Out On The Couch
By Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT
Consensual non-monogamy is a relationship style in which all individuals within the relationship agree to not being monogamous, and all individuals involved in the relationship are aware that it is not a monogamous relationship. Consensual non-monogamy makes up about 4-5% of the population in the United States (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, & Chopkin, 2015). This means that approximately thirteen million to sixteen million people are involved in consensual non-monogamous relationships. This number includes people who are in swinging relationships, polyamorous relationships, or other forms of open relationships.
Consensual non-monogamy is a vast umbrella term, encompassing many kinds of relationships. Within these kinds of relationships (such as swinging, polyamorous, and monogamish relationships), there are an infinite number of ways to navigate the relationship in an ethical manner. There is no “one right way” to be in a consensual non-monogamous relationship (other than the fact that all people involved in the relationship should be knowledgeable about the relationship structure and agree to this structure willingly). Therefore, it is important to remember that this article is in no way intended to be an exhaustive list of non-monogamy; it is merely meant to be a brief introduction to some of these topics.
Different types of consensual non-monogamy have different kinds of relationship rules. When attempting to navigate a non-monogamous relationship ethically, it is important for everyone involved in the relationship to have a mutual understanding and agree to the terms of the relationship. There are many types of consensual non-monogamous relationships, and each individual relationship will vary on their agreements, structure, and openness. Consensual non-monogamy is not cheating, and should not be confused with affairs or infidelity. However, if a relationship agreement between two people is broken, this may be a form of cheating within the relationship. Breaking an agreement can be a huge breach of trust within the consensual non-monogamous relationship, just as much as an affair would be a breach of trust in a monogamous relationship.
Swinging is a form of consensual non-monogamy in which both singles and couples in a committed relationship can explore sexual activities with others recreationally or socially. Couples that swing generally have agreements that they have an open relationship sexually, but do not have an open relationship emotionally or romantically. Swingers will often attend social events at swingers’ clubs, conventions, or swinging resorts, and may pursue sexual relationships with others while their partners are present (Matsick, Conley, Ziegler, Moors, & Rubin, 2014). They may also attend private parties for swingers, often taking place in someone’s personal residence, or may go on a date with another couple before engaging in sexual activities.
Monogamish is a term originally coined by Dan Savage. This describes couples who are committed to each other and are generally monogamous, but will allow for certain sexual exceptions to monogamy. For example, if one partner travels often for work, the couple may have an agreement that one-night stands can occur if the partners are at least 100 miles apart. Another couple may have an agreement that they are allowed to make out with friends at parties. Yet another couple may describe themselves as monogamish because they are allowed to flirt with and attempt to seduce strangers occasionally.
Polyamory is a relationship style centered on the belief that it is possible to love more than one person. The word polyamory comes from the combination of the Greek word for “many” and the Latin word for “love.” Literally translated, polyamory means “many loves” or “more than one love” (Anapol, 2010; Klesse 2006). Polyamorous relationships often involve having more than one romantic relationship simultaneously, with full knowledge and consent of all the partners involved. Polyamory also differs from polygamy, which is a religious-based form of non-monogamy. Elisabeth Sheff (2014) estimates that there are somewhere between 1.2 to 9.8 million polyamorous people living in the United States. In the past, the terms “polyamory” or “polyamorous” would be shortened to “poly.” However, this term is beginning to fall away, as individuals who identify as Polynesian also tend to utilize the term Poly. Therefore, the polyamorous community is beginning to transition into using “polyam” or “polya” for short.
Polyamorous individuals can also be swingers, and swingers can also be polyamorous; one type of relationship style does not negate another. Relationship styles can also alter over time; perhaps a previously monogamous couple begins swinging, and then one partner realizes they have romantic feelings for someone and would like to explore polyamory. Every relationship will navigate these changes differently, and people may or may not stay together through these relationship changes.
It is important to note that a person’s relationship style is not an indication of their gender or sexual orientation. People of any gender or sexual orientation can be involved in consensual non-monogamous relationships for a multitude of reasons. Some bisexual individuals may engage in consensual non-monogamy in order to have simultaneous relationships with partners of different genders, while other authors have noted that, as heterosexual women, they favor polyamory due to their perception of inherent patriarchal beliefs behind monogamy (Moss, 2012; Jackson & Scott, 2004). Other individuals may engage in polyamory for different reasons. For example, someone on the asexual spectrum may choose to be polyamorous in order to have multiple loving relationships without the pressure of fulfilling their partners’ sexual needs. Therefore, it is important to remember that people of all gender identities and sexual orientations may engage in any form of consensual non-monogamy.
Learn More from Stephanie M. Sullivan
Anapol, D. (2010). Polyamory in the twenty-first century: Love and intimacy with multiple partners. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Klesse, C. (2006). Polyamory and its ‘others’: Contesting the terms of non-monogamy. Sexualities, 9(5), 565-583. doi:10.1177/1363460706069986
Matsick, J. L., Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., & Rubin, J. D. (2014). Love and sex: Polyamorous relationships are perceived more favourably than swinging and open relationships. Psychology & Sexuality, 5(4), 339-348. doi:10.1080/19419899.2013.832934
Moors, A. C., Conley, T. D., Edelstein, R. S., & Chopkin, W. J. (2015). Attached to monogamy? Avoidance predicts willingness to engage (but not actual engagement) in consensual non-monogamy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 222-240. doi:10.1177/0265407514529065
Moss, A. R. (2012). Alternative families, alternative lives: Married women doing bisexuality. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 8, 405-427. doi:10.1080/1550428X.2012.729946
Jackson, S. & Scott, S. (2004). The personal is still political: Heterosexuality, feminism and monogamy. Feminism & Psychology, 14(1), 151-157. doi:10.1177/0959-353504040317
Sheff, E. (2014). The polyamorists next door: Inside multiple-partner relationships and families. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.