Have you ever questioned if monogamous relationships made sense for you? This week, the Savvy Psychologist explores other relationship styles where all parties involved are happy, healthy, and ethical.
If you’ve been listening to my podcast, you’ve gotten used to the idea that most things are on a spectrum, and that one end of the spectrum is not superior to the other. Keep that in mind as we discuss today's topic: non-monogamy.
Ethical or consensual non-monogamy are umbrella terms for relationship styles outside of traditional monogamy. They might be unfamiliar to you—they're not often talked about in mainstream media. We are still stuck on the idea that boy meets girl and they live together happily ever after until death. We can enjoy this narrative, too—The Notebook still messes me up sometimes, and I am always introducing people to Love and Basketball.
Monogamy is great—when it works. The problem is that it’s not for everyone and we can see this in the research. One study noted that 50% of sexually active 16 to 45 year olds in America admitted to being unfaithful to their partner. We also hear all the time about how 40 to 50% of marriages end in divorce.
Now, there are a multitude of reasons that cheating or divorce happens. It would take me 100 Savvy Psychologist episodes to cover them all!
But one reason is that a percentage of people are not meant to be in monogamous relationships as we have traditionally defined them. Sometimes, the show just doesn't fit, no matter how hard you try. And it's not a weakness or an inability to commit, as we'll cover later in the episode.
I’ve seen committed married couples who have a sexual desire mismatch. One couple had a partner who wanted to abstain from sex indefinitely, while the other had an active sex drive. In all other ways they were a match, but this was a problem that they couldn’t overcome. They came to me to figure out how to engage in ethical non-monogamy. I've also seen people who may have been engaging in serial monogamy, but noticed that something felt "off" and they entered therapy to explore their relational and sexual preferences further.
What is ethical or consensual non-monogamy?
Ethical non-monogamy can be defined as responsible multi-partnering and it exists when partners decide—together—to allow having more than one sexual or romantic relationship at a time. Consent and honesty are the hallmarks of ethical non-monogamy. This is not the same as infidelity, which does not involve the consent of all parties and usually involves lying to cover up a extra-marital relationship.
Ethical non-monogamy is on a continuum that ranges from monogamish all the way to polyamory. I will define some of the main forms, but keep in mind that people who engage in these practices might label or define themselves differently.
Monogamish, Open, and Swinging
Monogamish describes a couple who is mostly monogamous, but have agreed upon situations where they can have sex with another person. One example is couples who have “hall passes”—to use a term often used in popular media.
Next is open relationships. Couples who consider themselves to be in an open relationship can display a broad range of styles. Some couples might adopt a don’t ask/don’t tell policy where it’s agreed that they can have outside relations, but neither partner wants to know the details. There are other couples in open relationships who share every detail with each other.
Swinging is generally done as a couple and is an activity that provides variety and can help the couple maintain sexual interest and excitement. Outside partners may be shared by the couple, but these partners are typically not ongoing or romantic relationships. As with any ethically non-monogamous practice, the couple discusses the boundaries upfront and agrees to them. They also periodically check in to see what is working and what is not.
Polyamory can be defined as desire for and practice of maintaining multiple intimate romantic relationships simultaneously. Individuals can be polyamorous even if they are not in a relationship, just like someone who is monogomous. Additionally, a couple can be polyamorous even if one or both of them don't have an outside partner at the time.
Polyamourous individuals sometimes engage in a relationship with a couple. Couples can have joint partners or each partner can have their significant relationships.
Some polyamorous folks believe in a heirarchy and others don’t. In a hierarchical relationship style, the individual believes in having a primary partner. For example, they might have a husband who they live with and split finances with, and a boyfriend, and a lover. The labels for each of these relationships are up to the people involved. A non-hierarchical person does not think of love in this fashion—everyone is seen as equal.
Depending on how you choose to view it, polyamory can feel super complicated; however, I choose to see it as a way to tailor you and your partner(s)' relational style to maximize happiness for all parties involved.
In addition to the relationship styles I just described, there are several other concepts you'll run into when you explore polyamory.
"Nesting" is a term used when living with a partner or partners. People who are poly may choose to nest or not. I’ve worked with patients who have multiple partners and don’t intend to live with any of them as well as those who choose to live with a partner because they have similar lifestyles and habits.
"Polycule" is a term used to describe a group of people who are connected through romantic relationships. Exclusivity is sometimes present in polyamorous relationships. "Polyfidelity" means that all partners within a group are sexual only with each other.
In polyamory, there is also the concept of "compersion," which is the opposite of jealousy. Compersion is a genuine happiness for a partner's positive experiences with other partners. Compersion doesn’t always come naturally in polyamory. Much of the work I do as a therapist is helping included partners to effectively process and reduce feelings of jealousy and move toward compersion. If you are a highly jealous person, you will definitely want to meet with a therapist prior to opening up your relationship style.
Additionally, you should never feel pressured to adopt polyamory because you meet a partner who identifies as polyamorous—it is a sure-fire way to lead to heartache. Always be clear on your motivation for engaging in a relationship style.
Other things to consider include:
- What does your ideal polyamorous relationship look like? Given how many options a person can have when engaging in polyamory, you’ll want to have a firm idea about what you’d like it to look like for you.
- Do you want to ultimately live with someone or share finances?
- Would you like some level of exclusivity?
- Do you plan to have children one day? Many poly people are having children and raising them within their polycules. As they say—it takes a village.
- How do you currently handle communication and honesty in relationships? Are you ready to upgrade your communication techniques and honesty in relationships? Are you possessive? Are you able to maintain appropriate boundaries? Do you have attachment or relationship trauma which might impact your ability to be present in a healthy manner? It’s important to answer these questions and work through any roadblocks that may arise.
Myths about Polyamory
I want to dispel a couple of myths about polyamory while we're on the subject. Something I hear often from people who don’t engage in this relationship style is that it’s easy, all about sex, or just for people who can’t commit.
Here’s the tea, folks: having multiple partners is hard work! This shouldn't be a surprise if you think about it. You're entering into relationship agreements with multiple people with the intention of honoring boundaries, being honest, and aiming for highly effective communication. All of these elements are required in order for polyamory to work. When I meet with currently monogamous couples to help them in opening up the relationship. One of my top priorities is assessing what the communication is like and making improvements where necessary.
Let’s break down the "it’s all about sex" myth. While some forms of ethical non-monogamy are purely sexual (e.g. swinging), polyamorous individuals are dating and falling in love with multiple people, there is an abundance of romance potential here. Polyamory, when done in a healthy manner, requires you to commit to multiple people. These commitments can look different based on the boundaries of those in the polycule.
Polyamory can be hard to understand because traditionally, we have an idea that there is one soulmate for everyone, and it’s hard to shake that view of romance. If monogamy doesn’t feel quite right for you, I hope this episode will help you to explore your relationship style. No matter where you land on the relationship spectrum, it’s important to uphold respect, consent, and honesty in your relationships.