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“It takes two people to continue a marriage* but only one to terminate a marriage.” [*or committed relationship]   -Barry McCarthy

I just finished re-reading an article from Psychology Today’s August 2012 issue called, “From Promise to Promiscuity,” by Hara Estroff Marano. The article discusses patterns, causes, ramifications, and lessons of extra-marital affairs. One of the interesting findings is that rates of women having affairs are converging with rates of men (therefore, in my opinion, debunking the whole “men just have a biological need to spread their seed” theory) and this change is correlated with the fact that more women work outside the home now and therefore have more interactions and opportunities. But other than pointing out these statistical changes and patterns, the topic is still treated in a pretty stale fashion and confined to the invisible cage of the status quo. That is, it still seems to be accepting, as a given, that marriage commitments necessarily include sexual monogamy, and that the only thing that registers as marriage infidelity, is sexual affairs. Some much broader issues were left unaddressed, and many more nuanced questions were left unanswered.

For example, the way one chooses to define what a committed partnership is will determine what constitutes a breach of that commitment, and on the same hand, perhaps what constitutes a deep betrayal. Open marriages or primary partnered polyamorous relationships allow for extra sex partners. Usually, though, there still are firmly placed boundaries that would strain a relationship if crossed.  Boundaries in these types of relationships can look something like:

  • Partners agree to never have “extra-marital” sex with the same person more than once.Partners agree to always disclose when they are having sex with somebody else or seek specific agreement before having sex with somebody else.

  • Partners agree to always use condoms, or never have missionary sex, or anal sex, or never do that one thing that is only reserved for primary partners.

  • Partners agree to only hook up with same-sex partners, or opposite-sex partners, or only redheads, or only singer songwriters.

  • Those boundaries can look like anything, but they are important.

      If there are no boundaries, there are no commitments, and therefore it falls out of the realm of a committed relationship. (While, there is nothing wrong with having uncommitted relationships, this is a discussion of sexual commitments and sexual affairs.

    And because these agreed upon boundaries are what defines what commitment is for any particular relationship, unilaterally crossing these boundaries can lead to a serious breach of trust and sense of betrayal.

    Many sex workers and partners of sex workers in committed relationships find that having these discussions are extra important because the very nature of sex workers’ professions involve various levels of sexual engagement with other people and despite what many would assume, committed relationships with or as a sex worker are not necessarily “open” or “poly” relationships just because a partner is sexually engaging with someone else for money. In these cases, a boundary might be that the professional sex worker agrees to not have sex with others “non-professionally.” Nevertheless, as the article in Psychology Today pointed out, having a career increases the likelihood of having an affair. Hooking up with someone in the office, I suppose, can be considered an occupational hazard. A psychologist or medical doctor having an affair with a patient can cost them their license (if found out), but it does not stop it from happening. And the same can be said for sex workers. Where does one draw the line, then, between what constitutes a breach of that boundary? What if a sex worker earnestly remains faithful to the letter of the law of his/her relationship regarding not sleeping with another for recreational purposes but falls in love with a paying client? Is that defined as a betrayal? There is no simple answer. There is never a simple answer. And that applies not just to sex work but also to all relationships. One can fall in love with a co-worker or client without having a sexual relationship with them. Does that constitute a betrayal?

    Despite our relationship status, at some point we all will be sexually and/or emotionally drawn to various people outside our relationship. If that, in and of itself, constituted a betrayal, we’re all in trouble. For every relationship boundary created, there needs to be a counterpart in relationship maintenance and relationship building. Maybe if you feel as if you’re starting to fall for someone outside of your primary relationship and this goes against the spirit and terms of the commitments you have made to each other, and if you already have a solid foundation between the two of you, you can disclose these feelings to each other as they are happening. If a relationship is strong and supportive, disclosing these feelings, while challenging, can also bring people closer together as new vulnerabilities, longings, and needs are shared in a spirit of mutual respect. A situation that could have potentially led you down a very different path can instead be a catalyst for invigorating the primary relationship. For this to even be possible, though, there needs to be a solid, openhearted, and committed relationship in the first place. While an “extra-marital” affair—whether it be sexual or emotional or just a breach of whatever terms are set forth-can do a lot to speed up the destruction of a relationship bond, the absence of any betrayal will not necessarily save a “fair-weather” relationship that is not strong enough to handle a situation in which such a betrayal would occur in the first place.

    Ally Booker is a pleasure activist. She is passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her milling around her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St., (888) 874-6588.

    More by Ally Booker

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