Monogamy—it’s not for everyone. What was once the societal norm is now merely one of the many relationship choices out there.
Today’s dating scene offers a buffet-style array of non-monogamous relationship styles. But from open relationships to polyamory, it can be hard to get your head around the labels, and how they actually play out in practice.
So, what does it mean to be in a non-monogamous relationship? How can you choose the right type for you and pull off the situation smoothly? Here, sexologist Stella Anna Sonnenbaum walks Men’s Health through the different types of non-monogamous relationships and what makes them unique.
What are the different kinds of non-monogamous relationships?
You’ve probably heard people talking about open relationships—but what are they, exactly? The term is not as clear-cut as it may sound. In fact, it can actually be applied to a variety of relationship styles, all of which have one oh-so-important thing in common.
“It means that you are not in an exclusive relationship with your partner,” Sonnenbaum explains. “It usually refers to sexuality, so either one or both partners have the option to have sex with other people outside of the relationship.”
Next up, a term that is what it says on the tin. Monogamish partners are mainly monogamous in their sexual choices. However, as the name suggests, they may both be willing to stray from this when the mood takes them.
“It depends how people define it themselves,” says Sonnenbaum. “It’s for people who are mainly monogamous, but who are also open to their partner having sex with other people.”
If you’re looking for a way to spice up your currently monogamous setup, you might have just found it. As Sonnenbaum explains, this choice could help you to add a brand new—and ultimately thrilling—dimension to your relationship.
“In terms of keeping sexuality vibrant and alive, I think that it is a great option,” she says. “In the end, we want to choose our partners rather than feeling confined to our partners, sexually. We want to choose our partners over and over again to have sex with.
“What we say in monogamish relationships is, ‘I choose to be with you. I may have sex with other people, but I choose to put you first.’”
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The word “swinging” may conjure images of fish bowls filled with car keys, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The contemporary incarnation of this relationship choice could mean a range of things, including having a long-term arrangement with another couple.
“Swinging could be an open relationship. However, it is usually the case that couples meet other couples that they have sex with. So, basically, they are looking for other partners only in other couples,” says Sonnenbaum. “That means that they would not have sexual contact with people who are not in a couple.”
Hookups might be spur-of-the-moment, or something more regular.
“It could be two couples having a longer swinging relationship with each other or it could be just swinging at clubs and having casual sexual contact there,” Sonnenbaum adds.
This type of non-monogamous relationship style allows partners the freedom to have multiple romantic and sexual relationships at the same time.
“It could be a couple having romantic and sexual bonds with other people outside of the relationship, but it could also be a single person who has multiple romantic and sexual relationships—they don’t need to be in a couple, necessarily,” Sonnenbaum says.
Every polyamorous situation is a little bit different. Here, four polyamorous people explain what their love lives are like.
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But wait just a minute—what about setting some ground rules here? Well, that’s where hierarchical polyamory comes into play. This next choice means that couples decide which of their relationships is their major focus, i.e. the ‘primary relationship,’ but can still have other relationships outside of that.
“This type of arrangement is usually the case for couples having relationships with other people,” says Sonnenbaum. “The main relationship is the primary partner, and the other relationships are secondary partners. So, equally, the secondary partner—him or herself—may have other primary partners.”
The general idea is that you put your primary partner first in this type of non-monogamous relationship. You may dedicate more time to them, run certain things past them before you do them, and treat them as a full-time life partner.
“Polyfidelity means that there are multiple partners having long-term relationships,” Sonnenbaum says.
While that may sound a lot like polyamory, there is one big difference between the two. While polyamory is considered an “open” relationship style, polyfidelity is “closed,” in that the multiple people involved do not have relationships with people outside their group.
“Maybe a [polyfidelious] individual has three relationships, but doesn’t have open relationships—the partners know about each other and the person doesn’t have sex outside of these relationships,” Sonnenbaum explains.
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Here’s a type of non-monogamous relationship that throws the rulebook straight out of the window. Yes, relationship anarchy is just that: an entirely open sexual situation. In short, people can have sexual and romantic interactions with whoever they want and ditch the labels.
“Relationship anarchy basically means that people refuse to define the relationship in any way,” says Sonnenbaum. “There may be rules, such as being compassionate and kind to each other, but people can do what they want sexually.” All bets are off.
What should I know before entering a non-monogamous relationship?
Now that you’re well-versed in non-monogamous relationships, you may be itching to give one a whirl. Before you do, it’s important to make sure that your current relationship is completely solid. Opening up your relationship is by no means a band-aid to hold an already-breaking situation together.
“It takes excellent communication skills. So if couples fall down on that, they will have problems in the relationship,” Sonnenbaum advises. “[In that case], I wouldn’t consider opening the relationship up, but instead addressing the issues within the relationship as they are not going to go away.”
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