A while back I was sitting at a bar talking to a friend of mine about his sex life. First of all, yes, guys occasionally discuss that kind of thing beyond just the predictable superficiality -- the lustful longings and sexual scorecard-keeping -- but on this night in particular we dug really deep. He and his wife had recently had an unusual experience, namely a night out with another couple that ended with the four of them in bed together. They didn't go so far as to swap or even share partners, but what they did do was thrilling enough to make them curious about delving into something more substantial. Given my role as the mountain to which a good number of my friends go for counsel on all forms of deviant behavior, this person asked for my thoughts on whether it would be a good idea to push forward into a full-on participation in "the lifestyle."
My response was swift and unequivocal: No, don't do it.
It wasn't that I hadn't, in a previous serious relationship, traveled far off-road, wound up in an even more licentious and uninhibited place and found out that it's survivable as a couple. On the contrary, in some ways the unabashed sexual libertinism I shared with my girlfriend in my early 20s brought us closer together, given that the trust required to successfully navigate it felt like such rare and valuable thing. But if I was honest with myself during that period -- and I absolutely wasn't -- there was really only one reason I encouraged us to indulge whatever pitch-black or adventurous appetites we might have had: I wanted it. I was a narcissist, an addict and an experience junkie -- a pure hedonist who loved passionately but when it came down to it loved no one more passionately than himself. I likely would've been willing to gamble with anything to satisfy myself and ultimately that's exactly what I did -- and I lost. But from a practical perspective what I was risking in 1993 was at least only a girlfriend. She was someone I loved, but we hadn't built a life together. If our experimentation ended in catastrophe, pulling ourselves apart would've been difficult but not agonizing. There wouldn't have been lawyers to involve. Or possessions to divide. Or children made to suffer.
There's a column running right now at the New York Times, written by a New York therapist who specializes in infidelity, that delves into the eternal question of why extramarital sex is often so good. The easy answer probably goes back to a glib observation about desire I made to a partner years ago, namely that the person you love and are in a relationship with can be many things but there's only one thing he or she absolutely can't be: someone else. You can be even nihilistic -- or maybe realistic -- and simply say that human beings aren't hardwired for monogamy. But Lawrence Josephs's research examines the deeper psychology behind why people cheat, even the ones who describe their marriages as strong. The story he tells in this column is about a woman who had a lengthy affair with someone she said gave her extraordinary sex -- she and her husband's sex life wasn't great and even he acknowledged it -- but that lover wound up dying and it wasn't until after this that she came to realize he was a narcissistic prick who cared little for her. Still, she mourned him. Her husband had assumed all along she was cheating on him but was shockingly understanding about the whole thing and in the end the two of them went into therapy to try to solve their problems in the bedroom.
The crux of the piece comes about two-thirds of the way through it. "What do you do when the best sex of your life is outside of marriage, but you still want the emotional security of a stable long-term relationship with someone you love and trust?" Josephs asks. The cynical, and I definitely count myself among them, would say that you do what everybody seems to do. You cheat. You try to have it all, no matter who gets fucked over in the process. But the alternative is that you have an open relationship, and that's what Josephs is getting at. That, however, is a path riddled with hidden land mines. "I’ve worked with a few couples over the years who have been able to make an open marriage work, but most people, even those who think they might want such an arrangement, are too insecure and jealous to do so," he says. And that's why I warned my friend not to take a chance on opening up the relationship with his wife, whether they experimented together or separately. Because he had no idea how he was going to react once fantasy became reality.
Had the relationship I was in 20-something years ago imploded because one or the other of us discovered they couldn't in fact handle what they were doing, it wouldn't have taken both our lives down with it. My friend, on the other hand, had not only a wife he loved very much but young kids to consider. They had a life. A home. They'd put down roots as a family. And while it's easy to understand why he and his wife might want to see how far they could push themselves sexually, I reminded him how much he had to lose. Neither they nor their children would escape unscathed if their actions became a malignant cancer that tore through their lives and you simply never could predict what would happen when you were dealing with those kinds of emotions.
My views on monogamy and the acceptability of going outside of a committed relationship for sex have evolved over the years. Maybe it was my last marriage -- which left me crushed and humiliated because the lie I was living seemed so real to me -- that changed me and lowered the value I place on sexual fidelity. It probably should've made me more demanding but I think I just expect people to fuck up now because we're human and that's what humans do sometimes; you can hold people to an impossible standard or you can simply accept that a fatal flaw is built into the system. I'm not using this to give myself an excuse to screw around, particularly not since I happen to love my fiancée very much and don't want to risk what I worked hard so hard to find. I simply no longer hang my entire relationship on what happens in the bedroom since there's so much more to a good relationship than just that. Still, while I think my outlook these days is a shockingly healthy one, it can be argued that it's the result of a lot of psychic damage that may have just caused me to stop fighting certain battles that probably would've ended badly anyway.
I understand that at this point in my life I approach relationships, sex and the like much more insouciantly than I did years ago -- and maybe that's strange for someone who's lived the life I have and who can still warn a friend not to risk his own relationship over a huge turn-on. But maybe it's because I've lived that fucked-up life that I get the pull of the forbidden, the adventurous and the depraved. I know what can be lost chasing that thrill because I've lost it and the thrill others chased led them to lose me. And yet if someone has never given in to those experiences, there's probably nothing I can say that would deter that person from pursuing them. When you want it, you want it. You just have to find out what it's like. You can't reason with that kind of desire.