Research carried out in 2013 showed that about 5% of relationships are openly non-monogamous. It’s likely that this figure may have grown since then.
The findings from the research project, Enduring Love, showed that there is no one right way of ‘doing’ relationships. What works for one person or one couple isn’t satisfying for another individual or couple.
An openly non-monogamous, or polyamorous, relationship is one where partners agree to be together and are open and honest with each other about other partners or relationships they have. Just as couples in monogamous relationships usually have certain ‘rules’ and agreements about the boundaries of their relationship, there are usually agreed rules and boundaries in polyamorous relationships.
Examples of different non-monogamous relationships
An open relationship is one in which a couple agree that they are both free to have sex with other people. While sex with other people is okay, loving someone else is generally not OK.
Literally meaning ‘many loves’, in polyamory it’s considered okay to love more than one person as well as have sex with them, with the knowledge and consent of all involved or affected by the relationships.
Similar to polyamory except that it is a closed relationship style that requires sexual and emotional fidelity to an intimate group that is larger than two.
These are emotionally intimate, non-sexual connections among people connected by a polyamorous relationship. For example, a relationship between two heterosexual men who are both in sexual relationships with the same woman and a co-spousal relationship with each other. In this situation, the two men would be metamours.
Some people have one main partner alongside other relationships that are less of a priority (primary and secondary relationships), known as hierarchical polyamory.
In egalitarian polyamory there isn’t a hierarchy, with each partner considered equal. People in this relationship structure may live together in a triad or quad.
This refers someone who lives alone but visits or is visited by several partners.
This refers to people who question distinctions between friends and partners and may have many close people in their lives. Relational anarchists (RA) are often highly critical of conventional cultural standards that prioritise romantic and sexual relationships over non-sexual or non-romantic relationships. Instead, RA seeks to eliminate specific distinctions between friendships versus love-based relationships, so that love-based relationships are no more valuable than platonic friendships.
Another important theme within RA is the resistance to placing demands or expectations on the people involved in a relationship. RA rejects any rules as inevitably leading to a hierarchical valuation of some partners over others. In RA, no one should have to give anything up or compromise in order to sustain a relationship; rather, it is better to amicably separate than to sustain an unhappy and unfulfilling relationship.
Why engage in consensual non-monogamy?
A recent study (References: Wood, J., De Santis, C., Desmarais, S., & Milhausen, R. (2021). Motivations for engaging in consensually non-monogamous relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior) showed there are a number of themes that emerged for those pursuing a non-monogamous relationship :
- Doing what felt most natural to the individual and being one’s authentic self
- Those in multi-partner relationships tended to see monogamy as restrictive and potentially harmful to one’s well-being, with open relationships offering the ability to grow and explore the self.
- Another common belief system involved the idea that it is difficult to have one partner who meets all of your needs, sexually and emotionally.
- Being part of a supportive community and having the opportunity to build more connections with others—connections that are good for one’s psychological well-being and that strengthen all of their relationships. Many participants also talked about how this kind of relationship allows them to meet their needs with integrity—without having to hide things from a partner or engage in deception.
- Multi-partner relationships allowed the opportunity to explore a number of sexual identities, offer more sexual fun and adventure, and provide avenues for dealing with discrepant sexual desires/interests in relationships.
- Consensually non-monogamous relationships were seen as an opportunity to broaden one’s sense of self and to experience more variety in non-sexual activities in a way that reduces pressure on any one given partner.
- They were also seen as a way of growing and expanding a current relationship, allowing for deeper intimacy and connection as well as a greater feeling of security.
- Multi-partner relationships were just a practical way of managing their lives and achieving life goals.
The foundations of any relationship are usually based on good communication, honesty, respect and trust. People like to know ‘where they are’ in any type of relationship or friendship. Some people in a non-monogamous relationship like to have clear rules and whilst other are happy to give each other freedom, trusting each other. Some will tell their partners everything and whereas other prefer to agree that some aspects of their relationship will be remain private. Difficult emotions such as jealousy can arise and it will help to explore why this is and what can be changed so that each person feels respected and understood. Of course, consensual non-monogamous relationships end just as monogamous relationships end, for a whole range of reasons.
What’s important is that any agreements and ‘rules’ are discussed and worked out together, in a way that is not coercive or against the wishes of anyone. Those ‘rules’ are likely to change over time and may need to be revisited and re-negotiated as circumstances change.
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