Monogamy: What is a monogamous relationship?

You probably already have a picture in your head when you think about a monogamous relationship. However, let's dive deeper into the topic of monogamy. In this article, we'll explore the meaning, benefits and challenges of monogamous relationships.

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When it comes to relationships, everyone has different preferences. Some people prefer to be in monogamous relationships, while others prefer to date around. Attitudes toward dating can vary drastically from one person to the next. And while there is no right or wrong way to navigate relationships, there are definitely some pros and cons to each approach.

A common type of relationship adopted in Western cultures, monogamy is practiced by a vast number of people. 1 In the US, 99 percent of married and 94 percent of cohabiting heterosexual couples expected sexual exclusivity in their relationship. 2

Although there have been a couple of societal changes that have challenged its practice, monogamous relationships remain one of the most popular types of relationships. In this article, we’ll explore what a monogamous relationship is, some of the pros and cons of this type of relationship, and its different types. Let’s dive in.

What is a monogamous relationship?

What is a monogamous relationship?

Viewed as the most optimal form of relationship by many, monogamy can mean different things to different people. 3 For some, it’s the only way they could imagine being in a relationship, while others may feel that their needs could never be met by one person alone. And still, others may choose to be monogamous at certain points in their lives and not at others. There is no single answer to this question.

Regardless of how you feel about monogamy, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no one right way to be in a relationship. What works for you and your partner may be different from what works for other couples. The most important thing is to communicate openly with your partner about your needs and expectations. With that said, let’s take a closer look at what monogamy typically entails.

Monogamous relationship definition

Monogamy is typically defined as a romantic and sexual exclusivity between two people. In other words, monogamous relationships involve both partners agreeing not to pursue romantic and/or sexual relationships with other people. 4

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines monogamy as “agreeing to be sexually active with only one individual, and that person has agreed to be sexually active only with you.” 5 This definition gained popularity in the US during the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, when public health officials openly advocated for changes in sexual behaviors to prevent the spread of HIV. 6

At its core, monogamy is about trust, respect, and commitment. Relationship commitment and quality have especially been linked to monogamy. 7 When a couple is monogamous, they are making a promise to each other to stay faithful. This usually means that they will not have sex with other people, but it can also mean abstaining from emotional intimacy or romance with others.

Being in a monogamous relationship doesn’t mean that you and your partner never experience attraction to or flirt with other people. It’s normal to feel attracted to others, even when you’re in a committed relationship. The key is to manage these feelings in a way that is respectful of your partner, and to consistently be motivated to continue your relationship with them. 8

The evolution of monogamy

Monogamy is a relatively new concept in the grand scheme of human existence. For most of human history, polygamy (having multiple spouses) was the norm. In anthropological records, almost 85 percent of societies allowed men to take multiple wives. 9 And having multiple partners was positively associated with status, wealth, or nobility in many of these cultures. 10

As human societies grew and developed during the agricultural and industrial revolutions, however, the concept of monogamy began to emerge because the levels of polygamous marriages reached unprecedented levels - resembling the earliest empires with rulers who built harems. 11

The rise of monogamy was likely a response to the negative consequences associated with polygamy, such as increased competition for resources and decreased paternal certainty. 12

While monogamous marriages have existed since the era of classical Greece and Rome, the idea of monogamy began to take root in the West and started spreading globally only in recent centuries, with countries wishing to emulate Western practices banning polygamy. 13 14

The emergence of monogamous marriages in our society is often linked to the greatest wealth gap the current world has ever seen. In polygamous societies, wealthy men are able to maintain numerous wives, while poor men are left without any chance of starting a family. This creates a huge pool of unmarried men, who are more likely to engage in crime and violence. 15

On the other hand, monogamous marriages provide an equal opportunity for men and women to find a spouse and have children. This helped to reduce crime and violence within and outside of the household, decrease child neglect and conflict among multiple spouses, and provide economic and financial stability. 15

Religion may also likely have played a role in the spread of monogamy. In the most popular Abrahamic religion, Christianity, the Bible advocates for monogamy in both the Old and New Testament. 16

Today, monogamy remains the most common form of relationship in the Western world. However, it’s not the only option. There are many different types of relationships, and it’s important to find one that works for you and your partner.

Different types of monogamous relationships

Different types of monogamous relationships

Monogamous relationships come in all shapes and sizes. A romantic or platonic partner may be involved, the relationship can either be sexual or non-sexual, and both partners can also be casual or committed. There is no one way to define a monogamous relationship, as each one is unique.

1. Platonic relationship

A platonic relationship is a type of monogamous relationship in which the couple agrees not to have sexual relations with each other. This may be for any number of reasons, such as religious beliefs or personal preferences. The term “platonic love” meaning desexualized love was coined by Vicino, the leading neo-Platonist in the Renaissance. 17 Platonic relationships can be between two people of any gender and are often close friendships.

While platonic relationships don’t involve sexual activity, this doesn’t mean that there is no physical affection. Many platonic couples enjoy holding hands, cuddling, and kissing. Platonic relationships are based on trust, respect, and mutual care for each other.

Platonic relationships also have psychological benefits, as supported by a study showing that poor psychological health is associated with decreased closeness in platonic relationships. 18 So, if you’re looking for a close, supportive relationship without the sexual element, a platonic relationship may be right for you.

Curious to know how to form meaningful connections that do not include feelings of romantic love or physical attraction. Here’s everything you should know about them.

2. Queerplatonic relationship

A queerplatonic relationship is also another type of monogamous relationship in which the couple agrees not to have sexual relations with each other. Identities within the LGBTQ+ community often utilize the term “queerplatonic” when referring to their relationships to avoid the connotations that come with traditional labels such as “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”

Queerplatonic relationships can be between two people of any gender and are often close friendships. Similar to platonic relationships, queerplatonic relationships are built on trust, respect, and mutual care for each other.

There is little research on queerplatonic relationships, but one study found that participants in monogamous relationships involving LGBTQ+ identities are highly satisfied with their relationships. 19

3. Desirous relationship

Desirous relationships are those in which the partners have a strong desire for each other, but don’t necessarily act on that desire. 20 These types of relationships may be based on unrequited love or one partner may simply not be ready to act on their feelings.

Desirous monogamy can reflect your desires and how many partners you fantasize about. It can also be a way to reign in your sexual impulses so that you don’t act on them. 20 For example, if you have a strong desire for another person while you’re in a monogamous relationship, you may agree with your partner to abstain from sexual activity with that person.

Desirous relationships can be frustrating and even painful, but they can also be very rewarding. If you can manage your desires, a desirous monogamous relationship can be a great way to get what you want without compromising your current relationship.

4. Casual relationship

A casual relationship is, as the name suggests, more relaxed and low-commitment than other types of monogamous relationships. This doesn’t mean that there is no emotional connection between the partners; rather, the relationship is more flexible and fluid.

There is no set definition for a casual relationship, but it usually refers to a physical and/or sexual relationship without the expectation of exclusivity or a long-term commitment. Adolescents and adults frequently engage in these casual sexual relationships and experiences, also called CSREs. 21

Several theories have suggested that participating in CSREs can have negative emotional outcomes, including the attachment theory which purports that humans have evolved to form lasting intimate relationships. 22 Because CSREs are often fleeting and lack emotional intimacy, they may not satisfy people’s attachment needs. However, a recent review purports that the emotional outcomes of CSREs may vary across different people and depend on their attitudes towards CSREs. 21

In addition, several developmental research on CSREs in adolescence and adulthood suggested that these sexual experiences might aid in the development of adolescent sexuality by allowing individuals to engage in sexual behavior while balancing competing demands from school, work, and/or family obligations. 23

Of course, casual relationships hold the possibility of blossoming into something more committed, but they can just as easily fizzle out. It’s important to communicate with your partner about your expectations and needs to ensure that both of you are on the same page.

5. Long-distance relationship

A long-distance relationship (LDR) is a form of monogamous relationship in which the couple is separated by physical distance for an extended period. Even though LDRs can be difficult, they can also be rewarding and provide couples with an opportunity to grow closer in other ways.

In a 2013 study, participants in long-distance relationships generally reported better relationship quality on several relationship quality indicators, as well as more dedication to their partnerships and less feeling trapped (felt constraint), but they were similar to people in close-proximity relationships in terms of perceived and material limitations. 24

LDRs often require more communication and effort than close-proximity relationships, but they can be just as fulfilling. Here’s how you can make them work.

6. Cohabitation

Cohabitation is another form of monogamous relationship in which the couple lives together, but they are not married. Cohabitation has become increasingly common in recent years, with studies finding that more young adults are using cohabitation as a way to test compatibility before getting married. 25 26

There are several advantages to cohabiting before marriage, including the opportunity to get to know your partner in a more intimate setting, the chance to see how you handle day-to-day living together, and the ability to save money on housing costs. 27 Cohabitation is often viewed as a step before marriage because of this, but it is a relationship in its own right and should be treated as such.

Of course, cohabitation isn’t without its challenges. One potential downside is the cohabitation effect, which is the tendency for couples who live together before marriage to have marital distress and a higher rate of divorce. 28 While the cohabitation effect is often overstated among U. S. samples, it’s still important to be aware of the potential challenges that come with cohabitating before marriage. 29

Couples who cohabit often have different expectations and goals for their relationship than couples who are married. For example, cohabiting couples may be more likely to see their relationship as temporary and less committed than married couples. 30 However, cohabitation does not necessarily mean that the relationship is any less serious or committed than marriage.

While non-monogamous relationships can also cohabit, it is often more difficult to do so because of the need to negotiate boundaries, resources, and expectations with multiple partners. If you’re considering cohabiting with a monogamous partner, it’s important to communicate openly about your expectations and needs to ensure that both of you are on the same page.

7. Civil union

A civil union is a legal relationship between two people that is similar to marriage, but does not carry the same legal weight. Civil unions are usually created in response to discrimination against same-sex couples, as they provide many of the same rights and benefits without the legal recognition of marriage. 31

Supportive social policies like this can aid monogamous couples in the minority and help to level the playing field, improve their financial stability, and reduce psychological distress. 32 33 34

Civil unions provide relief for monogamous couples who live in states or countries where their relationship is not recognized by the government. If you are in a committed monogamous relationship and your state or country does not recognize your relationship, a civil union may be a good option for you.

These are just a few most common types of monogamous relationships. Whatever type of monogamous relationship you are interested in, the most important thing is to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about your needs and expectations. With good communication, any type of monogamous relationship can be a success.

The benefits of monogamous relationships

The benefits of monogamous relationships

Monogamous relationships are popular for a reason. Those who enter into them can expect to enjoy a number of benefits, including many social, financial, and legal advantages. 35

Here are some of the most common benefits of monogamous relationships so you can see if they’re right for you.

1. Monogamous relationships provide a sense of security and comfort.

When you’re in a monogamous relationship, you know that you and your partner are the only ones who are allowed to be intimate with each other. This can provide a sense of security and comfort, knowing that you’re the only one your partner is committed to.

Monogamy grew in popularity in the first place because it ensures that men are more likely to invest in their children, which provides a greater sense of security for their partners and children. 36 Especially if you’re planning to have children, a monogamous relationship can provide the stability and support that you need.

2. Monogamous relationships are easier to navigate.

Since monogamous relationships only involve two people, they are generally simpler and easier to navigate than non-monogamous relationships. There are fewer boundaries to negotiate and fewer people to coordinate with, which can make things much easier.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that monogamous relationships are always easy. But they tend to be simpler than non-monogamous relationships, which can make them more manageable.

3. Monogamy is more socially accepted.

Although it has been shown that non-monogamous relationships can be just as stable and satisfying as monogamous ones, monogamy is still the social norm and is generally viewed as the more “acceptable” choice. 33 This can make it easier for monogamous couples to find social support and feel accepted by their peers.

Married monogamous individuals will also often have more social support and companionship, which reduces the risk of isolation and health problems associated with it. 37

In many places, monogamous relationships are the social and legal norm, which means that they offer more protection under the law. For example, married couples have access to spousal benefits like healthcare, tax breaks, and inheritance rights. 38 Some welfare states even recognize cohabiting practices and unmarried partnerships, providing the same benefits to those in monogamous relationships. 39

This can be especially important if you’re planning to have children or want to ensure that your partner will be taken care of in the event of your death.

5. Monogamous relationships can provide financial stability.

Monogamous relationships can offer financial stability because they often involve two people who are committed to supporting each other financially. In many cases, people who enter monogamous relationships do so with the intention of getting married and sharing their finances. 40

Additionally, married couples often have access to spousal benefits like healthcare and pension plans. This can provide peace of mind and financial security in the event that one partner becomes sick or injured.

Until today, monogamy presents a plethora of benefits that encourage people to stay faithful in their relationships. From the sense of security it offers to the legal protection it affords, there are many good reasons to choose a monogamous relationship. However, it’s important to remember that monogamy is not for everyone and that there are many different types of relationships out there. Ultimately, the best decision is the one that works for you and your partner.

The challenges of monogamous relationships

The challenges of monogamous relationships

Of course, some challenges come with being in a monogamous relationship. There are many expectations for monogamy that, if not met, can lead to unhappiness in the relationship.

From unclear expectations to dealing with jealousy, here are some of the challenges that come with monogamous relationships.

1. It can be difficult to maintain a sense of excitement and novelty.

As time goes on, it can be easy for the spark to fade in a monogamous relationship. Things that once seemed exciting and new can start to feel stale and mundane. This is consistent with the basic processes of habituation, which is when we become less sensitive to stimuli that are constantly present in our environment. 41

Sexual habituation can occur in monogamous relationships, which can lead to a decline in sexual satisfaction. 42 This lack of desire is part of the natural progression of monogamous relationships, and one of the major reasons why women seek sex and marriage therapy. 43 This is why it’s important to introduce new things to your routine and to keep the communication lines open with your partner.

2. Monogamous relationships often have unclear boundaries and expectations.

Many people enter into monogamous relationships without a clear understanding of what they’re getting themselves into and what they want out of the relationship. 44 This can lead to problems down the road, especially if there are different expectations for monogamy between partners.

Despite being the most popular form of relationship, monogamy is not always well-defined among the people who practice it. This lack of clarity can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and monogamous people often disagree on which behaviors are acceptable within this exclusive type of relationship. 45

3. Jealousy can be a problem.

A major perceived benefit of monogamy is that it eliminates jealousy in relationships, thereby increasing trust and intimacy. 46 However, jealousy is still a common emotion in monogamous relationships.

Jealousy arises in romantic relationships when there is a (real or perceived) threat of losing one’s partner to another person. 47 Even though monogamous relationships are often viewed to eliminate this type of threat, jealousy can still be an obstacle in these types of relationships. In fact, a few studies even postulate that jealousy in non-monogamous relationships is more manageable because the rules and boundaries of these relationships are more clear, contrary to the unclear boundaries in monogamous relationships. 48

4. Infidelity definitely happens.

Many people in monogamous relationships still cheat, despite the agreement to remain faithful. In fact, infidelity is so prevalent that in a sample of undergraduates involved in a romantic monogamous relationship, 40 percent knew that their partner had cheated on them and 19 percent were unsure whether their partner had cheated on them. 49 In another study, 68 percent of undergraduate heterosexual men admit to kissing someone else while in a monogamous relationship, and over 49 percent also admit to having intercourse with someone other than their partner. 50

So, even though monogamous people often make a commitment to fidelity, infidelity is still common in these relationships. This discrepancy between what people say and do may be due to a number of reasons, such as the difficulty of remaining monogamous over a long period of time or the unrealistic expectations that are often placed on monogamous couples, leading to inevitable disappointment.

5. Monogamous relationships can be more difficult to maintain over time.

The longer a couple is together, the more maintenance and effort are required to keep the relationship going strong. Through time, individuals in monogamous relationships may experience attraction towards other people, which can lead to a decline in satisfaction and commitment to the relationship. 4

This is likely due to the fact that people change over time and our relationships need to adapt along with us. Monogamous relationships may be more difficult to maintain because they involve a vow of fidelity, which can be a constraining force on individuals as they change and grow over the years. And even if some individuals maintained their monogamous relationships by avoiding and self-monitoring their attraction toward people outside of their relationship, their satisfaction towards their relationship is still not guaranteed to improve over time. 4

Just like with any other relationship, monogamy also has its fair share of pros and cons. It is important to be aware of these potential difficulties so that you can address them should they arise in your own relationship.

Alternatives to monogamy

Alternatives to monogamy

Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term for any relationship style that falls outside of traditional monogamy. Also known as consensual non-monogamy, ethical non-monogamous relationships can take a variety of forms. 51

Though they may have different rules and boundaries, all ethical non-monogamous relationships share a common foundation: all involved parties have consented to the arrangement. This is what differentiates ethical non-monogamy from cheating or nonconsensual non-monogamy, which is when one person in a monogamous relationship steps outside of the agreement without the knowledge or consent of their partner. 51

There are many reasons why people might choose to explore ethical non-monogamy. Some couples may find that traditional monogamy doesn’t work for them, while others may simply want to experiment with different relationship styles.

There are many great non-monogamous relationships out there, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the most common ones are listed below.

1. Open relationships (including open marriages)

In an open relationship, both partners agree to have relationships with other people. This type of relationship can be great for couples who want more adventure. Couples in open relationships will typically keep emotional intimacy within their primary relationships, while still enjoying casual partnerships outside of it. 52

In Canada, younger generations are more likely to report being in an open relationship than older generations. Moreover, men were also more likely than women to report being in an open relationship. In general, there seems to be no difference between the relationship satisfaction levels of those who practice consensually non-monogamous relationships as opposed to monogamous ones. 53

2. Polyamory

Polyamorous relationships involve having more than one romantic or sexual partner. This “relationship orientation” is for people who want to have deep, committed relationships with more than one person. 54

There are many subtypes of polyamory. For example, a hierarchical polyamory relationship is when one person is the primary partner while the other partners are secondary. This type of relationship can be great for people who want to feel like they are in a committed relationship but also want some freedom.

The opposite of hierarchical polyamory is a non-hierarchal relationship, where all partners are considered equal. This type of relationship can be great for people who want to feel like they have more control over their love life.

3. Monogamish

Monogamish is a term that describes a relationship that is mostly monogamous but allows for some occasional non-monogamy. In this case, there is a degree of openness to emotional and sexual intimacy with others outside of the relationship. 55

The term is based on the book Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China, which argues that gay men can be “faithful” to their partners while still sexual with others. 56 Regardless of your sexual orientation, monogamish relationships can be great for couples who want to remain, for the most part, monogamous but still have the option to explore outside of their relationship.

These are just some of the other alternatives to traditional monogamy. If you and your partner are interested in exploring ethical non-monogamy, there are many resources available to help you get started, including books, websites, and support groups.

Frequently asked questions about monogamous relationships

Frequently asked questions about monogamous relationships

1. What is an example of a monogamous relationship?

A monogamous relationship is a relationship between two people who have agreed to be sexually and/or romantically exclusive with each other. This means that they are not seeing or having sex with other people. 4

To be monogamous also means to be faithful to one’s partner. With monogamous relationships comes fidelity and a commitment to one another. 57 This type of relationship is usually entered into with the expectation that both partners will remain faithful to each other for the duration of the relationship.

2. What are the rules of a monogamous relationship?

The “rules” of a monogamous relationship will vary from couple to couple. However, there are some general guidelines that many monogamous couples follow.

Some couples may choose to be monogamous because they want to avoid STDs. 58 In this case, they would likely use condoms or other forms of birth control to reduce the risk of transmission.

Other couples may choose to be monogamous because they want to avoid emotional entanglement with other people. In this case, they may agree to be exclusive with each other and not have any other romantic or sexual relationships.

Still, other couples may choose to be monogamous because they want to focus on their relationship and not have to worry about the problems that can come with dating multiple people. In this case, they may agree to only date each other and not see other people romantically or sexually.

If you agree to be monogamous, it is important to talk about what this means for both of you. You should discuss your expectations and boundaries around relationships. Perhaps because of how wildly popular and represented it is, monogamous individuals often fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else has the same definition of monogamy as they do. 45 However, this is not always the case! It is important to have these conversations so that both partners are on the same page and know what to expect from one another.

3. Does monogamous mean married?

No, monogamous does not necessarily mean married. Monogamous simply means that you are in a relationship with one person and are not seeing or having sex with other people. A monogamous relationship can be between any two people who have agreed to be exclusive with one another.

While you can be monogamous without being married, many couples choose to get married after they have been in a monogamous relationship for some time. This is because marriage is often seen as a commitment to remain monogamous for the rest of your life. Monogamous marriages are also legal and popular globally, which makes them a more accessible option for many couples.

4. What are the five types of monogamy?

There are actually several different types of monogamy, but the popular five are as follows.

Physical monogamy: This is when two people have agreed to be exclusive with one another and are not having intercourse or any non-sexual contact with anyone else.

Emotional monogamy: This type of monogamy occurs when two people have agreed to only emotionally invest in one another. This means that they are not having any deep emotional connections with other people. Emotionally secure relationships are beneficial to one’s health and well-being, so this type of monogamy can be beneficial for both partners. 59

Social monogamy: When two people are in a social monogamous relationship, they want to appear as though they are a monogamous couple to the outside world. This means that they will only be seen with one another in public and will not date or have with other people.

Activity monogamy: As the name suggests, this type of monogamy occurs when two people have agreed to only do certain activities with one another. For example, a couple may agree to go to the gym together or watch movies together, but not date or have with other people.

Financial monogamy: To some couples, money can be just as important as sex. In a financial monogamous relationship, partners agree to only share their finances with one another and not with other people. This can be a difficult type of monogamy to maintain, but it can be beneficial for couples who want to avoid financial arguments, pool their resources, or both. 60

5. How long do monogamous relationships last?

There is no set answer to how long a monogamous relationship will last. Some couples stay monogamous for their entire relationship, while others may choose to be monogamous for a certain period of time and then re-evaluate their relationship. A study that looks at the effectiveness of maintenance behaviors of monogamous individuals reported that the mean relationship length was 87.0 months. 4 But this number will obviously differ from couple to couple.

It is important to note that, even if you are in a monogamous relationship, you may still experience infidelity. This is because monogamy is a choice and, like any choice, it takes effort to maintain. If you or your partner feel like you are struggling to remain monogamous, it may be helpful to seek out therapy or counseling. This can help you to identify any underlying issues that may be causing difficulty in your relationship and find ways to overcome them.

6. How do I know if I’m monogamous?

The best way to know if you are monogamous is to ask yourself whether you are comfortable with the idea of your partner being intimate with someone else. If the answer is no, then you are likely monogamous. However, it is important to keep in mind that everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to monogamy.

Some people may be okay with their partner kissing someone else, while others may not be comfortable with any type of physical intimacy outside of the relationship. It is important to communicate with your partner about your comfort level and to respect their comfort level as well.

It is also crucial to note that your attitudes toward monogamy or non-monogamy can change over time. You may start in a monogamous relationship and then later decide that you are open to the idea of your partner being with someone else. Alternatively, you may start out in an open relationship and then decide that you would prefer to be monogamous. There is no right or wrong answer here – it is simply important to be honest with yourself and your partner about what you are comfortable with at any given time.

7. Are monogamous relationships healthy?

There is no one answer to this question as different people have different opinions on what constitutes a “healthy” relationship. However, current literature on adult attachment will often highlight that healthy, long-term relationships require secure attachment, which is defined by high levels of trust, commitment, contentment, and interdependence. 61

And while these researchers never specifically mention monogamy, they often use terms like “pair bonds” which imply that monogamy can be a necessary ingredient for a healthy, long-term relationship. 62

So, while there is no definitive answer, the current research would suggest that, yes, monogamous relationships can be healthy.

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Author picture of Janet Smith
Dating Expert

Janet Smith

Janet Smith is a freelance writer who writes about psychology, relationships, and dating. She has always been interested in understanding the human brain and how it affects our …

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