The world we live in is constantly concerned with deciding what is normal and acceptable, especially when it comes to love and sex. We learn sexual norms early, we learn them deeply, and we learn them so subtly and with such memory-smothering shame that it takes years to untangle and change our attitudes around sex and sexuality. And among many, many other things, we have been taught to mistrust and fear non-monogamy.
I happen to love untangling things.
First, let’s define our terms – with the understanding that these are all broad terms, with many exceptions, various ways of practicing, and much overlap.
- Monogamy: Describes relationships that are romantically and/or sexually exclusive, typically between two people.
- Compulsory monogamy: The societal norm, reinforced by institutions like marriage, that assumes everyone will be and should be monogamous in their relationships.
- Consensual non-monogamy: An umbrella term describing relationships in which all parties choose, with full communication and consent, to have the option of engaging in sexual and/or romantic connections with multiple people. This can mean swinging, multi-person relationships, a “monogamish” open relationship in which two people are still each other’s primary partners, or infinite other variations.
- Polyamory: A type of non-monogamous relationship in which all parties can have sexual and/or romantic relationships with other partners, usually with an emphasis on ethical, communicative, and consensual practice. Sometimes used interchangeably with “consensual non-monogamy.” “Poly” relationships, like all other relationships, can vary in as many ways as the individuals who practice them.
- Open relationship: An agreement, often between two partners, in which one or both partners have the option of exploring romantic or sexual encounters with others. This type of relationship often distinguishes itself from polyamory more generally by existing primarily between two partners who may or may not tell each other about their experiences outside of the pair.
This list is limited, as any list or blog post introducing non-monogamy must be. I do want to point out that most of the terms are simply relationship styles, with the notable exception of “compulsory monogamy,” which is not an individual choice or preference but rather a broader societal attitude that is reinforced through various systems and institutions.
Compulsory monogamy does not allow us to choose the relationship style that works best for us and for our relationships. Monogamy can be the right choice—but how much more powerful could it be when it is a choice that a couple arrives at from a place of mutual understanding and communication?
When we accept monogamy as both default and correct, we assume relationships are so fragile that a single encounter with someone else can destroy them. We eliminate the possibility of learning valuable lessons from other partners about our own needs and desires. And we cut off opportunities for meaningful discussion between partners about their experiences with challenges that face all relationships: jealousy, differing levels of commitment, fear that the other person might leave.
This brings us to the roots of what people are scared of when they think about non-monogamous relationships. Concern number one? Jealousy, of course. We give jealousy a shocking amount of power over our romantic relationships. In fact, the assumption that monogamy is the default setting normalizes the dangerous idea that jealousy is an acceptable indicator of love. Jealousy is certainly normal, and exists in monogamous relationships and non-monogamous relationships alike. But it is not a healthy way to express love. And we don’t allow jealousy to dictate our friendships or our family dynamics in the same universal way; having multiple friends, or multiple children in one family is certainly considered normal.
As sex educator Reid Mihalko writes in a fantastic blog post on the subject, “We all have moments of jealousy and envy. Because of this, ignoring or pretending it doesn’t exists makes no sense. What does make sense is to learn to handle the triggers and the emotions around jealousy, rather than always trying to avoid and escape.” Regardless of the boundaries you set, jealousy is something that must be confronted and worked through, rather than allowing it to overwhelm us and make decisions for us.
It is also important to own the suffering that compulsory monogamy causes for those who do not feel they fit into the traditional mold of monogamous, two-person relationships. As with any sexual or romantic identity that falls outside of what we’re taught is normal/okay/acceptable, insecurities, confusion, and social isolation can present challenges for the many people for whom polyamory is a part of their sexual identity. And even when someone owns, explores, and understands that identity, as we all must do with our sexual identities and preferences, they are still likely to be denied the full social acceptance and institutional support that monogamous couples are privileged to receive. Marriage is a clear example, with all of the benefits it offers to couples when it comes to shared decision-making around child rearing, finances, travel, healthcare, and more.
So how do you start to break out of monogamous relationship practices? How do you navigate non-monogamy? There are, in fact, as many ways to be in a relationship as there are people. That’s why it’s incredibly important for all relationships, of all kinds, to establish a base of open and honest communication. This means first working to understand what your concerns and fears are, as well as the desires and interests driving your decision to try non-monogamy. For many, it also means setting guidelines with their partner/s, which may also come out of that preliminary personal reflection.
Some of the questions that guide open relationship rule-setting include: Can you have relationships with others, or only flings? Do you want to bring other people into your sexual or romantic settings? Do you want to know about each other’s outside liaisons? If so, when and how will you disclose to each other? What are the rules around safer sex methods like condoms? The list of questions goes on and on, and it forms itself around your concerns, needs, and desires. And sharing deeply with a partner or partners can put you in a position of intense vulnerability. If you struggle with these conversations, try practicing with a friend or in front of the mirror. This blog post also gives great perspective on how to guide yourself in some of the compromises inherent to any relationship, and particularly a non-monogamous one.
Choice is powerful. It strengthens relationships. What would it be like if every relationship started with so many options, so many questions, that it was necessarily built on communication and equitable decision-making instead of on assumptions? Let’s not forget that a consensually non-monogamous arrangement is, in and of itself, about choice as well. Knowing that you have freedom in your relationship is important, and whatever shape that freedom takes, you can choose whether or not to exercise it. Some people maintain open or polyamorous relationships simply because they feel more comfortable in a relationship knowing it reflects their values. This, of course, does not mean that there is something inherently wrong with practicing monogamy. It may be right for you, or your friend, or every character in every rom-com and sit-com ever. But it’s time we stop assuming it’s right for everyone.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.