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.
INVESTIGATION INTO THE AGREEMENT COUPLES MAKE CONCERNING SEX OUTSIDE THEIR RELATIOSHIP by Isadora Alman, M.A
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.
ISADORA ALMAN’S COUPLES’ QUESTIONNAIRE
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?
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
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?
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