There is no one way to make a relationship succeed. Similarly, there is no one correct format for a romantic relationship. Over the past few centuries in the Judeo-Christian West, the norm has been the heteronormative relationship. Basically, this is a marriage between one man and one woman. This model is often held as the blueprint for a modern, moral, effective relationship. Even same-sex marriages, only recently legalized, generally stick to a monogamous model. However, alternative relationship types have made their case as being equivalent, rather than better or worse. Polyamorous relationships are perhaps the most popular example.
More and more people are becoming open to relationships that are not limited to two people, that follow a different set of rules, and that are not proscribed by a societal definition. The psychological world is becoming more attuned to the needs of people in polyamorous relationships and those who identify themselves as polyamorous may wish to see a therapist who specializes in polyamory.
What are Polyamorous Relationships?
Polyamory is an umbrella term for consensual non-monogamous relationships. Polyamorous relationships do not follow the rules or expectations of monogamy.
Polyamory refers to the practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the consent of all the people involved. There is no specific definition of how a polyamorous relationship should look. To give you an idea, it generally involves a rejection of monogamy, a capacity for loving more than one person, and an extraordinary ability to overcome jealousy.
Polyamory vs Monogamy
There are some fundamental differences between polyamory and monogamy.
In a monogamous relationship, extramarital sex is prohibited. In fact, a monogamous partner may even see emotional investment in another person as infidelity. Members of polyamorous relationships, on the other hand, are at the least open to sex with other people and multiple relationships are totally acceptable. Some polyamorous relationships simply allow for it, while others go as far as to encourage it.
Furthermore, a monogamous relationship is by definition between two people only. In strong contrast to this, polyamorous relationships are generally made up of three or more people.
Polyamorous Relationships: What It’s Not
There are many misconceptions about polyamorous relationships. This is in part due to the fact that the term is only loosely defined. It is an umbrella term, rather than a specific description of any one type of relationship.
People often confuse the following types of relationships with polyamory.
Polygamy vs Polyamory
Polygamy describes a relationship in which one member has multiple spouses. Polygamous relationships, in general, are between one man and multiple wives. Polygamy tends to have a more religious basis. It follows the example that was set by many Old Testament prophets such as Abraham, David and Solomon. In Judeo-Christian law, a man is allowed to have multiple wives, while a woman can only be married to one man.
In the United States, polygamy is generally only practiced by members of the Mormon faith. Although common law marriage to more than one person is illegal.
Polyamory, on the other hand, refers to relationships between two or more people of any gender. It is not defined by marriage and commonly has nothing to do with religion. While polygamists tend to have hierarchies concerning the man and his various wives, members of polyamorous relationships are all viewed as equals.
Polyamorous relationships are not the same as open relationships. Even though, technically, open relationships can fall under the umbrella term of polyamory.
Open relationships refer to relationships between two people, who stipulate that sex with people outside the relationship is permitted (with certain boundaries in place). Open relationships are actually quite similar to monogamous relationships. While sex with other people is allowed, emotional intimacy is often limited to the couple.
We have recently seen public discourse challenge monogamy; messages noting it as unnatural, unrealistic, and breeding infidelity. In a New York Times article, Dan Savage discussed the benefits of a monogamish relationship, including the potential for preventing infidelity. Others have provided evidence that polyamory may be good for you.
Despite this, the majority of people of all sexual identities still place a lot of value in monogamy and negative stereotypes around consensual non-monogamy runs high.
What if couples who wanted to be monogamous could use some of the principles of polyamory in monogamy? I think they can…and I’ll tell you how. But first, a little background.
Polyamory is a relationship where all partners involved agree on loving sexual and emotional relationships with others. That isn’t the only type of consensual non-monogamy. There is also swinging, which is where partners agree on sexual relationships with others, typically engaged in as a couple and often at parties dedicated to this event. And there is also an open relationship, where partners agree on sexual engagements with others, typically with the expectation that, unlike polyamory, love is not part of the equation. All of this is vastly different from infidelity or cheating, where one person is stepping out of the agreed-upon bounds of the relationship. Prevalence rates of consensual non-monogamy have been noted to be between 4% and 11%. For people who are open to consensual non-monogamy, it works. Consensual non-monogamous couples report high levels of trust, communication, and satisfaction But it isn’t for everyone.
A recent issue of Psychological Inquiry provided a number of scientific articles about the current state of monogamy and marriage. One paper in particular outlined how most of us are guilty of psychologically and emotionally suffocating our romantic partners in monogamous relationships. Another offered a solution to this problem in the form of consensual non-monogamy.6 Although their paper was incredibly interesting and made a great case for embarking upon a polyamorous relationship, its applicability may be limited to people who are open to consensual non-monogamy. And we know this isn’t the majority of people. So here is how these principles can be applied to monogamous relationships while retaining monogamy:
Don’t expect one person to meet all of your needs.
We expect so much from our partners. We want them to be our best friend, our confidant, our lover, caretaker, and a number of other things all at once. This isn’t possible to get from one person. Find other people to meet some of those needs. Lifting some of the weight from your partner can provide more room to be good at just a couple of those things. Do you love to play tennis but your partner hates it and only does it for you? Find another tennis buddy. Could some of your emotional needs be met by a good friend or family member? Let them play a larger role. Do you want sex more than your partner or vice versa? Meet in the middle, and if you’re the one who wants more sex, masturbate in between.
Engage in open and honest communication.
One of the things people in consensual non-monogamous relationships do best is communicate. They have to. It is imperitive to the success of the relationship to be open, honest, and effective communicators. This doesn’t just happen overnight. Communication takes practice and effort from both parties. But it is worth the work. Communication has been linked to sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, sexual desire, and the list goes on. Communicate. It is just a good habit to form. Within polyamorous relationships, this communication is often scheduled. Monogamous couples could benefit from this approach. By scheduling time to ‘check in’ with one another, you offer the opportunity to communicate rather than interrupting the flow of the relationship. Open communication then becomes a natual part of that flow.
Integrate some “space” into your relationship.
This should come more easily once you engage in the first suggestion. But in addition to finding other people to meet your needs, perhaps form new hobbies independent of one another. When your partner is doing something where they exert their autonomy, it enhances the feeling of your partner being their own individual, which in turn may enhance desire. You could also create actual space by arrange a trip with the guys or girls for the weekend and leave your partner behind. Providing there is a primarily secure attachment and healthy relational base, this space will create room for desire. As Esther Perel says in her TED Talk and articulates in her book, Mating in Captivity, fire needs air. Desire is like fire. For it to stay lit, it needs some air, some space.
If you feel that none of these strategies are quite enough for you and you become interested in discussing the options of consensual non-monogamy with your partner, improving these pieces of your relationship will be a great start. There are a few other Psychology Today articles about navigating consensual non-monogamy, and you can check them out here, here, and here.
Integrating consensual non-monogamy principles into monogamous relationships offers the potential for some of the benefits of non-monogamy to be integrated into the lives of many. Improving these relational components also provides the opportunity to improve the sexual components of your relationship. Managing expectations, engaging in open honest communication, and allowing for some space in your relationship are all great suggestions for keeping any type of romantic relationship healthy and happy.