Amy Alkon drags people, kicking, screaming, and laughing, out of their misery with her behavioral science-based advice column, which runs in about 100 newspapers.
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Bad Harem Day
I'm 30, and I've been married to my sweet, beautiful wife for three years. I am a bartender at a club and have numerous opportunities to cheat dangled in front of me. After coming close on several occasions, I finally told my wife I wasn't happy, and we separated three months ago as a prelude to divorcing. I moved in with a friend and started taking advantage of my new single life. However, it's already getting old. I miss my wife and her intelligence and our connection. How do I start the conversation with her about getting back together?
— Screwed Up
After several years of marriage, for a lot of couples, pretty much the only way to have hot sex is to do it under an electric blanket.
Ideally, you could have the security of marriage while continuing to pick up sex snacks at the mall food court of bachelorhood. (In a perfect world, Starbucks would also serve free beer.) But back here in the real world, a monogamous relationship demands trade-offs, and the biggie is giving up hot sex for love and constancy. Even couples who keep having sex almost never have it as hot (or as regularly) as they did at the start. There are just certain elements that can't be replaced — sexual tension and suspense, for example — once you know for sure that you'll not only be going home with your date but be waking up to them snoring and drooling on your shoulder for the next 50 years.
Part of the problem is the way we view monogamy — as the inevitable next step after falling in love. It's just assumed that a couple will be sexually faithful for a lifetime; there's typically no discussion of how, exactly, they'll accomplish that or whether they even can. Of course, for many people — women especially — there is no acceptable alternative to monogamy. "Open marriage, honey?" Right. You may as well suggest, "You know, I'm thinking we should spend the rest of the afternoon disemboweling squirrels."
Also, many people mistakenly believe that a happy and loving marriage is a magical fidelity wand that wards off the temptation to wander. Infidelity researcher Shirley Glass, in "Not Just Friends," calls this a "misconception not supported by any research," though it is commonly cited on TV and in self-help books as a way to "affair-proof your marriage." What it can end up being is a way to stick blame on the person who got cheated on, as if their saying "I love you" more fervently or keeping the living room better vacuumed could have kept their spouse's underwear from ending up on someone else's spouse's hotel room floor.
Additionally, some people seem to have a biological and psychological profile that makes them more prone to long for the sexual variety pack. One factor in this is being high in what psychologist Marvin Zuckerman calls "sensation seeking" — craving novel, varied, and intense sensations and experiences and being willing to take risks to get them. Sensation seeking has repeatedly been associated with high testosterone, and men with high testosterone tend to divorce more often and have more sex partners. This isn't to say these factors are an excuse for cheating. ("Biology made me do it!") You ultimately have the ability to make choices — difficult as that may be in the moment when you're feeling very much like a penis-controlled robot.
Sure, you miss your wife now, but if you get her back, will you start pining for the parade of bar floozies? Testosterone does decline significantly with age, as does sensation seeking, so you may find monogamy more doable at 40 than you do at 30. Assuming your wife, like most women, requires monogamy, what you owe her is honesty about the trouble you have with it so she can decide whether she's willing to put herself in harm's way. If you do get back together, talk about what you (each) need to do to avoid temptation (like, for you, maybe finding a job where you aren't surrounded by hot drunk girls flashing you their thong for free drinks).
This level of honesty is likely to bring you both closer and build trust, making your relationship deeper and stronger. You're ultimately telling your wife that you see there's a world of women out there but what matters most to you is having her — beauty, sweetness, and intelligence, and your connection. You now understand that this requires consistent effort. (There's a reason the saying is "relationships take work" and not "flings are like forced labor.") You're committing to doing your part to keep some sparks flying in your marriage — and not by having her find you in bed with another woman and then chase you around with a Taser.
Along Came Polygraph
My girlfriend is really insecure and gets furious that I meet my ex-girlfriend for lunch a few times a year. This ex and I broke up years ago, but I'd never cheat anyway, and I've explained that I have zero romantic interest in her. Still, she's a good friend and part of my life. How can I make my girlfriend understand?
Some people read poetry; your girlfriend lives it: "How do I love thee? You'll soon find out — after I attach this car battery to your nipples and interrogate you about your lunch." Although your girlfriend's the one coming at you with the clamps, the truly unreasonable person in this relationship is you — dating an insecure person and then expecting her to act otherwise. Sure, you could encourage her to build her self-esteem, but until she hits bottom — like in a breakup — she probably has no incentive to change. You need to either accept the trade-offs — the hassle, the not being trusted — or leave and get into a relationship where, as the saying goes, "love means never having to say I'm sorry the shackle attaching you to the basement wall is a little tight."
It's Amy Alkon's Advice Goddess Radio — "Nerd your way to a better life!" with the best brains in science solving your love, dating sex, and relationship problems. Listen live every Sunday — http://www.blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon/ — 7-8 p.m. PT, 10-11 p.m. ET, or listen or download at the link, at iTunes, or on Stitcher.
Advice Goddess Radio: Science writer Peg Streep on overcoming the legacy of a mean mother.
(c)2014, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com). Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon
Preorder Amy Alkon's upcoming book, "Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say The F-Word" (St. Martin's Press, June 3, 2014).
Does your paper want a review copy of my upcoming book? Please just send your snail mail address or another editor's snail mail address if someone else should receive it. It'll be published June 3. (Details at bottom of column.)