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I went from being a serial cheater to a committed monogamist. Here’s how.
It was Christmas Eve 2006 and my boyfriend, Rick, and I were adults. So adult, we thought, that at some point in our relationship together we had made the adult decision to no longer celebrate Christmas. The first year had been harder than the second. The third year, I asked myself how it felt. Was it “liberating,” as I sometimes claimed when people asked? That night, in a darkened French restaurant at a candlelit table, I was content to feel nothing but hunger, knowing that soon enough, we would eat.
The waitress brought us bread. I ordered a bottle of wine. I considered getting the tartar but ordered the monkfish instead, because the dish involved mushrooms and Rick wouldn’t eat mushrooms and so I rarely got to, either. Rick ordered the steak frites for similar reasons. I was congested from a cold and because I had been crying. The restaurant was empty save for another woman eating by herself who would later prove, as I supposed aloud, to be a waitress.
“There’s a lot to be afraid of,” Rick said, continuing a conversation we’d begun in the street. “War, disease, natural disasters.”
“That’s not the stuff I’m afraid of.”
“What are you afraid of?” he asked.
“Mice. Bugs. Thunderstorms,” I said. “Riding in cars.” The truth was that at 25 years old, I was afraid of everything. Most of all, I was afraid of being abandoned. Terrified to be alone, this fear fueled my need for multiple partners. Insecurity. Fear was why I cheated more or less anytime Rick wasn’t around.
The waitress brought the bottle. Rick refused. She poured me a glass. “Sometimes,” I told Rick, “I thought that our being apart was a test. If only we proved strong enough, I figured, we’d win the reward of each other.”
At 25 years old, I was afraid of everything. Most of all, I was afraid of being abandoned.
“You’re always testing,” Rick said. “Always thinking there’s something to prove.”
There was an edge to how he’d said it. Every now and again, there would be a barb like this. Some cutting comment that would vaguely reference the one affair that I had actually told him about. Three years later, we no longer talked about it—not that we’d never talked about it, really. We simply moved on. It had been the first time I’d actually considered leaving him. Instead, we’d decided to work it out.
I’m just incapable of monogamy, I sometimes thought. Since Rick wanted to be with me, this was something he’d just have to accept. “I honestly think there’s nothing wrong with the way I live my life,” I told him.
“Then why are you crying?”
One popular argument in defense of the individuals implicated by the Ashley Madison hack is that monogamy doesn’t work—that human beings just aren’t wired to be with one person and one person only, and that it’s time to do away with this convention. At Marie Claire, Eliza Kennedy writes that “romantic conventions are a poor fit with our human frailty.” She goes on: “Now that we’re faced with the largest exposure of infidelity in history, maybe we’ll start to seek out more honest conversations about monogamy and whether it suits our animal selves.”
More than a decade later since that December, one month before Rick and I split up, I find arguments about our animalism irksome. I went from being unfaithful to being single and promiscuous to getting sober and becoming monogamous and happier than ever. I learned firsthand that “arrangements” aren’t necessarily for everyone, nor is polyamory necessarily superior to monogamy.
Alternative lifestyles aren’t for everybody
Sex positivity is an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable and which encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation. In my 20s, I considered myself sex positive, part of a social movement that promoted and embraced sexuality with few limits. When it came to my fiancé, I pretended we had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement. We didn’t, and I knew this—but hey, at least my relationships were consensual. And if you’d asked me then, I’d have told you they felt good.
“Arrangements” aren’t necessarily for everyone, nor is polyamory necessarily superior to monogamy.
After every affair, I’d redoubled my efforts to gain control of the situation in the only way that seemed possible: by trying to be “good.” The reasons for my sexual conduct were complicated. I know it’s not always the case, but for me, it was evidence of deep-seated troubles I didn’t want to address. I wanted my partner to fulfill me and to fix me. Whatever was the unnameable problem, I expected him to solve it. When Rick failed to do so, I punished him. After six years, I thought Rick failed to live up to my expectations of him. In reality, I’d failed to live up to my expectations of myself. At the time, I took no responsibility for my choices. I could not bear to acknowledge how my choices caused my partner pain and so I hid them. When I’d grown tired of feeling guilty, I left.
That January, I broke off our engagement, hoping to experience freedom in the form of casual, no-strings-attached fun. But instead of feeling better, casual sex with multiple partners only left me feeling worse. Just as the “open relationship” lifestyle wasn’t working for my fiancé, it turned out upon deeper reflection that it hadn’t worked for me, nor would being single and promiscuous.
I have a tremendous respect for people whose sexual behaviors or lifestyles stand in contrast and, at times, opposition to socially and culturally dominant sexualities. I respect that people have sexual preferences and resent the fact that deviating from the mainstream way of living risks being labelled as “dirty,” “bad,” or “wrong.” Intellectually, I am all for you and your three boyfriends all coming around one Tuesday night for a black sheet party. The problem was that—when it came to sex—my political and intellectual beliefs about sex made it that much harder to admit that my personal sexual conduct was problematic.
Instead of feeling better, casual sex with multiple partners only left me feeling worse.
Motivated by anxiety and fear, my interactions with people grew increasingly performative and emotionally void. Sex became an increasingly less intimate act. The opposite of intimacy, sex became my way of dominating, hedging off fear, and keeping someone at arm’s length. I slept with people I didn’t like and people for whom I had little respect. I’d tell myself I wouldn’t—then I’d get drunk and conveniently change my mind. The next day, I’d felt guilty. The guiltier I felt, the more I sought relief. By 27, my sexual conduct had landed me in rehab for alcoholism and sex addiction. I was suffering, and not acknowledging my negative feelings only made them worse.
Polyamory isn’t the same thing as infidelity
“One of the uncomfortable truths about monogamy and relationships is that just because we’re in a relationship, we don’t stop enjoying attention from other people.” This is according to the Daily Dot’s Harris O’Malley, who goes on to talk about how passion ebbs and flows and how some of the people on Ashley Madison weren’t necessarily looking for an affair. Some were just looking, he says. Perhaps they missed the feeling of being desired—he says—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The opposite of intimacy, sex became my way of dominating, hedging off fear, and keeping someone at arm’s length.
There’s nothing wrong with feelings. In fact, making peace with my impulses was a huge part of recovery. Prior to recovery, I thought that just because I had an impulse to do something “bad,” this was in some way indicative of my character, and so I might as well do it. Like, if I was jealous of my best friend because she had an awesome boyfriend, just having these feelings made me a bad friend, and so I might as well try and sleep with him.
I learned in recovery that we’re not necessarily in control of our feelings. It’s normal to find someone good-looking or to desire attention. It’s OK to feel bored or lonely—or to crave sex when you’re feeling insecure. I had all sorts of feelings, which I oftentimes sexualized. We don’t always have control over our thoughts or our feelings, but—as I learned in recovery—we do have control over our actions. Sometimes there are good reasons not to pursue a romantic or sexual relationship. (Like, you’re married and she’s your kid’s nanny, for example.) It might jeopardize your job. Or hurt someone you love. Or in some other way cause you or someone else harm. We can stop and think before we flirt.
I’m not of the opinion that you need to tell your partner everything, but we ought to know when what we’re doing violates the bounds of our relationship—and if you don’t know, you and your partner need to talk about it. What trespasses on one’s relationship differs from couple to couple. A precept of optimal sexual health is honesty and communication.
One of my first healthy relationships in recovery ended soon after I confronted him over what some might consider relatively innocent behavior. For me, it wasn’t OK that—eight months into dating—he had reactivated his OkCupid account and was responding to messages and chatting with other girls. Of course, the sheepish way he’d admitted it when I’d confronted him told me he already knew that this was outside the realm of the permissible. Relationships are contracts, and he had violated ours.
Polyamory is not superior to monogamy
There’s plenty of evidence that alternative lifestyles aren’t for everyone, which is why need to we think critically and honestly about our sexual practices. Without an adequate sexual education, it took me too long to learn that sexual health includes a constellation of factors, including but not limited to consent. Optimum sexual health involves considering things like whether or not one is free from exploitation or protected against STI’s and unwanted pregnancy. A healthy relationship means sharing values and having honesty and trust. Embracing a more healthy sexuality meant taking a more critical look at my relationship to pleasure.
Recovering from sex addiction has meant reconnecting to my body and my feelings. These days, I relish in all the benefits of being in a committed monogamous relationship. For starters, my sex life is better than ever. At a certain point in my current relationship, my partner and I started getting experimental and suggesting to one another things I’d never have felt comfortable doing with some dude I’d just met. Using toys and being tied up, for example, tested my trust and security and further revealed my insecurities and fears. Being fully committed helped me get over hang-ups I didn’t even know I’d had.
While it’s totally fair to have “no go” zones, I subscribe to Dan Savage’s philosophy that a partner ought to be “good, giving, and game”—that is, open to trying things. Sex in a committed monogamous relationship has created an opportunity for experimentation that “stranger sex” didn’t allow.
Being fully committed helped me get over hang-ups I didn’t even know I’d had.
Beyond sex, I’ve learned that a desire for novelty is satisfied by other pursuits. I work more, exercise, read, and travel. I hang out with friends without trying to fuck them. I’m not constantly obsessed, thinking about my next romantic conquest. I walk my dog. I bake pies. I meditate. Maybe I’m sublimating sexual desire, but it feels as if my life has become so much more than my sex life. Before recovery, my sexual identity was inordinate, the time and energy I spent pursuing partners exhausting.
Ultimately, it’s not about what the world thinks, it’s about how you feel. I couldn’t even begin to know what I was feeling when I was using sex to numb out. I don’t believe that having an affair indicates a lack of willpower or that infidelity is necessarily a moral failing, but I do believe it could be an indicator that something is wrong. People describe monogamy as a practice—which I like. To me, that suggests we’re not born with these skills. I wanted to get better, and so I did the work.
Melissa Petro is a freelance writer living in New York City. She has written for Salon, Daily Beast, and the Huffington Post. She holds an MFA from The New School, a Masters in Education from Fordham, and a BA from Antioch College.
Illustration via Max Fleishman