With the latest challenges among the Republican candidates focused on Mitt Romney’s tax returns and Newt Gingrich’s adultery the spotlight highlights the three main issues that still trigger the American psyche and bring clients into my private practice office for treatment. Yet the third topic is somewhat inferred and is almost the elephant in the room, and no I’m not referring to the GOP’s symbol here. I’m talking about the secret issues that no one wants to address head on.
Honesty is what challenges these candidates, leaving Romney sputtering on a podium when asked if he’ll reveal his tax returns. He is unsure of what voters might think of his posturing as an every day Joe when he talks about getting pink slips when in fact he has made a lot of money and uses the tax laws to gain the most out of his profits. While he tries to present as an honest man, he comes off as both insecure, cagey and arrogant at times regarding his financial success. What is he trying to hide other than his success for which he states he is unapologetic.
When couples come in to my office to say they are having communication problems, I am struck by all the expectations they had before their wedding including: financial, sexual, and sexual boundaries. Couples believe they have implicit understandings with one another through non-verbal agreements and trust that their love for one another will get them through any disagreements in the future.
For example, when both people are working full-time before marriage and neither of them discuss their expectations if children come along, a lot of resentment, guilt and frustration can arise. Perhaps a wife expects to slow her career down a bit or stop working outside the home all together to be a full-time homemaker and her husband expected her to continue bringing in the same amount of income. I encourage couples who are thinking of moving in together or getting married to hammer out expectations and the realistic consequences of choices which might include seeing a financial planner so they are on the same page regarding what their lifestyle would look like and how their spending habits might need to change.
The other hot issue highlighted by the ABC interview with Gingrich’s second wife Marianne is the statement that Gingrich asked her for an open marriage after he had been having an affair with Calista for six years. I want to talk about the terms being bandied around here. First of all, an open marriage is one in which both participants discuss the option of allowing other partners into their lives. It is done ethically and responsibly before another relationship is entered into.
It is a complex system to create and uphold and usually there are many rules set up beforehand to deal with issues of jealousy, attachment limitations (for example are the lovers outside to remain secondary to the primary relationship, are they to be seen outside the primary home, are they to remain secret from the children), and sexual limits (use of protection, testing for STDs, sexual behaviors that should not be shared with an outside partner, etc.). There are couples who create these types of contracts in what is termed the Polamory community. Polyamory is about loving other people including your partner as a lifestyle that you have chosen with your partner. Polyamory is distinct from people who swing, which is more about a couple knowingly having sex outside their primary relationship and quite often is done together.
For the record, Gingrich was already keeping an outside love and sexual relationship secret from his wife with Calista Gingrich at the time, so in essence if perhaps he did ask for an open marriage, it was his last ditch effort at trying to come out looking like a stand-up honest, open guy rather than a man who wanted his cake and eating it too. He was also a man who already had a track record of cheating on wives while preaching family values in public. According to an interview with his former wife who challenged what he was doing by having an affair in his private life versus the moral code he was publicly advocating, he responded: “It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live”. This is the voice of someone who is so narcissistic (that is, self-involved) that he sees himself as a chosen messenger while ignoring the feelings of anyone else around him. In other words, he believes his own press. If he wanted to be more “open” about his desires you would think that he and Marianne having begun their relationship as an affair might have reason to discuss future boundaries before they decided to wed. Perhaps they did and he broke those rule anyway.
These possible threats or changes in feelings arise within marriages and as a couples therapist I recommend couples create a Sexual Prenup™ in which they discuss what each of them expect sexually, how they differ, what compromises they might be open to, and what they consider cheating or infidelity. However, many couples who have discrepant sexual desires, or have different interests sexually have a difficult time discussing what their expectations are once they are wed. They are afraid of hurting their partner’s feelings or fearful they will lose the person they love entirely. Avoiding these issues might lead to a lifetime of sexual frustration, secret sexual relationships outside the marriage or other consequences. It is helpful to seek a therapist who can provide a safe space within which these feelings can be explored.
I also see couples after one partner discovers her/his partner has cheated and there are understandably high emotions all around and much recovery work to be done. In this day and age one partner watching porn might be considered cheating, while another partner holding hands and flirting at a bar with a stranger would not be. The agreement a couple makes to allow sexual contact with an outside person if one spouse is not interested or able to have sex might be put in the contract with the provision that protection be used and no pregnancies could ensue.
Although individuals grow and change during their marriage and people can’t see into the future, there are so many feelings that people have at the outset of a relationship that are known and never addressed that by at least talking about the white elephant or elephants in the room beforehand through the creation of a Sexual Prenup ™, a couple could set a tone of honesty and understanding that could help them manage issues before and during their marriage.