the prettiest girl at the prom, and they aren't quite sure what to do with the attention.

The thing is, there's a way to incorporate that into your marriage - as long as you don't actually act on the feelings. Flirt up a storm with those guys and then come home to your husband. If you discuss it well, it may even provoke good feelings in him, not negative ones - "All these men want my wife, but she's choosing to stay with me!"

One thing that makes these men more attractive in many ways is the lack of expectations and responsibilities. See if you and your husband can get away for a weekend, leave the child with a babysitter, and go have crazy sex in the mountains somewhere. Explore being you without being a Mom, or a Wife. Go pretend you're just dating, or you're strangers meeting at a ski lodge, or whatever floats your boat.

But at least try it. You'll regret it if you lose your marriage over something that could have been potentially fixable.
posted by corb at 4:30 PM on December 2, 2014

Also, feel free to memail me if you want to talk in more detail about this. I am a married lady in my thirties, with a kid.
posted by corb at 4:31 PM on December 2, 2014

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