The Sexless Marriage Trap: Why not Polyamory?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

A note on inclusivity: I have very little experience dating women. Having sex with women, yes, but dating women, my experience is minimal. Therefore, I am talking about cis-gendered, straight-presenting men that date women, for the purpose of this article.

“I’m a woman. I like men. If that means I’m not lady-like, then I guess I’m just not a lady.” — Josephine (Tombstone)

I love married men.

That is, I love married men whose spouses know about and approve (enthusiastically, ideally) of my dating their husbands. I love men, always have, but espoused men are among my favorites. What is not to like? Their domestic needs are handled at home. They are far less likely to demand I forsake polyamory and be monogamous. There are no babies or financial stress. We can simply focus on the emotional/sexual connection that we both want and need without the distraction of a relationship escalator. Boom!

However, I will not date a cheater.

That is a disordered situation all around. Besides being too old for the drama, I do not feel like cheaters have much to offer me. They can seldom spend the night, travel with me, or respond to a midnight bootie call. I might embrace the slut archetype, but I am a cuddly slut that loves spontaneous I-need-you-now sex and getting away (or staying in!) for a weekend. It is not only the stepping-out spouses that cannot meet my needs for quality time and spontaneity, but I know what to expect when dealing with one.

Cheaters lie to somebody they love every single day.

Another matter with cheaters is that they lie to somebody they love every single day. It feels toxic from the beginning and does not vibe with my philosophy of radical honesty and love begetting more love. Plus, I have been the deceived party before, which felt wretched. I would never wish that pain on anybody.

Why not just be polyamorous?

But married-and-cheating men send me messages every day. I ask — why not just be polyamorous? Most of the men, and some women, I have spoken to believe infidelity to be the least radical and more socially acceptable choice. This blows my mind.

Even crazier to me is that some of these married men become reactive when I explain that while they pursue companionship and pleasure through ethical polyamory, so could their spouses. I do not believe one person can be everything to anybody else, and ethical normally means egalitarian.

Not every person cheating or considering cheating is a suitable candidate for polyamory.

Ask a man if he could be open to his wife having other loves and lovers in her life while he does the same. This is how we sort out the men with the capacity for limitless love and compersion from the ones with the tediously dull and patriarchal one-penis policy. It is how we separate the wayward extra-sexuals from those who need to have their cake and yours. We do not want the latter in polyamory.

Polyamory and non-monogamy are not synonymous.

Rather, polyamory is one way to practice non-monogamy. In ethical polyamory, the focus is on multiple committed, loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved persons. Other types include swinging, soliciting a sex worker for threesomes, and flirtationships. And yes, cheating. To see what I mean, check out a crazy complex Venn diagram by clicking here.

I acknowledge the subset of non-monogamists who believe that there is no such thing as unethical polyamory. They say that ethics are subjective, as is taught in Philosophy 101. I will not debate that here, only say that I vehemently disagree. Lying to someone that loves and trusts you is wrong. Rejection hurts. Betrayal kills. I do not believe that people that get involved with cheaters are being ethical either. I do not think I can be convinced that any relationship practice that includes deception can be considered ethical.

If sex is important enough to cheat, it’s worth considering ethical non-monogamy.

Having a general interest in human behavior, I am interested in why men do not request to open their marriages or get a divorce. If sex is important to you and you are not having sex, why not consider ethical non-monogamy? And if that is not an option, why stay in the relationship? This is the only life we are given, and it is not a dress rehearsal. A long-term relationship without sex? I cannot fathom it.

There are two sources from which I have collected data for this article. One is from talking to men who message me through the dating app OkCupid (the only one that I use). The other source is historical observations from conversations I have had with men who sought my services as an independent escort in the '00s.

Sex work gave me a unique perspective on sex and monogamy.

When it comes to the marital status of the men I spend time with, I have not always had the luxury of being selective. In sex work, discretion is compulsory, and too much inquiry, which can be perceived as judgmental, is frowned upon. In those days, I preferred married clients because they were more respectful, generous and did not harass me in my off-hours. Instead, it was the unmarried, younger men that were troublemakers. But I digress…

One role a sex worker may inadvertently take on is that of a counselor.

Even if you never ask, married clients that become regulars inevitably talk about their home lives. Things they can talk to nobody else about. And there is something that sex workers know about married men that others do not.

Men who hire sex workers are looking for intimacy, not just sex.

It is not only sex that most of these men are missing — it is intimacy — the whole package. Intimacy is a one-on-one connection that includes affirmation, empathy for one another’s feelings, and meaningful conversation. And yes, intimate physical contact between lovers. Physical affection can be bought and simulated, but it is still not quite at the level of genuine earned intimacy. And men need it. We all do.

Men are usually upfront with their situation to an escort. A sex worker is a contractor, and theirs is a business relationship. Married men seeking distraction on a dating site, because they cannot afford a sex worker or whatever, are usually less forthcoming. I spot them quickly because of their tell-tale limitations. But if they are honest and I am in the mood, I sometimes chat with them to find out about their reasons and decision to cheat on their spouse. Between sex work and ten years of perpetual dating, I have heard every justification men have for breaking their relationship agreement to remain monogamous.

Health issues are the #1 reason men have said they are looking to cheat.

Most men tell me that their wives will not sleep with them, usually because of health issues. They tell me that they try, but it does not matter how much energy they put into helping their partner feel desired and wanted. A vast majority love their spouses passionately. Usually, there are children and shared assets involved, which would be impacted by a divorce. Some of them still have sex with their wives, but still, they feel that they want more love, sex, or variety in their lives for entirely relatable reasons.

All these deductions are valid, as is the yearning to feel desired. Not to mention all the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of healthy sex life.

I get it. I am still not participating in it, but I do get it. Some people get off on the secrecy and taboo nature of cheating — I am not one of those people. But I do understand what it is like to feel trapped in a sexless marriage.

Hey, I’ve been there too.

When I was young, only 18, I married a man who was twenty-two years older than me. Paul made me laugh and encouraged my creative side, which inspired my lifetime desire to write. I was head over heels for him, and I worshipped the ground he walked on. Unfortunately, we were grossly mismatched in the lovemaking department. In fact, we had made love twice in the first couple of months of our new marriage.

I would ask, I would plead, I would wear lingerie and try to seduce my husband.

But he was not having it. It was a wholly miserable situation for me, and him also. Nothing I said would change his mind, and in fact, he became annoyed and started sleeping on the couch. Everything else between us was excellent, but Paul, for whatever reason, did not enjoy having sex with me. I had never heard of polyamory in those days, so it did not occur to me to propose it as a solution. Not that I believe it would have been positively received. I did, however, make it clear that I wanted to find a lover.

Paul did not like this idea one bit. Why? “Because you’re married to me!” I could not understand it, and it negatively affected my self-esteem — how could it not? Why can’t I go have sex with other people and then come home and be his wife? Makes perfect sense to me. I am wired for creative solutions, but not my Catholic husband. No way.

So I started cheating.

Things degraded quickly from there, to me seeking attention elsewhere, anywhere, not secretly nor in his face, but blatantly and unapologetically. Everyday actions like shaving my legs or washing my car became screaming arguments. Love and respect turned into resentment on both sides.

I would not drop the issue nor tolerate a sexless marriage, so I moved out at six months, and we divorced at nine. I loved Paul, and I still do, but sex was as important to me twenty years ago as it is now. Did I fuck around while I was married to him? Yes. Did he know it? Also, yes. Does that make it better? No, I do not believe it does. But I remedied it by leaving and then divorcing him. Amicably, in the end, I might add.

I do not believe that anybody should feel pressured to have sex.

Not even with their spouse. Hell no. If you are not feeling it, you are not feeling it. But I also do not believe it’s okay to completely deny a person the freedom to seek the pleasure and connection they are missing elsewhere. Unpopular opinion, I know, but hang with me for a bit.

In my case, sex was and is a condition of being satisfied with the relationship. Whether it is with my partner or other partners, my nesting partner enthusiastically wants me to feel that my wants are fulfilled. Love is not enough. Not nearly.

Agreements are essential, whether written or agreed upon verbally.

They clarify each person’s intentions and expectations for the relationship and prevent catastrophic misunderstandings and hurt feelings. I like them in writing, if possible, but verbal agreements work alright too. I would even advocate that monogamous people consider utilizing them and make it a priority to have check-ins and clarifying discussions often. A relationship agreement does not prevent a partner from breaking the “contract.” Still, I believe it increases the odds that a couple can find their way back to one another.

Most married men would instead work things out and re-establish a sexual relationship with their wives if they could.

My largely informal and anecdotal evidence shows men cheating or looking to cheat would prefer not to. People cheat because they decide their needs, even if perfectly valid, supersede the agreements they have made. They do not think about getting caught or the ramifications of inflicting emotional injury on their loved ones. They do not consider the fallout, the stigma, or perpetual distrust. They are only thinking about filling a void. Sometimes quite literally, we are talking about red-blooded humans, after all.

If you are willing to risk the fallout of infidelity, perhaps it is not a stretch to consider the risk of first suggesting, then implementing, ethical non-monogamy. Failing that, splitting as amicably as possible.

Endings are a part of life and do not need to be contentious hatefests.

It is quite possible to nuke even a strong bond for good by branching out into non-monogamy without handling whatever issues persist in the established marriage or relationship. Communication skills and an open mind are mandatory for successful, happy, polyamorous relationships. Non-monogamy is not necessarily the magic resolution for a troubled monogamous relationship or a person who feels ownership over their spouse. Therefore, individual or couple’s therapy is still the first best option when marital problems persist. If ethical non-monogamy sounds appealing, it’s worth checking if your counselor or therapist is poly-friendly.

If I am oversimplifying it, it is because it is simple to me.

My sexual autonomy is not negotiable, nor is my peace of mind about whether my actions are ethical. My heart goes out to those in situations that are both dissatisfying and difficult to resolve. But how much of your healthy years are you willing to sacrifice to keep the status quo? Me? No more than I already have.

No risk, no reward.

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Amélie Bancroft

Amélie Bancroft

Nomad, survivor, killer of green plants. I write about sex and relationships, ethical non-monogamy, neurodivergent dating, and healing. LessonsFromMyLovers.com