The topic of non-monogamy is one that Bilerico has touched on multiple times in the past, and almost always with some considerable consternation in the comments section. So today's post comes with a disclaimer, which perhaps should be included with all How's That Work posts from here on:
This feature was created to offer readers a window into a wide array of relationship and sexual practices that they may be curious about or unfamiliar with. Many posts may not be applicable to everyone's erotic life, relationship style, or body. No one should feel pressured to engage in sexual or relationship practices that make them uncomfortable.
With that out of the way, for the purposes of this discussion, non-monogamy is being broken down into two separate, but related categories: open-relationships, and polyamory.
Open relationship forms might include:
- Two people who are monogamous but will occasionally take an additional person/people into their bed
- Two people who are romantically monogamous, but for whom sexual monogamy ends at the city limits, meaning that some form(s) of erotic play are allowed when traveling
- Two people who are romantically monogamous but who allow for the occasional one-night stand or hookup
- Two people who are romantically monogamous but one or both has one or more outside partners for casual sex
From there, things move away from "open" and into the realm of "polyamory." This can be quite the fuzzy line, and the tendency in the gay men's community to shy away from the term polyamory can further blur the distinction.
Here are some ways people may experience polyamory:
- Two people in a committed relationship who also date or have sex with people outside of their relationship. The similarity between this point and the last bullet in the list of "open" relationships reflects the blurry lines between openness and polyamory.
- Some number of people who are romantically and/or sexually involved with each other, but don't date or engage in erotic play outside the x-number of people in the relationship. This has traditionally been referred to as "polyfidelity," although the term has slowly faded from widespread use.
- Some number of people who are all romantically and/or sexually committed to each other in some "primary" way, but whom also date or engage in erotic play with other people, be it as individuals or together.
- People who are monogamous within a particular kind of relationship dynamic, but may have multiple separate partners for different kinds of relationships. I typically see this most often within the BDSM community, where one might have one spouse, one slave/master, one person-they-go-to-Monaco-with, but not more than one of any category.
There are two other forms of non-monogamy that also deserve a mention: swinging and cheating
- Swinging is a practice, perhaps most common within the heterosexual world, in which otherwise monogamous couples "trade" spouses for sexual play. Sometimes this happens as an arrangement between couples, other times in the context of a structured larger gathering. It's not included in either of the previous two lists because many people in the swinger community see the practice as distinctly different both technically and culturally from polyamory and open relationships.
- Cheating is a of non-consensual non-monogamy, and is what the majority of people think of when alternative relationship structures are brought up in discussion. Cheating is when someone in a relationship that has a mutually agreed upon structure, such as romantic and sexual monogamy, seeks an outside partner in violation of that agreement. Most people in the open, polyamorous, and swinging communities find being confused with people who engage in cheating to be offensive, and the reverse is sometimes true as well.
With a sense of what we're talking about, how do these relationships actually work?
Every relationship is of course different, but many people who practice non-monogamy point to some factors as important:
Communication - This is key to all relationships, but when non-monogamy is in the picture, the communication workload is dramtically increased. Small issues don't stay that way for long with multiple partners, and having clear and mutually agreed upon communication strategies can be vital to a relationship's success.
Time - Multiple partners exponentially increase the number of relationships between people. Thus, in a monogamous relationship we have partners A and B. They have a relationship. If we add partner C, we get four relationships to consider: A and B, A and C, B and C, and A, B, and C together. Making sure that each of those relationships is being given time, attention, and a chance to thrive requires deliberate attention and effort. Couples who have had children will find this concept eminently familiar.
Space - It's important for people to have space and time to themselves. Making sure that space is available is absolutely important. For some people, this is actually a function of open/poly relationships. A partner's date night with someone else, providing an opportunity for some alone time for the partner staying home. For other people it's a challenge of non-monogamy, and in my own family it is important that we each have rooms in the home that are ours first and foremost, such as my home office or my husband's craft room.
Community - When we are in a relationship we want to share our lives and families with the world around us. This can be a challenge for people in non-monogamous relationships, particularly of the polyamorous variety. Having to leave a partner behind, or carefully omit them from a conversation can be taxing on everyone involved. A community of people who can accept the relationship and partners as they are can ease much of that strain.
The last point to address is where and how people find partners for non-monogamous relationships. As with any dating question in 2013, the first answer is the internet. Dating site OKCupid is particularly popular with polyamorous people. For gay and bisexual men, hookup apps like Grindr, Manhunt, Adam4Adam, etc are viable options as well, although perhaps more so for casual "open" encounters than polyamorous multi-partner dating.
Outside of dating/hookup sites, there are open/poly discussion groups on the web, often with in person meet-ups as well, poly conferences, swinger events and clubs (although again, mostly heterosexual only), and the old fashioned introduction by a friend.
Whenever the topic of non-monogamy comes up there are inevitably comments about these sorts of relationships failing. The truth is, non-monogamous relationships fail all the time.
The bigger picture however, is that relationships fail all the time, full stop.
Just as issues involving the challenges and joys inherent in monogamy can sometimes lead to the failure of a monogamous relationship, the very fact that a relationship involves openness, polyamory, or swinging is often a factor in its failure. There isn't one form of relationship that is right or works better, there is only the wondrous and often confounding spectrum of ways that people live and love.