Let's not forget the TLC hit Sister Wives, in which a polygamist, fundamentalist Mormon fellow juggles a gaggle of wives, or Polyamory, Showtime’s sexy reality program about polyamorous couples and families who consensually maintain multiple relationships at the same time. Even OKCupid began offering members the option to indicate whether they’re looking for a strictly or "slightly" monogamous relationship.
Increasingly tolerant as our collective consciousness may be, monogamy is still the social norm — despite the fact that it might not always be evolutionarily practical. “There is so much variation in human behavior. I can't say monogamy isn't [ever] natural or feasible, because then we wouldn't see any animals in nature who do achieve that,” says Jennifer Verdolin, PhD, animal behaviorist and author of Wild Connection: What Animal Mating and Courtship Tell Us About Human Relationships. “But, we are, as a culture, [still being] pushed into a standard that not all of us even want.”
What Does Non-Monogamy Look Like?
“You can be with someone absolutely right and compatible with you, but not be monogamous,” says Arden Leigh, author of The New Rules of Attraction. It’s worth noting that “non-monogamy” is an umbrella term, and there are nearly infinite variations of what venturing outside a relationship can look like: non-exclusive casual dating, “monogamish” (a Dan Savage-coined term for being mostly monogamous), polygamy (the practice of having multiple husbands or wives at the same time), polyamory (engaging in multiple romantic relationships), cuckoldry, swinging (you know what that means), group marriage (where multiple partners marry to form a small group unit) — this list goes on and on.
Part of the reason Jenna sought non-exclusivity was because she didn’t want to be forced to ignore her attraction to women. Though today Jenna is monogamously married to a man, she considers her relationship with her husband one of the only ones in which she’s wanted to be completely exclusive. “Of course, I’m still attracted to other people; everyone is attracted to other people. But, [meeting my husband] was the first time it felt like I was with the best person for me. It would bother me if he hooked up with someone else.”
That anecdote dovetails perfectly with one of the myths nay-sayers echo to undermine non-monogamous relationships: that it's just a phase until the right person comes along. Beth, 40, of Baltimore, takes issue with that idea. "It bothers me when people say someone will get over being polyamorous when they meet, like, a 'special someone,'" she explains. "I've always been non-monogamous — it's an indisputable part of my identity, like being queer."
Another myth about non-monogamy is that it’s the easy way out, and that its participants are promiscuous and careless. As Dan Savage writes, “People assume that all non-monogamous relationships are destined to fail. [Non-monogamous married couples are] perceived as dangerous sex maniacs who are destined to divorce.” In truth, maintaining non-exclusive relationships takes work, dedication, and lots of direct communication.
Who's It For?
Terri Conley, PhD, of the Stigmatized Sexualities lab at the University of Michigan has conducted studies showing that, contrary to popular belief, there is “no evidence that ostensibly monogamous relationships are happier or more satisfying than sexually open ones.” Her work aside, there is very limited scientific data about who chooses to participate in consensual, non-monogamous relationships. Dr. Verdolin, the animal behaviorist, notes that “there’s some evidence that genetics influence an individual's propensity for monogamy,” while Arden Leigh observes that millennials are negotiating consensual non-monogamy more than any previous generation.
Dr. Verdolin says that certain individuals are “more inclined” for monogamy than others. And, problems can obviously occur when people who are on two different ends of the spectrum get together. Those kinds of iffy sexual relationships — “whoops! I’m looking for marriage, and you’re after a one-night-stand!” — obviously don’t happen in the animal world. Two red squirrels (who are naturally polyamorous) don’t break up over coffee when the lady squirrel confesses to craving some action on the side.
Say you’re interested in testing the waters of your new partnership. When you get to that relationship talk, it’s a good time to say something like, “I want to keep seeing you, but I’m not necessarily interested in monogamy.” This opens the door to chat about what you both want from one another.
Leigh says those sometimes-awkward “status” conversations are extra-important when trying to navigate a non-exclusive coupling. “As women, we’re conditioned to not talk about the status of a relationship — it’s that B.S. from The Rules [that tells women not to] say anything about it because you'll come off as needy,” she observes.
Relationships By The Numbers
Indeed, when it comes to the strictly monogamous ideal being the status quo, the fantasy may be starting to stray (ahem) further from the reality. The still-escalating divorce rate speaks for itself — in 2012, the number of Americans getting divorced climbed, for the third year in a row, to about 2.4 million. That’s around 50% of marriages ending in divorce. According to one survey, only 17% of married couples consider themselves happily wed, and infidelity is the third most common reason for divorce.
While there is no solid data on the divorce rate among non-monogamous married couples, Dr. Conley says that “polyamorous couples are often shown to be more satisfied and trusting than monogamous couples." And, she explains, “In one sample I have of monogamous and [consensually non-monogamous] individuals, the consensually non-monogamous groups' relationships were significantly longer than the monogamous group."
Many partners in non-monogamous relationships develop a feeling called “compersion,” or a sense of enjoyment and pleasure when their partner has found someone else they also love or want to be with. “People who are monogamous are flabbergasted…that concept even exists,” notes Dr. Conley.
Kate L. Stewart, a psychotherapist and dating coach, conceptualizes compersion as “the opposite of selfishness,” and she’s seen it play out in various non-monogamous clients’ lives. She recalls working with one middle-aged man who had two partners, a primary and a secondary, but was interested in starting to casually date other people, which he did. “Throughout this process, his primary partner was absolutely elated,” Stewart describes. “Seeing her partner find someone he was interested in dating — and experience the buzz of starting a new relationship — was great for her.”
Non-monogamous participants Jenna and Beth, mentioned earlier, obviously aren’t alone in their current or former ways. The stigma around non-monogamy, as represented in pop culture, may be starting to fade. Leigh thinks so: "A lot of mainstream media is talking about [non-monogamy] in a way that’s not as sensationalized — it’s not like, ‘look at these freaks,'" she says.
Still, Dr. Conley still sees non-monogamists as “the most stigmatized group I’ve ever come across.” And, Beth, for one, agrees. She remembers the discomfort and shame she felt when she first came out as polyamorous to her older sister. "I didn't tell people for a long time. I knew my mom thought a woman who had more than a few sex partners was a 'slut.' But, I didn't [expect such a negative] reaction from my sister, too." Beth experienced what felt like a gale force of "obnoxious, probing questions, and accusations of me wanting to 'have my cake and eat it too.'"
Studies show that most men and women are fairly neutral when it comes to accepting non-monogamous lifestyles for others, but feel slightly more ambivalent about trying it for themselves. An estimated 4% to 5% of Americans are now consensually venturing outside their primary relationship (and who knows how many others may be interested in non-monogamy but feel uncomfortable pursuing it).
So, while the long-held taboo attached to non-monogamy may not have dissolved altogether, hopefully, with more hard work from experts, like Dr. Conley, it will go from being a “stigmatized sexuality” to a practice that’s more widely accepted, even embraced. After all, humans may have a few things in common with black vultures (known for their fidelity, they can stay together for up to 25 years), but many of us also possess at least a small dash of the polyamorous red squirrel. The great thing about being human? We don’t have to be either-or.