It makes sense why "what is monogamy?" feels like a trick question, considering how it's been culturally, socially, and systematically ingrained into our modern, Westernized understanding and definition of relationships. But just because it's the majority norm and narrative doesn't mean it's the only way to be romantically involved with another person.
Throw it back to the very foundation of the United States which, despite the separation of church and sate, was largely based on religion. "Observance of Christian-model monogamy was made to stand for customary boundaries in society, morality, and civilization; [it] became a synecdoche for everything valued in the American way of life," explains historian Nancy Cott, PhD, professor of American History at Harvard University in her book Public Vows: A History of Marriage.
Basically, religious underpinnings lingered and influenced culture, making monogamous, single-partner marriages the prevailing norm and social narrative for relationships. Similarly, most of the systems in the U.S. today are built upon the structure of monogamy.
Take your tax documents, for instance. "There isn't a tax structure for three parents or three or four people in a relationship," says Dr. Jenni Skyler, PhD, an AASECT-certified sex therapist and director of The Intimacy Institute. "It was constructed for a monogamous couple."
There's also a biological component to why you were taught that monogamy is the right way to have a relationship: the need to feel safe and survive. "The sense of security—emotionally, logistically, and financially—that a two-person household brings to the family is a key component in terms of what has been the norm for a while," explains Dr. Skyler.
And of course, you can't forget about the long-standing shame and stigma surrounding other relationship types. Being in a relationship construct that's not the majority feels othering, Skyler says. When it comes to non-monogamous relationships, "we're still catching up to that being an understandable and accepted option in our culture and society," she adds.
Nowadays, "people are becoming more conscious of the kind of relationship structure that they want to be in, and which one they'll thrive in," says Dr. Megan Fleming, PhD, a sex and relationship expert based in New York City. Ultimately, it's your own decision to choose monogamy or a different kind of relationship.
So, what is monogamy?
You can look at monogamy in two ways: clinically, and culturally. Clinically, monogamy is having one partner for life, explains Skyler. Some religious people decide to wait for marriage and never date anyone except the person they marry.
But culturally, monogamy is defined as sexual and emotional exclusivity and only being with one partner at a time.
While monogamy appears to be the most common relationship style in the U.S., various cultures and societies around the world don't carry out the practice. Polygamy is widespread in a cluster of countries in West and Central Africa, including Burkina Faso, Mali, and Nigeria, according to a Pew Research Study. TLC's reality series, Sister Wives, has followed the polygamist Brown family from Utah around since 2010 as well.
And in the true clinical sense where monogamy is mating for life, "very few of us actually do that," says Skyler. "What we do is serial monogamy, where we date one person exclusively, break up, then date another person exclusively."
So, if you look at it that way, you're actually not really designed for true monogamy, Skyler adds. "We're designed to evaluate many people before we sort of settle down and then we're designed to shift and change and need different things."
Monogamy vs. Non-monogamy
The exact opposite of monogamy is non-monogamy, meaning no exclusivity—emotionally and/or sexually—in a relationship. Ethical, or consensual, non-monogamy (ENM) is an established transparency and agreement between partners to have more than one romantic or sexual partner at the same time. "It's not cheating; rather [it's] an intentional part of the relationship, so there are no secrets and no going behind backs," says Skyler.
You might've noticed ENM or other kinds of open relationship structures rise in popularity. "As there's more visibility in society, social media, and news, people realize it's a relationship option to consider," Skyler says of the trend.
Anecdotally, she adds, "I've seen a lot of couples or partnerships where they agree to ethical non-monogamy, and it's a way to really get their sexual and emotional needs diversely met."
That said, ENM is just one of many different approaches to a non-monogamous relationship.
Other types of non-monogamous relationships include:
- Polyamory: Having more than one romantic and/or sexual relationship at the same time. Usually there's an emotional component, so it's like having intimate and committed relationships with multiple people, according to Skyler.
- Open Relationship: An umbrella term for different types of non-exclusive relationships, says Skyler. Generally, open relationships involve an agreement that each partner can have sex with other people, under various conditions and with specific limitations, while keeping the primary relationship as the first priority.
- Triad: Also known as a throuple, this is a committed relationship between three people. Usually it's defined as a type of polyamory, says Skyler.
- Relationship Anarchy: The rejection of all rules, expectations, or norms, other than the ones established by the people in the relationship.
- Monogam-ish: A mostly monogamous relationship but, on occasion, open to sex outside the relationship. "Usually, it's more recreational because it's on occasion and not a consistent, romantic, or emotional attachment the way polyamory is," says Skyler.
- Situationship: A romantic and/or sexual arrangement without defining or labeling the relationship. "A situationship lacks commitment and the associated norms and expectations," sociologist Jess Carbino, PhD previously told Women's Health.
Is monogamy right for you?
Figuring out which kind of relationship structure is best-suited to your needs and wants can be overwhelming, especially if you've lived your life thinking there's only one way to have a relationship. But, like gender identity and sexuality, there's been a greater cultural shift toward acceptance and exploration to discover what works for you.
"Like sex, anal's not a neutral word. Most people have feelings about it, whether or not they've actually tried it," says Fleming. The same thing goes for different kinds of relationships—like non-monogamy, polyamory, triad, and the like. "It's experiential learning," says Fleming, meaning you might need to try various relationship types in order to find your best fit.
In need of some assistance? You can use these expert-approved checklists to find out whether or not monogamy might be the right choice for you:
Reasons a person might choose monogamy
- You feel safe being with one person, both emotionally and physically.
- It's easier to build a connection and be vulnerable with just one person.
- You form strong attachments.
- You're more anxious.
- You don't like feeling jealous, or tend to get jealous easily.
- You like the security and stability of a committed relationship.
- It's part of your faith and culture.
- You like feeling special and being a priority.
- You like knowing you have a partner who solely chose you, and vice versa.
- You're just wired that way.
One way to have a better relationship with your S.O. is by understanding each other's love languages...
Signs monogamy might not be for you
- You have a tendency to cheat/have cheated in the past.
- You're not a jealous person.
- You like having emotional, intimate connections with multiple people.
- You feel constrained in monogamous relationships.
- You're okay with your partner being with someone else.
- You like to explore different sexual experiences.
- You're not ready to commit to being with one person.
- You're attracted to multiple people.
- You don't mind being physically involved with more than one person.
- You don't think there's only one person who can fulfill everything you want in a partner.
How to talk to your partner about monogamy:
Communication is key to all relationships–monogamous or not. If it's early in the connection, find out each other's expectations when it comes to exclusivity. Ask questions like, "What's your relationship style?" or "What are your terms of exclusivity?," suggests Skyler. If you're not on the same page, "Don't go wasting time and energy on this person to change them—in either direction," says Skyler.
It gets a li'l trickier when you're already in an established relationship. Every couple is different, but if you have a very open, easy, communication pattern with your partner, then you can share your curiosity like, "I was thinking about this...what are your thoughts?" and have it be more of an evolving conversation, suggests Skyler.
For couples who don't talk as openly about sex or fantasies, it's likely a tough conversation to bring up. "My invitation is to say, 'Hey, I'd love to sit down with you at some point and talk about something I've been kicking around, when is good for you?' which is sort of my protocol for all hard conversations," says Skyler. Find a time when you're both calm and grounded and uninterrupted to introduce something new to your relationship.
Whether you're moving from monogamous to open, or from open to monogamous, don't stigmatize either side. "I always say to my monogamous clients that there's a lot to learn from the open community," says Skyler. "In order for open to work successfully, there has to be a lot of trust, transparency, and communication. But that's true for monogamy, too– you can't just keep your mouth shut and assume because you're monogamous, it's safe. That's when cheating and secrets happen."
Monogamous or not, communication, trust, and transparency make or break any type of relationship structure.