And the sooner we figure that out, the happier we'll all be.
By monogamous standards, it’s hard to understand how sleeping with someone other than your partner could be anything other than cheating. Yet there are countless couples who can maintain strong lifelong relationships while also seeing other people on the side.
As noted by millions of people who still clutch their pearls at the very idea of polyamory, it seems paradoxical that someone could be loyal to a romantic partner while also being sexually “unfaithful” and within these romantic parameters, they aren’t wrong. The problem is, that’s not how it works.
Loyalty and sexual fidelity aren’t synonymous. And the sooner we figure that out, the happier we'll all be.
I struggled to accept loyalty vs. fidelity, too, by the way. Despite seeing and feeling evidence to the contrary at every turn, our society likes to hammer in this ideal that we can only love one person and once we’ve felt a sense of loyalty to that person, sexual attraction to someone else is somehow betrayal, even if all parties involved are consenting.
This, of course, misses the point that real love and loyalty don't waver just because you’re enjoying the company of someone else. This sort of possessive delineation is the adult equivalent of being in grade school and needing to not only claim a “best friend,” but also refusing to accept that that friend has any friends other than yourself. It doesn’t make any sense in playground relationships and it certainly has no space in adult romances.
Loyalty to any one person is not related to your interactions with other people. Loyalty is defined by the unique bond shared between two parties. Period.
I was only able to really understood this subtle nuance when I noticed how remarkably un-clingy I was with the man who would become my husband. Unlike the needy, nagging person I’d been in my previous long-term relationships, suddenly, I was relaxed, unsuspicious, and even voluntarily encouraging him going out and having a social life outside just dating me.
As immature as it was, I’d been clingy, obsessive and paranoid in relationships for years; suffice to say I was surprised to see myself suddenly begging my S.O.’s friends to “take him out and get into trouble, dammit! I insist!” While all my previous behaviors had obviously been rooted in my own insecurity, I couldn’t figure out how I could've changed so drastically and quickly.
Then it dawned on me: My insecurities in my previous relationships were never about me hating myself, but were, instead, because I was often with someone who repeatedly abandoned me, both emotionally and physically.
While one ex in particular left me an embarrassing number of times, even in our best eras, he was badmouthing me behind my back to his friends and manipulating my feelings. Simply put: He was disloyal even if I disregard his cheating.
So no wonder then, when I found someone who was fiercely loyal, I felt comfortable loosening my reins. In my marriage, I’m with someone I know will be there when I call and who has proven repeatedly that his loyalties lie with me, so I legitimately don’t mind what he does with anyone else. His emotional loyalty to me has proven to be unshakable, which is all I require for a relationship to work long-term.
This works in all relationships, by the way. Whether we’re discussing your friendships or your bonds with family members, the truth remains that loyalty is rooted in something more fluid and permanent than the interactions with anyone outside that relationship.
Most of us would never dream of imposing monogamy within our closest friendships because there’s no need to. When our friends are loyal to us, we know it, regardless of how many other friends they have. I’d argue that this dynamic directly correlates to romantic relationships as well. To quote Ann Landers, “Love is friendship that has caught fire,” so shouldn’t the same rules apply?
Obviously, everyone’s definition of “loyalty” is different, and those differences probably vary from relationship to relationship. I absolutely don’t believe that anyone should encourage their romantic partner to sleep around if it makes either party uncomfortable.
However, I see the need for us to divorce ourselves from the idea that sexual or even romantic urges outside our primary relationships are inherently a betrayal. By exercising this in my own marriage, I’ve felt a tremendous relief in my stress levels and expectations, and honestly, learning that our loyalty to each other is in no way quantified by our feelings for anyone else has given us this incredible sense of trust and security.
When it comes right down to it, relationships are built on the trust between two people. Whether there is a sexual component or not, the security of loyalty is one of the greatest gifts any one person can give another and, honestly, is the reason we put our faith in otherwise nonsensical ideas like marriage in the first place.
Lifelong loyalty is absolutely possible and happens all the time. But perhaps we as a society owe it to ourselves and our long-term happiness to reexamine and redefine what, exactly, that means.