Photo: Steve Baccon
In today's society it is accepted that when we are in a relationship we have to be monogamous. Being monogamous is not always discussed or agreed on when a relationship starts - it is often just expected. In practice, however, many couples struggle with the concept.
As part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House this weekend, America's leading sex-advice columnist Dan Savage will speak about one of his favourite theories, redefining the rules of marriage. He believes that monogamy can be restrictive, has become old-fashioned and is the reason for many unhappy relationships.
About two years ago he coined the term "monogamish" to refer to long-term committed relationships that bend the rules of monogamy with the consent of both parties. He believes we need a more flexible attitude within a relationship. As you might expect, he received an enormous amount of criticism, but he also received thousands of letters and emails from people thanking him for giving them permission to live in a non-traditional relationship they often felt guilty about.
Another more extreme opinion about infidelity was put forward last year by Catherine Hakim, a British social scientist who was educated in France and wrote the book The New Rules Of Marriage. She believes we should take our cue from the French, whom she claims are happier and have a more philosophical approach to adultery.
An unforgiving attitude to adultery is damaging married life in Britain and driving couples to divorce and children to suffer, she believes, and says that it is possible to have a successful affair where both parties are happier and no one is hurt. France and several other European countries have more accepting attitudes to infidelity and have lower divorce rates.
Hakim provoked quite a controversy when she said: "Anyone rejecting a fresh approach to marriage and adultery, with a new set of rules to go with it, fails to recognise the benefits of a revitalised sex life outside the home". But unlike Savage, she believes that being honest and truthful about an affair can be hurtful and is not necessary. "Total discretion is the absolute rule - the other party should never find out."
I am from The Netherlands and probably a bit more open-minded about infidelity than most, and believe that truly monogamous relationships are the exception, not the rule. What has changed over the years is that many people now wait to marry or settle down in their late twenties or early thirties. By then they will have had lots of sex through many relationships, flings or one-night stands. Suddenly they are expected never to have sex again with anybody else!
Statistics tell us that in Australia between 40 and 60 per cent of women and men will cheat at some time in their lives and I wouldn't be surprised if the percentage was higher. What has changed in the past decade is the way we are cheating; it has become easier than ever.
The typical affair we used to have started at work or within our circle of friends or acquaintances - now we have the internet. We can have steamy chat-room conversations with strangers and have cybersex with anybody who is keen. Internet affairs can involve sexually stimulating conversations or cybersex, which may include filming mutual masturbation with a web camera.
I have several clients who are taking part in this, especially women at home with young children and partners who work long hours. They tell me there is no physical sexual contact, it is exciting, it isn't cheating and nobody will find out. But some studies suggest that online affairs can trigger emotional infidelity, and when found out can also trigger feelings of anger, jealousy and insecurity in the other partner.
In 2010 an internet dating site called Ashley Madison Australia was launched, which proved to be enormously popular. More than 500,000 people have joined, 40 per cent of them female. It was created especially for partnered people who want to have an affair with no strings attached. The slogan is Life is short - Have an affair!
One of my clients joined the site because he definitely doesn't want to leave his wife and children, but their sex life had become non-existent. He met a woman who has no intention of leaving her husband either and they meet once a week.
However, there are so many shades of infidelity!
Is flirting with a colleague at work cheating? Is having a massage with a happy ending? Is masturbating looking at porn? Having sex with your partner and fantasising about Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie? What about texting or sexting? What about sending naked pictures to friends who are not your partner?
Is it possible to be monogamous, what do you think?