According to biologists, sexual monogamy involves having a single sexual partner for an entire lifetime. By this definition, most human beings clearly aren’t monogamous. Nor are we alone in this respect, as monogamy is rare even among non-human animals. Although space doesn’t permit a discussion of the biological and evolutionary reasons for non-monogamous behaviors, the evidence suggests that monogamy is by and large a sociocultural phenomenon rather than a biological impulse.
In ordinary parlance, the term monogamy typically implies what is sometimes called serial monogamy, that is, a decision to engage in only one committed romantic relationship at a time. If and when such a partnership ends, an individual can then partake in a new sexual relationship and still be deemed monogamous. Since this is how most people think about monogamy, it will serve as our working understanding for the remainder of this article.
Many individuals, whether in word or deed, experience dissatisfaction with, or struggle to adhere to, the tenets of monogamy. Some will argue that sexual monogamy is simply biologically unnatural. The recent discovery that specific genes influence monogamous versus non-monogamous behavior lends credence to the notion that some people aren’t wired for monogamy, at least in a sexual sense. In addition to sexual non-monogamy, some individuals feel that their emotional needs and desires might be better satisfied through relationships with more than one partner concurrently. This is called polyamory.
The Options: Monogamy, Infidelity, Polyamory, Open Relationship
Perhaps the easiest way of classifying modern relationships is monogamy, as commonly symbolized in marriage, vs. everything else. By far the most common alternative to monogamy is infidelity or “cheating,” in which a partner who claims to be monogamous acts in non-monogamous ways, be it sexually or emotionally. In many cultures, infidelity is considered a serious offense, worthy of harsh penalties ranging from social shaming to divorce. Those who consistently struggle with monogamy are thus left with some difficult relational choices. These include:
- Remaining single / disavowing committed relationships
- Practicing infidelity
- Open relationship / marriage / swinging
For most people, staying forever single is not the preferred option. Since human beings can no longer rely on the support of a tribe or community, committed relationships have become our primary mechanism for securing emotional and social support. Not only that, but most of us want to love and be loved.
The second option, infidelity, has significant benefits—which is probably why it’s the most common alternative to monogamy—as well as a number of drawbacks. The downsides are fairly obvious—the lies, the secrets, the guilt and shame, the potential for emotional / relational harm, etc. Potential upsides include having the benefits of a committed relationship in conjunction with the novelty and passion that extradyadic involvement may bring. Indeed, some individuals credit the possibility of new lovers with keeping them fully alive and invested in life. Even if they don’t take on another lover, the mere possibility may serve as a powerful source of energy and motivation. For such persons, the prospect of strict monogamy is perceived as a serious threat to their vitality.
Monogamy may also negatively impact health and well-being for some individuals. For instance, research indicates that roughly 40% of American women suffer from sexual dysfunction and the most common disorders are associated with diminished sexual interest toward their committed partner. One wonders whether their libido wouldn’t return to healthier levels if they were single or met someone new. Same goes for common maladies like fatigue and depression. How might these relate to perceptions of one’s current relationship and its future?
Consensual Non-Monogamy: Open & Polyamorous Relationships
Up until the 1960s or so, singledom and infidelity were the only real options available for quasi or non-monogamous individuals, at least in the U.S. Since then, a couple more options have emerged—polyamory and open relationships / marriage—which are slowly gaining prevalence and acceptance. What differentiates these options from infidelity is they are consensual, that is, they are agreed upon by all involved parties. Recent data suggests that 4-5% of Americans are involved in consensual non-monogamous relationships.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of consensual non-monogamy vs. infidelity is its greater transparency. Sure, partners may still choose to keep some things private, but the overall structure of the relationship, namely, its capacity to extend beyond two people, is explicit and agreed upon.
Open relationships, including activities like swinging, are typically understood to involve extradyadic sex, while polyamorous relationships permit both sexual and emotional involvement with more than one partner. Individuals exploring open relationships must therefore consider the basic question: “Open to what?” Namely, are you interested in extradyadic sex, love, or both?
One potential drawback of polyamorous relationships is the amount of time and energy they are apt to require. Many people feel they barely have the time to maintain one intimate relationship, so the idea of adding another person to the mix may seem untenable. Of course, the same could be said of extradyadic affairs, which can be both emotionally taxing and logistically challenging.
A common argument against non-monogamy is the problem of jealousy. This is a perfectly valid concern and one that should be carefully evaluated on an individual basis. It’s certainly true that for some people feelings of jealousy can intensify to the point of becoming debilitating. Whether such persons can ever become, or learn to become, less jealous is a matter of debate. It’s also unclear whether jealousy should be deemed a healthy or unhealthy emotion. Do less jealous people have higher self-esteem, or are they simply disposed to weaker attachments? If you’re unsure of your personal propensity for jealousy, consider asking your partner to take on another lover. Even the thought of it may give you some insight into your response. The degree to which jealousy is apt to subside over time is also relevant, as what begins as intense jealousy may eventually diminish.
In the end, an individual’s decision regarding her preferred type of relationship will incorporate a host of factors such as:
- How important are intimate and sexual relationships to me?
- How important is it for me to have new sexual encounters or multiple sources of romantic love / intimacy?
- Do I have the time, energy, and resources to invest in more than one person?
- Am I a jealous person? If so, are the potential benefits of non-monogamy worth the trade-off?
- How might this decision affect my life as a whole, including my current relationship(s)?
- Are children in the picture? What role might they play?
Of course, many of us can’t answer these questions once-and-for-all fashion, but will revisit them periodically as we grow and expand our horizons. Like other aspects of life, our relational life is a journey that may include any number of twists, turns, and dead-ends. Fortunately, each new experience comes with valuable takeaways which can inform our lifelong quest for love, adventure and happiness.