THESIS: On the Agreements Couples Make Regarding Sex Outside Their Relationship

THESIS  SUMMARY: Communication  Styles and Agreements About Sexual Behavior Outside the Coupled Relationship by  Isadora Alman, M.A.

In  a small study I did in the early 1980s both partners of a small sampling of  self-defined happy couples individually answered a questionnaire on their  relationship history and on the content of any existing agreement,  implicit or  explicit, concerning sexual behavior outside the coupled  relationship. What I  expected to find was that discussing the subject and reaching an explicit  agreement regarding acceptable conduct was a prerequisite to being a happy  couple. What I hoped to find was what “worked” most often for most people – a  conventionally monogamous relationship, an open arrangement or a format  somewhere in between. What I stumbled upon was something entirely different.  (The sample of twenty-five couples was too small to draw any definitive  conclusions, only suggestion for further study.)

Some  couples forged or fostered intimacy through discussions about sexual feelings  for outsiders. Such discussions might take place before, after or  instead of  acting on such attractions. These people, whom I designated  Tell-Alls, generally  had explicit agreements about what, if any, sexual  behavior was acceptable  outside the couple and established procedures for handling such occurrences,  e.g. “I must meet the person first” or “It can’t be one of our  friends”.

Other  people, the ones I dubbed Say-Nothings, either denied the possibility of being  attracted to someone other than the primary partner, or maintained the couple  stability by avoiding acknowledging such interest.

It  seems that when two people with the same communication style preference  are  coupled, the nature of the arrangement (monogamous or non) appears to  be  immaterial. Often the substance of an agreement changes as it is  renegotiated  over the course of the relationship. However, if the partners’  concept of what  may or must be discussed in the name of good communications differs, if a  Tell-All is mated to a Say-Nothing, problems often ensue.

I  conclude that individuals need to define not only wants and expectations  for  their partnership, but also to identify their communications style  preference,  to be quite explicit about what they are willing to hear and what  they are  willing to confide in order to foster intimacy rather than  jealousy and  dissension. Agreement on the subject of disclosing sexual feelings  for others  seems to serve, in part, to define for the couple the very nature  of their  perceived intimacy.


Traditionally,  being a couple implied the actual state or eventual aim of  marriage which, in  turn, Implied sexual monogamy.  Whether friendships  outside the couple are permitted or encouraged, how  the partners deal with  fantasies and flirtations or even  outside sexual interactions are topics  open  to negotiation.  These topics  combine major areas of common couple conflict  – communications, resolving  differences and sexual satisfaction.  For  the purpose of this investigation a couple was defined as any two  people,  heterosexual or homosexual,  together for at least six months who  considered themselves to be  coupled,  not necessarily  exclusively.

1.    Those who chose to  participate were happy and wanting to share their  success secrets.  Also, being able to communicate possibly  controversial  feelings and thoughts to one’s partner and trusting him or her to  keep an  agreement are significant factors in perceived relationship  satisfaction.  This proved to be  true.
2.    Whether one is or wants to  become a parent is important in many  relationships but not a factor in forming  outside sex policy.
3.    Fear of AIDS or other STCs  has made striking changes in many
individuals’ behaviors. This concern crosses  all boundaries of orientation.
4.    For many, the formal step of  moving in together or exchanging vows  provided the impetus for creating or  solidifying such agreements.  For  more  than half my respondents, a deepening intimacy was reason enough to clarify  sexual ethics.
5.    I thought many  people would prefer the unchecked belief that they  were in agreement with their  partner, to “assume” agreement, rather than  risk hearing possible unpleasant  truths.  I was incorrect.  My respondents  were remarkably clear  communicators.
6.    I assumed having complete  sexual freedom while the partner chose to  restrict his/her sexual experimenting  would be most people’s ideal  arrangement.  Actually, most felt the arrangement they had, whatever it was, was  ideal!
7.    I was surprised at such a  variety of agreeable arrangements.

Eleven  subjects volunteered that whatever arrangements they presently had  was subject  to negotiations or constantly under review.  A look at how this  process works: “There  was a special party in my honor and I asked my  partner beforehand to consider  how he’d feel if I had the opportunity to indulge in sexual play during the  party.  He decided he could handle  it fine and  I felt good about having the option, but I never exercised  it.”

There  were couples in my studies who shared everything from fantasies to  sexual  partners:
–      “We talk to each  other about any sexual attraction to others and  about sexual  dreams.”
–      “My lover can  feel free to ask for any information regarding my
behavior outside the  relationship at any time and fully expect an honest  response.”
–      “Sexual behavior  is allowed outside the relationship provided we
discuss the situation  beforehand.”
–      “Talking about  fantasies about having sex with other men was
difficult for me to do at  first.  However, when my partner  shared the same  fantasies with me I felt less guilty and realized that  fantasizing about being  with other men is fine, and this is now part of our  agreement.”
–       “If  sexually attracted to another, the agreement is not to act on
it but to talk  about it and examine what’s happening.”
–       “Our  contract is situational in that any changes either partner
wishes to make will  be discussed prior to any activity that would change it.”

–       “Whatever  we do outside the marriage is acceptable as long as
either one of us does not  tell.  That information is to be  kept totally
–       “We are  monogamous.  However, we both  recognize that it’s
possible for events to occur outside the relationship.  We have agreed that neither  of us wants  to know about any such events and that we don’t want them to  interfere with our  relationship.”
–       Our  agreements is that although we’d prefer our partner to be
monogamous, not even  interested in another, this is something one person can  not require of another  or enforce.  Therefore, if the  person feels the  necessity of having relations with another outside of the  marriage it must be  done in a way that will not come to the attention of the  spouse.  We promised  to lie to one  another if necessary.”

As  long as both partners are in agreement about whether they want to hear  about and  discuss everything or nothing, there seem to be no problems.  When they are not in accord about  disclosure you have such situations as the  following:
Partner  #1: “I would like sometimes to have secret affairs that really
were a secret to  the grave.  I just like the idea of  having a private
independent sex life which is sometimes at odds with being a  couple.  In  principle, I resent that  couples are supposed to share everything – especially  sexual things – with each  other.”
Partner  #2: “I want to know about her affairs with people I have social
contact  with.  This is a source of  disagreement between us.”

It  appears that good communications, however that is defined by the
individual or  within the couple, takes precedence over the type of couple  arrangement, the How  of an agreement rather than a What. Absolute monogamy works for some couples, a  more ambiguous arrangement for others. The  variety of arrangements among my respondents seem to work in each case because  the two have forged a compatible communication system first and a lifestyle  second.  Those couples who reported  being the happiest with their arrangements were those in which both partners  were Tell-Alls or
Say-Nothings with a mutually acceptable framework for dealing  with any differences or changes.

There  is little argument that good communications is better than bad, or  none, that it  fosters intimacy and smoothes the bumps of loving and living,  but it seems that  what constitutes good communications appears to be a  matter of individual  interpretation.  Therefore  communication styles need to  be  addressed, clarified, and agreed upon within an intimate pair in order  for that  ideal of good communications to be achieved.  Despite  the small sampling, I believe I’ve made some progress toward that  aim with this  preliminary investigation.

An  inquiry into the nature of agreements couples have on sexual behavior  outside  their relationship.

1.  Your gender and age? Your partner’s gender and age?
2.  How long have you considered yourself coupled with this  partner?
3.  Are you (check one which best applies)
–  Legally married
–  Exchanged other ceremonial vows
–  Living together
–  Living separately

4.  Do you currently have an agreement with your partner regarding what is  acceptable sexual behavior outside your relationship?
–  Yes
–  No
–  Undecided
5.  If you have such an agreement, is this agreement explicit? In other
words, have  the two of you discussed the issue and reached a mutual
6.  Whether explicit or unstated, please say what your understanding of  your  agreement is. Take into account all manner of sexual behavior such as  flirting,  non-intimate friendships, interactions with same/opposite sex,  special  circumstances.
7.  If your agreement has changed during the life of your relationship,
please  explain how and why. Mention any specific occasions you might recall  which  resulted in discussions on this subject which formulated an agreement  or  modified an existing agreement.
8A.  Have you, or (to your knowledge) your partner, ever broken an existing  agreement  on this subject?
8B.  If so, what were the results?
9A.  If you have an explicit agreement regarding sexual behavior outside
the  relationship, what are your reasons for wanting, needing or entering into  such  an agreement?
9B.  If you have no explicit agreement, what are your reasons for not
having  one?
10.  If you could have an arrangement exactly to your liking, what would  that ideal  arrangement be? Would it differ in any way from your current  situation?
11.  If you have not mentioned it previously, is procreation a factor in
any  agreement you have or might have? Explain.
12.  If you have not mentioned it previously, are health concerns a factor  in any  agreement you have or might have? Explain.
13.  On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = extremely uncomfortable, 5 = extremely
comfortable)  place a numerical evaluation on how free you feel in discussing  possibly  controversial feelings and thoughts with your partner.
14.  On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = not at all, 5 = completely) how much do you  trust your  partner to keep an agreement with you on sexual behavior outside  the  relationship?
15.  On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = extremely unhappy, 5 = extremely happy) how  happy are  you in general with your present relationship?

@copyright  Isadora Alman. All rights reserved.