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How to figure out if you want a monogamous relationship: polyamory, exclusivity, and timing

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Sep 26, 2023

How to figure out if you want a monogamous relationship: polyamory, exclusivity, and timing

On the surface, the definition of monogamy seems pretty straight forward. Monogamy is defined in Merriam Webster as “the state or practice of only having one sexual partner at a time.” Sound familiar? If you’ve breathed air for five seconds on this planet, you should be pretty aware of the monogamous definition  and the concept of monogamous relationships.

Our culture is pretty obsessed with monogamy. From marriage to film to TV, monogamy is modeled as the ultimate path to romantic happiness. Until pretty recently, it was considered the only healthy way to have a relationship in the United States. But contrary to popular belief, monogamy isn’t the only way to approach long-term committed relationships! 

More and more people are exploring polyamory, non-monogamous, and other non-traditional ways of approaching romantic and sexual relationships. Whether or not monogamy is right for you will depend on a number of factors. It’s important to remember that there is no one way to have a successful relationship. All relationship structures—even monogamy—come with their own unique set of challenges and joys. 

But how do you know whether monogamy is right for you? When should you become exclusive with someone? And how can you talk to your partner about exploring different relationship styles? Don’t worry, we’ve got the answers to all these questions and more. 

Definition of monogamous 

Monogamy typically means  the practice of forming a long-term romantic partnership with one person at a time—as opposed to having multiple partners. A monogamous relationship is one where two people are exclusively dating each other and don’t have sex with or develop feelings for anyone outside of the couple. 

You might have heard the term “serial monogamist” before. This refers to when someone jumps from one monogamous relationship to another without spending very long being single in-between partnerships. Serial monogamists might feel like they just function better in relationships, or perhaps they are afraid of being alone for a period of time.

Regardless, the prevalence of monogamy as the universally understood social norm is a relatively recent shift in the history of human relationships. In fact, non-monogamous relationship practices have been around for centuries! 

Did you know that monogamous relationships are also pretty rare in the animal kingdom? 

Only 3-5% of mammals practice some form of monogamy, humans being one of them. Another fun fact: in the world of zoology, birds are actually known for their monogamous streaks, especially swans, who often stay with one mate over the course of their lifetime! If you’ve been wondering why swans have become a universal symbol of love, there’s your answer.

Two swans in a lake craning out their necks together to form a heart shape. Swans often symbolize the definition of monogamous due to their mating practices.

Romantic LGBTQ relationship structures

Despite what mainstream society has told us about monogamy, there is no relationship that is guaranteed to work for everyone. Not sure what type of relationship you want? No problem. Here are some of the key differences between monogamy, polyamory, and non-monogamy. 

Monongamy vs. Polyamory 

Monogamy is considered the “default” way to be in a relationship in mainstream society. This can lead to couples getting into monogamous relationships too fast without really considering the other options. When a relationship becomes monogamous without both people really making an active choice together, this can lead to resentment, miscommunication, or dissatisfaction within the partnership. 

Monogamy, at its best, is an active, conscious decision made between two people to be exclusive with each other for a period of time. It’s important to have conversations about monogamy with your partner early on to figure out if your relationship goals and values are compatible in the long run.

If monogamy is the practice of having one romantic or sexual partner at a time, non-monogamy is the opposite. Polyamory is one type of non-monogamy that involves having more than one romantic partner at the same time. This can include a hierarchical relationship structure that involves both primary and secondary partners or a more non-hierarchical setup where no one connection takes priority over another. 

What is non-monogamy?

So now that we’ve got a good idea of what monogamy and polyamory are, what is ethical non-monogamy? Ethical non-monogamy is a broad term that describes any relationship where people have consensual sex or emotional attachments with more than one person at a time. That could mean having multiple partners at once, going on dates with new people, or having an open relationship where you have casual “no-strings-attached” sex with people every once in a while. 

The key word here is ethical. It’s important to know that this is not the same thing as “cheating.” An essential part of ethical non-monogamy is that all partners are aware of the other partners and have agreed to explore this dynamic together. The word “exclusive” often gets mixed up for the word “committed,” but the truth is that you can have long-term commitment in a relationship without being monogamous. 

“Non-monogamy can be fulfilling and a catalyst for self-growth. This self-growth can deepen your understanding and desire for your primary partner as you have the space to explore yourself and your own needs outside of [traditional] relational confines.”

Madelyn Esposito, a sex therapist.
Two lesbian women in a monogamous relationship kissing in a wheat field under a cloudy blue sky.

How can you tell if monogamy or non-monogamy is right for you?

So now that we know about all the different types of relationship structures, how do you know which one is going to work for you? It often takes some trial and error to figure out what relational style is right for you. The hardest part about figuring out which relationship structure is right for you is unpacking the messages you’ve received about love and relationships. 

Heteronormativity tells us that we have one true love and that happiness is being exclusive with that person “till death do us part.” As a reaction to straight people’s obsession with monogamy, some people in the queer community take the opposite cultural stance by insisting that non-monogamy is an inherently better and more progressive way to be in a relationship. 

“One impression that I don’t want to give is that I think polyamorous relationships are better for everyone. We’re all very different from one another.”

Carrie Jenkins, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

The truth is that monogamy is not inherently better or worse for relationships than non-monogamy, and non-monogamy isn’t the only way to have radical, conscientious partnerships. 

I remember when I first learned about non-monogamy. I was in my early 20s at some protest and met this hottie non-binary queer from Australia who was visiting for the week. We hit it off straight away and hung out 24/7. When I asked if they wanted to date, they told me that they wanted to keep seeing me, but they were non-monogamous and already had a few different connections with other people. Honestly, I felt like I was going to die. 

I told them that I was too much of a romantic to be polyamorous. But the truth was, I was just afraid. If I agreed to be in a non-monogamous relationship, then I would have no one to blame when they fell in love with someone else and left me. But then I realized that the truth is: I have no control over someone leaving me. 

Monogamy often gives us a false sense of security that our partners will never leave us, but you don’t have to look long at the divorce or infidelity rates to see how that’s working out. There is no fail-safe way to guarantee that you won’t get your heart broken in any relationship—monogamous, non-monogamous, or polyamorous. That is just part of the deal when you open up, share yourself with someone, and fall in love.

When should you become exclusive with someone?

Let’s say that after reading everything you can about non-monogamy, polyamory, and and likes, you’ve come to the conclusion that you’re just a monogamous girlie down to your core. And you’re head over heels with the girl you met on HER, who you’ve been seeing for a few weeks now. How long should you wait before becoming exclusive? 

My partner and I met two years ago and things moved pretty quickly between us. In past relationships, I had fallen in love too quickly and, therefore, had started to equate “fast” with “unhealthy.” But this time, things felt different. Our relationship developed as a fast pace not because we were projecting fantasies onto each other, but because we both wanted the same things—to find a partner to build a life with. 

Things between us felt easy, healthy, and boundaried all at the same time. We decided to start out our relationship in a monogamous set-up so that we could focus on just getting to know each other and building a secure base together.

The best advice I can give you is to use your intuition and feel it out. Every relationship is different and there is no one set timeline that works for everyone. Sometimes people can get themselves into exclusive relationships too fast because they are scared of losing the other person or feel a pressure to commit. Other times, folks can put off the conversation about exclusivity because they are afraid of scaring the other person by being too upfront about their needs.

If you’ve decided that you want to be in a monogamous relationship, it’s okay to make this known with your date early on. At the risk of seeming intense or getting “too serious too quickly,” it saves both people time and energy in the long run. Having these conversations early will help you figure out if you both want the same thing from a relationship right now or if it’s more of a right person, wrong time scenario. 

It’s equally important to make sure you are committing to a relationship from a place that is grounded and centered within your own needs and desires, rather than trying to rush into an exclusive relationship from a place of insecurity or fear of abandonment. Allow the relationship to progress at a natural pace and make sure that you stay connected to yourself and your needs as things develop.

Two lesbian women reading books on monogamy vs. nonmonogamy in bed together.

How to talk with your partner about relationship structures

Talking about different relationship structures can bring up lots of big emotions for all of us. If you’re currently in a relationship and want to change your structure or start conversations about opening up, make sure to go slow. It can often be helpful to talk about non-monogamy in general or what monogamy means to both of you, rather than getting into the practical details of what and open relationship up would look like in real time.

Make sure to start the conversation from a place of gentle curiosity and discovery rather than forcing or evangelizing one relationship structure over another. It’s important that both people’s needs are understood, held, and centered as you navigate this process. If this feels too hard to do alone, consider finding a couples therapist to help you navigate some of the deeper waters as you talk about shifting from monogamy to non-monogamy or vice versa. 

There are also lots of books out there that can help you find language around conversations about monogamy and non-monogamy such as The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy or Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino. If you are specifically interested in attachment styles and how this can come up in our romantic relationships, I can’t recommend Jessica Fern’s Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmongamy enough. All relationships—whether monogamous or not—struggle with the similar things including trust, communication, and time management. 

Pro tip: Reading books and having conversations about nonmonogamy can be extremely helpful in relationships, even if you’ve decided that monogamy is right for you. There are lots of things that monogamous couples can learn from polyamorous relationships including conversations about communication, honesty, managing jealousy, and in(ter)dependence. 

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Dusty Brandt Howard is a writer & a fighter. He is a trans masculine cultural narrator who builds worlds with words. You can follow his thirst traps on Instagram, his writing on Substack, or find him at your local queer bar in northeast LA.

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