Since Dan Savage, sex advice columnist and creator of the It Gets Better Project, spoke to the New York Times about various relationship structures, the blogosphere has been buzzing about monogamy. Is monogamy the source of marital misery? Is an open-relationship an excuse for promiscuity? While I am happy to see more open discussion about monogamy, something that is usually assumed and taken for granted, I find it useful to be clear about the definitions we use for monogamy and other relationship structures.
The simplest definition of monogamy makes sense when you consider its etymology: mono (one) + gamy (love). Thus, a monogamous relationship is one in which two partners are romantically and sexually exclusive. Although monogamy has co-existed throughout history with other common relationship structures, namely polygamy (poly [many] + gamy [loves]; i.e., one husband with multiple wives), we often think and talk about monogamy in the United States as if it has existed since the dawn of time.
Infidelity Vs. Non-Monogamy
It is first crucial to highlight an important distinction among the various relationship structures that fall under the larger umbrella of “non-monogamy.” Relationships that are defined, or at least assumed to be, as monogamous between two people, but that actually entail one or both partners engaging in sexual or romantic relations with someone other than their partner, are examples of infidelity. That is, these are cases in which one partner is “unfaithful” to the other. Such relationships are distinct, then, from those in which romantic and sexual partners open and honestly agree to non-monogamy — consensual non-monogamy.
There are two main types of consensual non-monogamy: open relationships and polyamory. Open relationships, like monogamous relationships, typically entail two partners who may be romantically exclusive; however, unlike monogamous relationships, partners in open relationships have consensually agreed to be open to sexual and romantic encounters with other individuals. Polyamorous relationships, as the prefix poly- implies, include multiple romantic partners. While many often think that this implies orgies and casual sex with multiple partners, many polyamorous partners practice polyfidelity — that is, they are romantically and sexually exclusive to their partners. So, for example, swingers’ relationships might be defined as open relationships, but not as polyamorous relationships.
The Changing Nature Of Monogamy
Sex, intimacy, relationships, marriage, divorce, dating, and so forth have all changed over time, and continue to change in this new millennium. Although non-monogamous relationships are gaining more visibility (like coverage in the widely-read New York Times!), it appears that monogamous relationships continue to be the most common and most socially valued relationship structure. In fact, a recent study in Family Process journal suggests that monogamy is on the rise in the United States among heterosexuals, lesbian women, and gay men. However, these findings should be interpreted with caution: this conclusion is based on two samples of data, one from 1975 and another from 2000, so we don’t know whether there was ever a downward trend between these years, and whether monogamy continues to rise since 2000.
Relationships, Communication, And Health
Regardless of one’s chosen relationship structure, it is crucial that partners are open and honest in negotiating the boundaries of their relationship and strategies to maintain each others’ health and the health of the relationship. Because of societal values or norms within one’s community, individuals sometimes feel pressured to enter one relationship structure over others. However, I advocate for individuals to be honest with themselves and their partners about what is best for them romantically, sexually, and emotionally.