The Shape of Modern Nonmonogamy
It's undoubtedly true monogamy remains the norm in many modern societies. The concept of singular romantic and sexual soulmates is still widely embraced, as suggested by the American wedding industry reportedly turning a profit of $72 billion in 2016.
However, humans are complex creatures who sometimes discover that all needs can't be met by one person. If this describes you, it doesn't mean anything is wrong—it just means you're human. In fact, despite what we see demonstrated in day-to-day life, only 17 percent of human cultures are strictly monogamous.
"Definitely, more couples are already in open relationships than anyone wants to talk about," said Nicole Rubin, L.P.C., a therapist working in private practice in Atlanta.
Though many people still believe there's no way to be simultaneously faithful and nonmonogamous, a cultural shift is underway, particularly in younger generations acknowledging new forms of relationships and embracing more progressive forms of thinking.
"I think we will continue to see people recognize that they can get their needs met from multiple partners, and especially with the mindset of millennials and Gen Z people being so much less rigid than previous generations," Rubin said. "I think in the next 20 to 30 years, we are going to see a lot of change with that stigma [against nonmonogamy]."
Types of nonmonogamy
In a 2016 survey published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, more than 20 percent of the nearly 9,000 respondents reported engaging in consensual nonmonogamy at some point in their lives. Nonmonogamy is not cut and dried, and the stipulations of a nonmonogamous relationship can vary vastly from couple to couple—or polycule to polycule, a polycule being an established relationship involving a network of nonmonogamous people. People choose different styles of nonmonogamy for a plethora of reasons.
"Reasons to choose nonmonogamy are as varied as nonmonogamous relationship dynamics," said Carlos Cavazos, L.P.C., sexologist, psychotherapist and host of the podcast "Naughtylicious."
Though nonmonogamous relationship dynamics vary greatly, they can generally be placed into some categories including but not limited to the following:
- Polyamory. In essence, polyamory is the act of having more than one romantic/sexual partner at the same time. This can look like multiple equal relationships with similar titles.
- Swinging. Swinging typically refers to the act of a couple having an open relationship, which allows them to have sex with other people. Swingers may find other sexual partners online or at swingers' clubs and events.
- Monogamish. A relatively new term, monogamish refers to couples who are romantically committed to each other but can have negotiated sexual encounters outside of the relationship—or within the relationship, such as threesomes.
"[Monogamish people] may be able to flirt with other people, have threesomes or group sex together or enjoy strip clubs together without labeling their relationship as an open one," Cavazos said.
First steps to nonmonogamy
People may choose nonmonogamy for a multitude of reasons, most of them fair and justifiable. However, it's important to do the necessary research and self-reflection to get to the "why," especially before opening up a previously monogamous relationship, to ensure you do so in a way that's fair to everyone involved. One strategy is exploring attachment styles and how they affect your relationships.
"Let's say the person is anxiously attached and their partner is avoidantly attached, and so maybe they have a great day-to-day life, but on some level, never really feel like their partner is fully emotionally present," Rubin said. "I find that, often, the person starts daydreaming or manifesting a very passionate person into their lives, and then polyamory tends to come up as they try and reorganize themselves with this new person that's meeting a need their first partner can't or won't."
It's important to remember that nonmonogamy is not a simple solution to issues within a monogamous relationship. If you notice a pattern of broken boundaries in your relationships, the root cause of this pattern needs to be addressed before you move forward with any major relationship change.
Additionally, though nonmonogamy is becoming more widely accepted, it is still judged and discriminated against in many circles of society.
"In most places, people in polyamorous relationships are unable to get married and have no legal protections for their unit," Cavazos explained. "Nonmonogamous people may also be discriminated in the workforce and deal with random nuisances like only having a plus-one invitation to an event."
This type of discrimination often stems from people being ill-informed about the inner workings of nonmonogamous relationships and, thus, not taking them seriously.
"People will always feel threatened and confused by things that they do not understand or experience themselves," Cavazos said. "People in nonmonogamous relationships often have to deal with people devaluing their relationships."
But as long as all parties are educated, respectful of boundaries and feel secure in their arrangements, nonmonogamous relationships can be ethical and successful. Make sure to do plenty of research and self-reflection, and know that you do not have to adhere to societal norms.
"At the end of the day, people in nonmonogamous relationships should remind themselves that these people's opinions are just that, opinions," Cavazos said. "They know their truth and the reality of the relationship importance and dynamics."