Understanding Partnership Styles
Monogamy has overwhelmingly been the primary partnership style in American history, but as times change, an increasing number of people are engaging in ethical nonmonogamy—commonly referred to as polyamory.
So, let's talk about what those terms mean. Monogamy is the practice of engaging in a relationship with just one person. Polyamory, a type of ethical or consensual nonmonogamy (CNM), is the practice of having multiple intimate relationships, sexual or romantic, with the full knowledge, understanding and consent of all partners involved. Polyamory should not be confused with polygamy, which involves marriage to more than one person and is illegal in the United States.
There is no right partnership style, and different people find that different relationship configurations work for them. Choosing the best-fitting partnership for you involves understanding the options.
The benefits and disadvantages
Both monogamy and nonmonogamy come with advantages and disadvantages that will affect your everyday life with your partner(s). It's important to remember that a relationship is work either way, and that the ebbs and flows of a relationship will come no matter what. However, one partnership style might be an overall better fit for you.
Benefits of monogamous relationships
Monogamy is the more common and socially acceptable relationship format, so it may be easier to understand and navigate than a CNM relationship. Monogamy can inspire emotional intimacy, bonding and confidence, and it may reduce stress, suspicion and jealousy. It also enables a couple's relationship to deepen, grow and flourish, perhaps because when you have only one partner, you may find it easier to devote more time to that person for a more fully realized and rewarding relationship.
As for practical benefits, being monogamous decreases the worry over contracting sexually transmitted infections from anyone outside the relationship. It also eliminates uncertainty around paternity if pregnancy occurs.
Disadvantages of monogamous relationships
Polyamorists, or individuals who have more than one partner at a time, point to greater variety in their sex life and reduced boredom. Those are issues faced by partners in any monogamous relationship, where being with the same person can get stale, sometimes leading to frustration and a desire for any kind of change to the routine.
It has been suggested—and equally disputed—that monogamy is an unnatural state to live in. Detractors of monogamy point to the animal kingdom, where few animals in the wild practice monogamy. Additionally, some people feel monogamy often results in infidelity, which, in turn, explains the extremely high divorce rate. In the United States, about 41 percent of first marriages end in divorce, and the rate of divorce in second marriages and beyond is even higher.
Benefits of polyamorous relationships
Research shows that partners in polyamorous relationships find as much satisfaction and fulfillment as those in monogamous relationships. They may even have an advantage. A 2019 study reported in Social Psychology found that polyamorous partners have both eroticism (sexual intensity and pleasure) and nurturance (comfort and security) needs met as a result of having multiple partners.
Jealousy and other unfavorable emotions are part of any romantic relationship and are no different in polyamory. However, polyamorists have to face these emotions head-on. This awareness helps them overcome their fears and judgments, allowing them to have personal growth and development. Polyamorous people also put a strong emphasis on communication as a way to build intimacy, honesty, consent and negotiation.
Compersion is a term for feelings that are diametrically opposite to jealousy: a feeling of joy experienced when a partner becomes emotionally or sexually involved with another person. In this way, polyamorists have a unique opportunity to support one another and deepen their relationships.
Disadvantages of polyamorous relationships
Finding a partner who is not only inclined to enter a polyamorous relationship but also has the same boundaries and expectations can be a challenge. As in all relationships, partners in polyamorous relationships may cheat, and this dishonesty is just as serious a threat as it is in traditional relationships. Polyamorous partners, just as in any romantic relationship, demand trust and mutual respect.
New relationship energy (NRE) is a common complication in polyamory that occurs when a new partner is welcomed into a polyamorous relationship, bringing excitement that an original long-term partner may find threatening. This endorphin-saturated experience of newness makes a new partner seem both more interesting and less flawed. NRE can contribute to either jealousy or compersion, depending on how the individuals involved handle the situation. As with any challenge to a relationship, processing NRE requires communication among all parties.
Although polyamory has grown in visibility and acceptance, it remains highly stigmatized. Many polyamorous individuals experience discrimination, and as a result often practice in secret, even hiding their relationships from close friends and family.
Polyamory, of course, isn't for everyone. It's a type of relationship that requires a lot of understanding, communication and tolerance. However, for people who feel restricted by monogamy or whose needs cannot be met by a single person, polyamorous relationships may bring a bounty of love and fulfillment.
Types of monogamy
Most people probably think of monogamy as a monolith, but you might be surprised to learn that there are different types of monogamous relationships. While these varieties might look the same to the outside observer, there are distinct differences.
Social monogamy refers to a couple that lives in a shared space. In the wild, biologists observe this when two animals share a territory. In human behavior, this type of monogamy is what we typically consider monogamous marriage.
Sexual monogamy defines a partnership that is sexually exclusive. A sexually monogamous relationship does not necessarily mean it's emotionally exclusive.
Genetic monogamy refers to a relationship in which two people exclusively share children together. This does not necessarily mean that the pair is sexually or romantically exclusive.
Is monogamy realistic?
Surely, over the course of a long-term relationship, you or your partner will likely be attracted to or develop feelings for another individual. Recent studies show that 21 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 17 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds have cheated on a partner at least once.
Of course, partners who value the commitment to their relationship might never act on those feelings, even if they do appear. And even if one or both partners did act on such feelings, that doesn't mean the commitment can't be restored. Every monogamous relationship is different, and the rules followed by one couple don't necessarily apply to another couple.
For many people, monogamy may be an ongoing, imperfect journey together. For others, monogamy may be the perfect choice for what they want out of life.
Types of polyamory
Polyamory is an umbrella term that covers multi-partner relationships of various dynamics. Polyamorous relationships can be hierarchical, with one partner being the "primary" partner, or nonhierarchical, in which all partners have equal status. For those participants with a hierarchical commitment, the following terms are used to describe the varying levels.
This is the closest relationship with a partner(s) and is given the most time, energy and priority in a person's life. This relationship includes a high level of intimacy, attraction and commitment as established by shared life paths, goals, values, ongoing emotional support and more. This level typically includes a joint desire for a shared, lifelong future together.
These are close relationship types but are given less time, energy and priority in a person's life than any primary relationship. Secondary relationships often share physical intimacy and emotional support, but involve fewer ongoing shared commitments. They can include a desire for a long-term future together.
These relationships may include emotional support or sex on a one-time or inconsistent basis. Attention and energy are given in bursts, and the relationship is not a regular part of a person's life.
Choosing a partnership style is entirely up to you and your partner. Don't let comments from others or any kind of societal pressure affect your decision. If you're in a relationship or forming a new one, be honest with your partner about your expectations. If they want to continue to date other people and you're not comfortable with that, you should speak up.
If you decide to try one route and it isn't working for you, have an honest conversation about it with your partner. If you're in a monogamous relationship and are beginning to have doubts, speak to friends or family for advice, or seek help in the form of relationship counseling. It's worth noting that 44 percent of American couples go to counseling prior to marriage, and those couples enjoy a 30 percent higher marital success rate than those who don't.
If committing to just one person makes you nervous or uncomfortable, maybe monogamy isn't realistic for you. And that's OK. On the other hand, if monogamy seems like the kind of relationship you want to create with a partner, that's OK, too. Either way, it may not be easy, but if it's what you and your partner want, then it's worth the effort to make it work.