What Is Monogamy? Understanding Monogamous Relationships & Other Types
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Describing what monogamy is can feel like trying to describe water to a fish. Because it's such a dominant approach to love and partnership and so ingrained into the very fabric of many societies today, monogamy may seem like simply the way relationships work.
But in reality, it's simply one of many ways to approach relationships—and individuals can make the active, conscious choice to be monogamous or to choose a different path.
What is monogamy?
Monogamy is the practice of forming romantic relationships with only one partner at a time, as opposed to having multiple partners at once. A monogamous relationship is a relationship where two people date and have sex with each other exclusively, and they don't share this type of connection with anyone else outside the couple. There is romantic, sexual, and emotional exclusivity between them.
Today, monogamy is the most mainstream approach to relationships across many societies, though it's by no means universal. Various cultures across the world practice polygamy (marriage between more than two people), and historically the majority of preindustrial societies engaged in polygamy of some sort, typically in the form of polygyny (two or more women sharing a husband). Monogamy is also a rarity among other mammals, with just 3% of mammals engaging in monogamy according to one recent analysis.
"Most of us have learned that monogamy is the 'normal' or even the 'traditional' relationship style and that nonmonogamy is an alternative, when, in fact, nonmonogamous relationships like polyandry, polygyny, [and] polygamy have been around for centuries," Jayda Shuavarnnasri, M.A., a sex and love educator who teaches about nonmonogamy and supports people exploring nonmonogamous relationships, tells mbg.
While there are many theories as to why human societies transitioned from primarily polygamous to primarily monogamous, what we do know is that monogamy as the social norm is a relatively recent development in the scope of human history.
That said, in many societies today, monogamy is often treated as the default way of being in relationships. The common understanding of the way relationships form—from initial meeting, to becoming exclusive, to confessions of love, to moving in together, to eventually getting married and having kids—are all tied to the concept of monogamy, as are popular conceptions of romantic love such as finding "the one" or meeting "my other half."
Monogamy vs. nonmonogamy.
The opposite of monogamy is nonmonogamy, which includes approaches like polygamy, polyamory, open relationships, and more. Consensual or ethical nonmonogamy has grown in popularity in recent years, with more than one in five people reporting they've been in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship before.
In consensually nonmonogamous relationships, a person may have more than one romantic or sexual partner at the same time. Critically, all partners are aware of these other partners and happily agree to the dynamic—meaning it's not "cheating" but rather an intentional part of the relationship.
"Ethical nonmonogamy is based on the concept of using socially acceptable guidelines and ethically motivated tools to cultivate a relationship built on the foundation of nonmonogamy," psychotherapist Cheyenne Taylor, LMSW, recently told mbg. "ENM means not cheating or acting without the consent of your partner."
Types of nonmonogamous relationships.
Here are just a few types of nonmonogamous relationships:
- Polyamory: A way of approaching relationships wherein people may have more than one romantic or sexual relationship at the same time.
- Open relationships: Relationships where the people involved are currently open to new romantic or sexual partners. (Here's our open relationships guide.)
- Triads: A committed romantic relationship between three people, also known as a throuple. (Quads are the same but for four people.)
- Vee or "V" relationships: A relationship between three people where two people are dating the same person but are not dating each other. The shared partner is the "pivot" or "hinge" connecting the unit.
- Relationship anarchy: A way of approaching relationships wherein there are no set rules or expectations as to what is and isn't allowed in relationships, other than the rules the involved partners agree on. Typically these relationships are also nonhierarchical in nature, meaning no one partner is more important than any other partner. (Here's our full guide to relationship anarchy.)
- Monogamish: A relationship between two people that's primarily monogamous, but they may have sex with other people in certain situations—such as at sex parties, for threesomes, or on other occasions.
Is monogamy better for relationships?
Monogamy is not inherently better than nonmonogamy, nor is the opposite true, according to Shuavarnnasri. "Monogamy is great for some relationships and not for others."
Some people assume that nonmonogamous relationships are inherently less committed or less secure, but in fact, some research has found people in consensually nonmonogamous relationships actually tend to be more committed to their long-term relationships.
Here's how Shuavarnnasri explains it to mbg:
"Many people equate the word 'commitment' with 'exclusivity,' but those terms don't mean the same thing. I personally have several commitments, including my work, my family, my friends, my pets, etc. When I say I am committed to something, I mean that I consciously choose to build a relationship with that person or area of my life. Exclusivity means that I chose to only have a relationship with that one person or area. You can be committed to a partner even if you're not exclusive to them because you wake up each day and choose to nourish your relationship with them. Exclusivity isn't really a prerequisite to commitment. In fact, because I am committed to multiple fulfilling relationships (romantic or nonromantic), I am more fulfilled and supported. When I am more fulfilled and supported, it helps me show up better in my partnership, too."
They add: "Humans are complex and multidimensional, and our relationships will always reflect that. The one thing every human needs is love, but the way that we each receive it can look different."
Is monogamy better for society?
There's conflicting research on whether monogamy has had largely positive or negative effects on societies that practice it. Some common arguments about the benefits of monogamy include that it promotes gender equality (in comparison to polygamous societies, which have typically allowed men to marry multiple women but not the other way around) and that it creates a more stable environment for children. But many experts question these theories.
"Monogamous marriage has a pretty patriarchal history," Shuavarnnasri points out, adding for example: "When a girl is born into a family, she adopts her father's last name as a signal of the household that 'owns' her. The tradition of a father walking his daughter down the aisle is meant to symbolize the transfer of property to the soon-to-be-husband, which is further solidified by the bride adopting her husband's last name."
While that isn't to say that all marriages are patriarchal or that monogamous relationships are inherently oppressive toward women, Shuavarnnasri adds, it's important to note that monogamy has historically been an effective tool for systemically maintaining male dominance over women. Of course, many people today enter into monogamous relationships that are more egalitarian—but even so, the traditional division of labor in heterosexual relationships continues to have massive consequences for women's economic prospects.
Likewise, Shuavarnnasri argues that monogamy may not necessarily be the only or even the easiest context in which to raise a child.
"It's not a secret that raising a family requires a lot of work and money. With the rising cost of living, education, and housing, many millennials like myself are confronted with the reality that a dual-income household isn't enough to maintain a healthy family. This means that both parents have to work and make enough income to pay for day care since both parents spend most of their time working," they point out. "The interesting thing about nonmonogamous family dynamics is that children may have access to multiple 'parent figures' or trusted guardians that can care for them, and they do say 'It takes a village to raise a child.'"
This isn't to say that nonmonogamy is inherently better for society or families than monogamy is, Shuavarnnasri notes. Likely neither is better or worse than the other. "The best society thrives when the people within it are living their most authentic lives, whether they are monogamous or nonmonogamous."
Is monogamy right for you?
The best way to start to answer this question is to examine what your desires are in relationships and where those desires come from, says Shuavarnnasri.
"We are social creatures, and most of our ideas are imprinted from the cultures, families, and relationships we grew up with," they note. "The tricky part about monogamy is that we live in a very heteronormative monogamous culture, where every love song and every movie sends the message that we all have one true love."
That means you'll need to really dig deep to understand your own authentic desires, separate from what might be expected from you by those around you.
Here are just a few considerations to help you begin your exploration.
Reasons a person might choose monogamy:
- You prefer going deep with one person as opposed to juggling many partners.
- You enjoy feeling special and uniquely prioritized by a romantic partner.
- You struggle with maintaining many relationships at the same time, whether because of limited time or limited energy.
- You like the simplicity of having just one relationship to nurture.
- You find it easier to focus on just one partner than to try to build connections with multiple people.
- You're not necessarily interested in continuing to bring new people or important connections into your life; your life feels full with one partner.
- You prefer to minimize opportunities for jealousy.
- It's familiar and comfortable.
- It's part of your faith or culture, and that matters to you.
- Your partner prefers monogamy, and you're happy to oblige.
- It's just what feels good for you!
Signs monogamy might not be for you:
- You like the idea of having many intimate connections at the same time.
- You find yourself attracted to other people even when you're in a relationship.
- You sometimes feel limited or constrained when you're in a monogamous relationship, even when you love your partner and have a healthy relationship with them.
- You've cheated in monogamous relationships in the past—or thought about it—even when you loved your partner and felt happy with them.
- You like being able to lean into spontaneity and flirtatious energy in social situations, and it feels like you miss out on that when you're not single.
- You feel like different types of relationships fulfill different needs for you, and you'd benefit from having several different ones to meet all your needs.
- You don't mind the idea of your partner being with someone else.
- You're not a jealous person, or you're at least able to handle it levelheadedly.
- You want to have the opportunity to get to know interesting people who enter your life, even if they come along while you're dating someone else.
- You feel capable of loving and caring for multiple people at the same time.
- You enjoy having sexual experiences with new partners regularly, but you also don't want to give up having a committed, long-term romantic relationship with someone.
How to talk about monogamy with your partner.
If you're currently in a monogamous relationship and want to talk about the idea of monogamy or nonmonogamy with your partner, nonmonogamous relationship coach Effy Blue recommends starting slow.
"Start by suggesting a discussion around the concept of nonmonogamy rather than talking about opening up your current relationship and what that would look like practically," she writes at mbg. "Jumping straight into discussing your existing relationship structure can feel destabilizing or threatening, causing your partner to shut down or become defensive. Sharing an article you've read or a talk you've recently heard to kick off this discussion will eliminate potential tension around this topic."
Avoid evangelizing about the benefits of nonmonogamy, she adds—simply come with a balanced, thought-out perspective on the idea that's open for discussion. Talk about what you each think about monogamy as an approach to relationships as opposed to other, nonmonogamous approaches. It may also help to discuss how you each define what a relationship means to you in general.
(Here's Blue's full guide to talking about open relationships with a partner.)
The bottom line.
Monogamy is a relationship structure between two people that is romantically and sexually exclusive; that is, they don't engage in this type of relationship with anyone else. In comparison, people in nonmonogamous relationships may have more than one romantic or sexual partner at a given time.
Both monogamy and nonmonogamy can yield healthy, happy relationships for those involved. It's just a matter of personal desires, needs, and preferences.
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