Can sanctioned affairs improve a marriage?

A bit on the side: Is the whole strengthened by the sum of its parts?
A bit on the side: Is the whole strengthened by the sum of its parts? Photo: Stephen Baccon

About a decade ago, an article in Details magazine put the population of America's suburban swingers at roughly 3 million people. About a year before that, The Age ran an account of a suburban swingers party in our own backyard.

Last week, a reader passed on a link to a report in The Independent published in 2012 titled "The real secret of staying married".

The secret?

Sanctioned affairs.

Not quite swinging, not quite cheating. This was a story of something in between. Something apparently growing in popularity – something arranged between husband and wife that ensures the longevity of a marriage while essentially rewriting the rules.

Rather than excluding other parties from the intimate aspects of a long-term relationship, this approach follows the "more is merrier" rule. You might have a lover, I might have a lover, we both still love each other, and so what's the problem?

Well, it seems there isn't one. Not for the couple at the heart of the situation, at least. They get to keep their family home, their joint savings account, the wealth of memories and sentiment of a life shared together, and probably on occasion the intimacy and understanding that followed their original romance. Plus, they get to enjoy the pleasure of another's company without fear of spousal retribution.

To use the vernacular: Winning.

And, when you consider how much longer we're living, and how expensive divorce is – not to mention how traumatic for the family – it's fairly clear why this trend might just catch on. Even if countries like America, England and Australia, presumably, tend to have a pretty dim view of extramarital fraternising. According to The Independent article more than 90 per cent of Americans and 80 per cent of Britons condemn extramarital affairs as wrong. This compares with just two in five people in Italy and France.



Before jumping on the European bandwagon, we should consider why the idea of adulterous behaviour is so summarily frowned upon. Why are affairs an issue? Should we really update our view?

I would have said yes, emphatically, but for the fact that I am about to get married. I could not imagine not wanting to be with my husband-to-be, and only my-husband-to-be, for the rest of our lives together. I could not stand the thought of him being with anybody else.

This is a position miles away from where I used to be. Philosophically, at least, I was OK with the idea of sharing. Now it freaks me out. But is that because it's fundamentally wrong to want to be with other people as well as the one you love? Or is it because I'm in the early days of a lifetime commitment, and my psychology and biology is urging me to be monogamous? Maybe I'll change my position again when we're old and (both) grey, the kids have left home, and we're contemplating updating the kitchen. Again.

If I did, and if we did, would that mean our marriage had failed? Perhaps I should write a caveat into my vows now…

I put the question to a few mature-age couples I know.

“No, you're not failing. You're reorganising. You're allowed to update your view. You're allowed to try something different – so long as you're both on the same page.” This is the view of *Barbara, who lives on the Gold Coast with her husband *Marc. She tells me they've been talking openly about including other people in their love life for some time, though they've never acted on it.

“I don't know if it's that we don't know how, or we're not yet ready, or what, but we're both OK about it. It doesn't mean we love each other less, it just means we have more love to give.”

Sanctioned affairs start to sound pretty reasonable, coming from Barb – reasonable and desirable, when she continues to explain why they're interested in "more". They had been finding it hard to find the same passion for each other that they once had. They felt as though their relationship was going stale. They didn't want to "give up", so giving up the exclusivity clause of their union seemed like a fair compromise.

“Not so,” wrote Jarrod, who lives with his second wife in Sydney. “If you're not with that person completely, why be with them at all? Why get married in the first place?”

Jarrod's first wife had an affair.

“We talked about all the reasons why she did, and they were understandable, but in the end, I couldn't remain in the relationship and retain my sense of self-respect. I couldn't carry on with her, knowing I wasn't enough. I know that Denise and I probably won't be this crazy about each other for another 10 years, but I'm OK with that. Your relationship changes, you change – you move to a deeper level. Together. No one else needs to be involved.”

Ultimately, every relationship is different. We should be able to arrange ours however we like. Some people do. Some people wish they could. Other people don't see a need to deviate too far from the status quo.

I'm yet to discover whether I can or will.

How about you?