Non-monogamous and monogamish relationships are having a bit of moment. Whether it’s someone you know or your favorite TV character (I see you, Ilana Wexler), people are opening up about their open relationships. One study asserts that five percent of Americans are admittedly non-monogamous, while another concludes approximately 21 percent of American adults have participated in a non-monogamous relationship at some point. These discrepancies may be accounted for by the fact that, for many, the mere mention of non-monogamy or an open relationship may prompt them to, well… close up. Even the most diehard of monogamists may have something to gain by learning about relationships where the cardinal rule of coupledom isn’t a rule at all.
It might be best to start with a little vocabulary lesson, because, believe it or not, the world of non-monogamy has a lot of labels. For the purposes of this lesson, we’re going to start with three: ethical non-monogamy, polyamory, and open relationships. Gracie X, author of Wide Open: My Adventures in Polyamory, Open Marriage And Loving on My Own Terms, describes ethical non-monogamy as “a blanket term for all forms of transparent, consensual personal relationships in which some or all participants have multiple marital, sexual and/or romantic partners and in which clear boundaries and agreements are observed.”
But what about polyamory? Amy*, 25, is a writer who identifies as polyamorous, which is not necessarily the same as being in an open relationship. Amy came to polyamory after experimenting with various forms of non-exclusive relationships and practices what she calls “solo-polyamory,” which means “you are always presenting yourself as single, and you can have whatever kind of relationship you want within that frame. [You’re] not necessarily giving one [partner] more access than another,” she explains. In an open relationship, “you may have a primary partner with whom you have a more traditional relationship. You may have a secondary [who] you go on dates with, but won’t live with, [and a] tertiary that you [don’t] see that often, and it may just be physical,” she goes on.
For Amy, it was the hierarchy intrinsic to open relationships that proved problematic for her, and why she chooses polyamory instead. “The biggest problem I had with [open relationships] was ranking partners,” she admits. And while Amy is not totally shut off to the idea of a monogamous relationship, she thinks it’s “a lot to put on one person that they’re going to be your everything forever and ever. Your have different areas of your life. Why would you also expect one partner to share all of [them] with you?” Amy asks. She also asserts that “the biggest problems [that] people have with monogamy are honesty and communication. In most forms of ethical non-monogamy and polyamory, those things are huge, you are constantly talking to your partner about your other partners.” All of this brings us to another buzzword: compersion, or the experience of happiness because someone else is making your partner happy. If exclusivity isn’t the defining element of non-monogamous relationships, then maybe compersion is.
But how does all of this work in practice? Tom,* 34 works in tech and has been practicing non-monogamy for about 15 years in the form of open relationships, for which he has a set of rules. “There [are] two issues as I see it: one is a personal code of conduct that applies to you whether you’re in a relationship or not, and the other is the rules of any given relationship. Some people draw a distinction between the rules, [the] things you can’t do, and the boundaries, the things I will not do and will not stand for,” he explains. So while there’s no set rulebook to speak of — not that there is for monogamous relationships either — Tom places a heavy emphasis on safe sex practices and constant and transparent communication. “In general I don’t sleep with anyone who hasn’t been tested in the past 2 years or doesn’t have safe sex practices as or more stringent than mine,” he says. “The other thing that I would like to know is if [a potential partner] is part of a community that we share, [and] if they’re sleeping with someone that I know,” he goes on.
Like Amy, Tom isn’t opposed to the idea of monogamy as a whole. “The only type of monogamy I’m absolutely opposed to is monogamy by default, where it’s not talked about.” Indeed, monogamy is often taken for granted in even the most modern of courtships, and oftentimes, us monogamous folk rely on it as the strongest indicator of a healthy relationship or as a substitution for actually talking about how we feel about each other. To put it bluntly, just because you’re not cheating doesn’t mean you’re not miserable. One could even make the case that in the absence of sexual exclusivity, ethically non-monogamous partners have no choice but to set the bar higher when it comes to how they communicate.
For some, non-monogamy isn’t at all a choice, and monogamy is definitely not on the table. Andrew*, 40, struggled with monogamy for much of his young adult life. “I’d always been a serial monogamist, since I was a teen. My pattern was I dated a lot of people and at some point, a year or two into the relationship, when things were going really well, I started feeling really restless,” he explains. For Andrew, finding and embracing ethical non-monogamy was a coming out of sorts. “I have come to believe that polyamory is a type of sexual orientation,” he says. Andrew also notes that there is a common “refrain” amongst people who discover ethical non-monogamy that goes something like “‘I thought I was the only one like this.’” Andrew admittedly spent many years of his life thinking that something was wrong with him. “I used to feel was that I didn’t love enough,” he confesses, but now he has come to embrace his polyamory as the abundance of love instead of a deficit.
Like the other individuals with whom I spoke, Andrew pointed to a sort of “radical honesty” as the hallmark of ethical non-monogamy. Andrew’s current relationship, which is open, is particularly unique for the fact that his partner does did not identify as non-monogamous, nor had she practiced before they met. Fortunately for Andrew, his partner has been incredibly proactive, not only for her own understanding but to support Andrew embrace what he regards as his sexual identity. “The difference between my girlfriend and me is that she thinks the idea of having sex with other people is super exciting, and I think the idea of being romantic with other people is super exciting,” he says. So in their relationship, they may go to a sex party together, but whereas Andrew may go on individual dates with other women, his girlfriend does not. They keep things healthy with monthly “check-ins” to see how the other is feeling — a commonly held practice in polyamorous communities, according to Andrew — and to deal with things like jealousy. Indeed, the green-eyed monster can still rear its head in an open relationship, but as Andrew explains, “instead of [being] this thing in the dark where it can fester and mutate, [jealousy] is out in the open,” and thoroughly addressed.
Whether or not ethical non-monogamy appeals to you, understanding how these kind of relationships function may help your own chances at a healthy one, monogamous or otherwise. Are you relying too much on sexual exclusivity to define you and your partner’s happiness or your relationship’s success? Are you communicating enough and about the right things? And monogamy aside, what kind of relationship do you want and what aspects of it are most important to you?