We’ve grown up with the same fairy tales, movies, and books where the main character finds their “one true love” and lives happily ever after. While monogamy currently serves as the cultural standard, it is certainly not the only model for modern relationships. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with preferring monogamy. Some people are content and fulfilled with a single partner, but it doesn’t work for everyone. About 32% of adults in America prefer other relationship styles, including polyamory and other types of non-monogamy.
Types of Non-Monogamy and Polyamory
Non-monogamy can vary greatly from relationship to relationship. What it looks like depends on different preferences from individual to individual. Some of the more commonly known examples are open relationships and poly relationships. Open relationships can look like monogamous relationships but have established rules and boundaries for one or both individuals to seek out physical intimacy from other potential partners. Again, this can look very different from relationship to relationship, but a commonly practiced boundary is limiting emotional intimacy outside of the primary partnership.
This is different from polyamory. In poly relationships, emotional intimacy and physical intimacy don’t rely on a single partner. In some poly relationships, the partners of the polycule are part of an established hierarchy where a primary partner tends to receive more time and energy. In other cases, there is no hierarchy. This is commonly referred to as non-hierarchical polyamory and involves an individual having multiple partners at various levels of commitment in which all share the same level of priority.
Another form of polyamory is polyfidelity. This is when there are more than two partners in a relationship, and everyone involved is committed to only those partners. There is typically no hierarchy. A throuple is an example of polyfidelity with three partners.
While open relationships and poly relationships are more common examples of non-monogamy, other types can be structured around relationships that originally developed as monogamous. One example is swinging, where couples initiate physical intimacy with other partners, but only when both partners in that couple are present. This can also involve elements of kink and BDSM.
Misconceptions About Non-Monogamy
With so many types of non-monogamy, it is important to note the stigma surrounding non-monogamy. Many mistakenly associate non-monogamous relationships with cheating and manipulation. This is a harmful stereotype that originates from partners failing to follow the basic principles of practicing ethical non-monogamy: honesty, consent, open communication, and negotiating boundaries.
The difference between infidelity and non-monogamy is informed consent. You may have heard the term ethical non-monogamy. This refers to the inherent practice of all partners in a relationship mutually disclosing and consenting to each other’s practices as well as the relationship structure. Infidelity, on the other hand, involves dishonesty and secrecy. The level of discretion about other relationships is typically negotiated by all partners in the relationship. Some practice full disclosure and encourage all partners to have some involvement in the relationship.
Other relationships establish boundaries, or set rules, that are more tailored to their comfort. It can be common for those in open relationships to negotiate rules that prioritize discretion and privacy. A common example is the zip code rule, in which the members of the couple will not seek out partners within the same zip code. Another example is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, in which individuals in a relationship prefer not to share or hear about any partners outside of the primary relationship. These rules and boundaries must be established and communicated before practicing non-monogamy.
Along with communicating boundaries and levels of comfort, it is also important to communicate feelings of jealousy. Many assume that non-monogamous relationships are free of jealousy, but this is far from the truth and a huge misconception about non-monogamy. There is certainly jealousy within non-monogamous relationships, as jealousy is only human. It may be an indication that the established rules and boundaries need to be adjusted. It can also simply be an automatic reaction conditioned from the monogamous perspective with which most of us have been raised. Jealousy can be remedied by feelings of comparison, which are positive feelings resulting from a partner establishing a relationship with their partner. While comparison doesn’t negate jealousy, it can certainly help to combat it.
Recommendations for Your Non-Monogamy Journey
When practicing polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy, it is important to honestly communicate feelings of jealousy to your partner or partners. This openness can go a long way in your relationships. Jealousy is a perfectly normal experience. Responding to it with curiosity rather than judgment can help you determine how to soothe it. By sharing your feelings of jealousy, your partner or partners can also work with you to soothe and reassure them through setting new boundaries.
When establishing these boundaries, be sure to take some time for yourself to explore what you are comfortable with and what may be challenging for you. What may work for a partner of yours may not work for you, and that’s ok! Your preferences and comfort may change over time, so checking in with yourself as well as your partners is important. Communicating these emotions is essential to maintaining a healthy non-monogamous relationship.
Written by Madison Gunter, Therapy Clinical Intern
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