What is a non-monogamous relationship?

Non-monogamy is on the rise, but what does that mean for your relationship? Learn all about open relationships, polyamory, and more.

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With love, there’s hardly ever just one way to do things. The same goes for relationships - there’s no one right way to have one. A monogamous relationship is when two people are exclusive to each other and are not seeing anyone else. 1 But what if you find that’s not what works for you? What if you want to date around and explore different kinds of relationships?

That’s where non-monogamy comes in. Non-monogamous relationships can take lots of different forms, from polyamory to open relationships. The important thing is that everyone involved is honest with each other about what they want and need.

If you’re thinking about opening up your relationship, this guide can help you navigate the process. We’ll cover everything from what are non-monogamous relationships, to their types, benefits, and challenges, so you can see if non-monogamous relationships are right for you. Ready to start exploring? Let’s dive in.

What is a non-monogamous relationship?

What is a non-monogamous relationship?

Broadly speaking, a non-monogamous relationship is any kind of relationship that doesn’t follow the traditional rules of monogamy. Whereas in a monogamous relationship, two people agree to be exclusive with each other and not see anyone else, in a non-monogamous relationship, anything can happen.

There are lots of different types of non-monogamous relationships, and all of them have their own rules and boundaries. What works for one couple might not work for another, so it’s important to figure out what kind of non-monogamy is right for you.

Relationships, in general, can complicated - but they don’t have to be. Learn everything you need to know about human relationships, from understanding why we form them, to improving your own.

Non-monogamous relationship definition

A non-monogamous relationship is any type of relationship in which the partners do not agree to be exclusive with each other. Simply put, this means that the couple agrees to date, have sex, or even marry (one or multiple) other people, if they so choose. 2 Therefore, non-monogamous relationships are the opposite of monogamous relationships.

Some people refer to non-monogamous relationships as “ethical non-monogamy” or “consensual non-monogamy” (CNM). CNM relationships are often stigmatized, as they go against the traditional ideas of what a relationship “should be.” 3 They are often seen as less moral, less committed, and less satisfying. However, such stereotyping may be because people often confuse CNM relationships with infidelity or cheating, otherwise known as non-consensual non-monogamy (NCNM).

It’s important to note that CNM and NCNM are not the same thing. In a CNM relationship, everyone involved knows about and has consented to the non-monogamous arrangement. In an NCNM relationship, one or more partners are cheating on the others without their knowledge or consent. CNM is ethical and consensual, while NCNM is not.

People who engage in CNM often do so for a number of reasons, including wanting to experience new things, feeling like they can’t be monogamous, or simply not wanting to be limited to one partner. Many individuals who participate in CNM report high levels of relational well-being, and CNM in itself has been shown to provide unique relational benefits. 4 5

The evolution of non-monogamy

Despite the weird looks or judgment you might get from strangers when you mention non-monogamy in today’s society, the truth is, humans have been engaging in non-monogamous relationships for centuries. And they probably even go as far back as our prehistoric ancestors.

In fact, monogamy may be more of a recent relationship orientation than we think. According to some archeological estimates, almost 85 percent of societies allowed the practice of polygamy (having multiple spouses), and throughout history, royalty and the elite openly engaged in polyamorous relationships. 6 7

Even tracing back to our ancestors, the great apes - whom we share an astounding 99 percent of our genetic code with - researchers have found that most ape species are not monogamous. Among most of our primate cousins, they favored mainly three mating strategies: long-term, short-term, and polygamy. 8 And only approximately 3 percent of mammals are known to practice monogamy. 9

So, if non-monogamy is nothing new, why does it have such a bad reputation?

Well, a lot of it has to do with the way society has always done things. For the longest time, monogamy has been seen as the only “acceptable” way to do relationships. Even psychological theories and researchers have largely advocated for monogamy as the only way to go. For example, Erikson’s psychosocial development framework includes a stage in young adulthood, called the “intimacy vs. isolation” stage, where the primary task is to develop a close and committed relationship with another person - in other words, to find a monogamous partner. 10

But things are changing. In recent years, there has been a growing movement of shifting attitudes in Western societal norms toward non-traditional relationships, including premarital, casual, and extra-marital relationships. 11 12 13 These shifts point to a more tolerant stance on non-monogamy, which has been made easier by the rise of social media and technology. 14

Different types of non-monogamous relationships

Different types of non-monogamous relationships

Each type of non-monogamous relationship has its own unique set of rules and guidelines. If you’re thinking about exploring consensual non-monogamy, it’s important to learn about the different types so that you can find the right one for you.

While there is no “one size fits all” answer when it comes to consensual non-monogamy, these relationships can be extremely fulfilling for those who choose them. So if you’re curious about this alternative way of living, read on to learn more about the different types of non-monogamous relationships!

1. Poly relationship

A poly relationship or poly marriage is any type of relationship in which the partners have more than one romantic or sexual partner. Polyamory is a specific type of poly relationship in which the partners openly agree or encourage each other to have multiple relationships. 5

In these relationships, romantic love and emotional closeness are not limited to one person but are often viewed as something endless. 15 Polyamorous relationships are structured in a variety of ways, and there is no one right way to do it. In some cases, one or two “primary” partners (typically the focal or longest relationship partner) and one or more “secondary” partners (often known as hierarchical polyamory) are present. 16

Engagement in polyamorous relationships and other forms of consensual non-monogamy is on the rise in the US and Canada, and individuals in consensually non-monogamous relationships report better relationship qualities (e.g., lower jealousy, higher sexual satisfaction) and unique benefits, such as personal growth and diversified need fulfillment. 17 5

Before you consider entering into a poly relationship, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your partner(s) about your wants, needs, and boundaries.

Polyamorous relationships are becoming more mainstream, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what they are and how they work. Here’s everything you need to know about poly relationships.

2. Open relationship

An open relationship is any type of relationship in which couples agree that they can have sex, date, or enter into relationships with other people. People in open relationships usually retain emotional intimacy within a primary relationship and pursue additional casual and/or sexual partnerships. 18

When done consensually, open relationships can provide individuals with the opportunity to explore new things and fulfill different needs. Open relationships often require a high level of communication and negotiation to work, but they can be just as fulfilling as any other type of relationship.

Entering into any type of non-monogamous relationship can be daunting, but it’s important to remember that you and your partner(s) are the only ones who get to define what your relationship looks like. As long as everyone is on the same page, there’s no wrong way to do it.

3. 3-way-relationship

Another common type of non-monogamous relationship is the three-way relationship, also known as a triad or throuple. In these relationships, three people are all romantically and/or sexually involved with each other.

Like other types of CNM relationships, triads can take many different forms. Some triads involve all three partners being sexually involved with each other, while others involve two partners being sexually involved and the third partner being emotionally involved.

Triads can be incredibly fulfilling, and individuals in these relationships often report equally high levels of satisfaction as those in monogamous relationships. 2

4. Hierarchal polyamory

Hierarchal polyamory is a type of poly relationship in which one or two “primary” partners (typically the focal or longest relationship partner) and one or more “secondary” partners are present. In hierarchical polyamory, the primary partners typically have a stronger emotional connection than the secondary partners. Primary partners also prioritize their relationship with each other over their relationships with secondary partners. They may cohabitate, co-parent, share finances, or have other commitments that secondary partners do not share. 19

In this relationship, individuals often report less stigma and more satisfaction, investment, commitment, and greater communication within their primary relationships. 20

Hierarchical polyamory can work for some people, but it’s not for everyone. If you’re considering this type of relationship, it’s important to have a frank discussion with all of your partners about your wants, needs, and expectations.

5. Egalitarian polyamory

While hierarchal polyamory structures relationships around a primary and secondary hierarchy, egalitarian polyamory equalizes all partners. Also called non-hierarchal polyamory, everyone is on the same level and there is no primary or secondary partner. In hierarchal polyamory, primary partners may have an influence on their partner’s relationships with other people, but in egalitarian polyamory, you will have no say in a relationship that doesn’t include you. 21

Furthermore, while secondary and tertiary partners in hierarchal polyamorous relationships often report lower satisfaction in their relationships, primary partners and egalitarian polyamorous individuals report similar levels of satisfaction. 19 People in polyamory relationships were also more satisfied and more secure with non-hierarchal partners than secondary and tertiary partners in hierarchal relationships. 19

Egalitarian polyamory is a great option for people who want to avoid the hierarchy often found in other types of polyamorous relationships. When considering this type of relationship, it’s important to make sure that everyone involved is on the same page and has the same expectations.

6. Solo polyamory

Solo polyamory is a type of poly relationship in which an individual has multiple relationships but does not want to live with or marry any of their partners. The term solo polyamory was coined by journalist Amy Gahran in a blog post entitled “Riding the relationship escalator (or not)” in which she described the elevator as “the default set of societal customs for the proper conduct of intimate relationships” - meaning the traditional life markers of getting married, having children, and living together. 22

Individuals in solo polyamory relationships often want the freedom to date and see multiple people without the commitment of a traditional relationship or having a primary partner, though they may see themselves as their own primary partner. 22

There’s no one way to do non-monogamous relationships, and solo polyamory is a great option for people who want the flexibility to date multiple people without the commitment of a traditional relationship.

7. Swinging

Swinging is a type of non-monogamy in which couples open up their relationship to include sexual encounters with other couples. 23 While some couples may only engage in swinging with other couples that they know and trust, others may attend swingers parties or use online platforms to meet new people. 24

Swingers have grown exponentially in recent years, with data from 2005 suggesting that there are over 4 to 15 million swingers in the United States alone. 25 Swinging can be a great way for couples to add some excitement to their relationship, but it’s important to make sure that everyone is on the same page before taking the plunge.

Swinging can be just as intimate as any other type of relationship, and has been found to potentially enhance trust within marital relationships, and open communication about sexual needs and desires. 26

As you see, there’s no one way to do non-monogamy. Whether you’re interested in polyamory, swinging, or something else entirely, the most important thing is to find what works for you and your partner (or partners).

The benefits of non-monogamous relationships

The benefits of non-monogamous relationships

There are a lot of benefits to non-monogamous relationships, and everyone experiences them differently. Despite the negative connotations that society often places on non-monogamy, these relationships have a lot to offer to those who practice them.

Here are some of the benefits that non-monogamous relationships can provide.

1. Non-monogamous relationships can improve your communication skills.

One of the most important aspects of any relationship is communication, and this is especially true for non-monogamous relationships. Because non-monogamous relationships involve more than one person, it’s important to be able to communicate effectively with all of your partners. 27

Interestingly, many of the communication strategies used by individuals in non-monogamous relationships are also the most effective communication strategies in monogamous relationships. 28 But because non-monogamous individuals make communication a priority in their relationships, they often develop stronger communication skills overall.

2. Non-monogamous relationships increase trust.

Many people think that monogamy is the way to prevent jealousy in relationships, which is why CNM relationships are viewed as impossible or doomed to fail. 29 Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that individuals in non-monogamous relationships actually report feeling more trust towards their partners than those in monogamous relationships. 4

Moreover, jealousy was lower in individuals who practiced consensual non-monogamy than in those who did not. 4 These findings suggest that while jealousy is an inevitable part of any relationship, it can be as manageable in non-monogamous relationships as in monogamous ones. 30

3. Non-monogamous relationships can help you learn more about yourself.

Engaging in CNM can help individuals learn more about themselves and their desires and boundaries. Because non-monogamous relationships require constant communication and negotiation, individuals in these relationships often have a better understanding of what they want and need from their partners.

This is in stark contrast to monogamous relationships, where individuals often have difficulty aligning each other’s definitions and criteria for a successful monogamous relationship. 31

Learning about yourself can also include breaking out gender, sexuality, and relationship norms. 5 For example, you might find that you’re more attracted to someone outside of your usual “type” when you open yourself up to new possibilities.

4. Non-monogamy can help meet your diverse needs.

A decline in sexual satisfaction is often the common cause of breakups in monogamous relationships. This is because individuals in monogamous relationships often have different levels of need for variety and novelty. 32

In other words, one person in the relationship may desire more sex than the other, which can lead to feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction. However, because non-monogamous relationships involve more than one person, these needs can be met more easily. In fact, autonomous sexual motives and such motives were positively linked to sexual need fulfillment, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction among CNM individuals. 33

Moreover, for some individuals, having sex with other people improved the primary partnership by making the sex between them more intimate or more exciting. 34

5. Non-monogamy may prevent infidelity.

The common perception is that infidelity is more likely to occur in non-monogamous relationships than in monogamous ones. This is because people often conflate consensual non-monogamy with cheating, also known as non-consensual non-monogamy. Those two concepts vary greatly, and infidelity is actually more likely to occur in monogamous relationships than in consensual non-monogamous ones. 4

This is because monogamous relationships often have strict rules and expectations surrounding fidelity, which can lead to feelings of resentment and frustration if those rules are not met. On the other hand, consensual non-monogamous relationships typically have much more flexible rules, which can make it easier for both partners to feel satisfied with the relationship.

Non-monogamy, despite society’s animosity, has a lot to offer. These benefits suggest that non-monogamy could be a valuable relationship structure for those who are interested in exploring it.

If you’re considering opening up your relationship, or are currently in a non-monogamous relationship, being on the same page as your partner(s) is essential. This means having open and honest communication about your needs, boundaries, and expectations.

The challenges of non-monogamous relationships

The challenges of non-monogamous relationships

Of course, non-monogamous relationships are not perfect. Just like any other type of relationship, they come with their own set of challenges that need to be addressed and worked through.

Some of the most common challenges faced by non-monogamous individuals include.

1. The stigma surrounding non-monogamy

The stigma surrounding non-monogamy can make it difficult for individuals to openly discuss their relationships with others. In general, people will often assume that monogamous relationships are more satisfying, passionate, stable, and committed than non-monogamous ones. 35

This stigma can make it difficult for individuals in non-monogamous relationships to find support and understanding from their peers. Community is essential for our relationships and well-being, and the lack of community can make non-monogamous relationships feel isolating and difficult to navigate. 36

In addition, it can also make it difficult for them to find relationship partners who are willing to enter into a non-monogamous relationship.

2. Non-monogamous relationship types are not created equal

There is a lot of diversity within monogamous relationships, just as there is within non-monogamous ones. Some monogamous relationships can be incredibly satisfying for both parties involved, while some may benefit one party more than the other.

The same is true for non-monogamous relationships. As previously mentioned, secondary and tertiary relationships often involve different levels of commitment, time, and energy than primary relationships. This can result in secondary and tertiary partners experiencing lower satisfaction levels than primary partners. 19 In addition, polyamorous individuals are often more satisfied as non-hierarchal partners than as secondary or tertiary ones. 19

It’s important to keep in mind that not all non-monogamous relationship types are created equal. Different types of non-monogamous relationships can result in different levels of satisfaction for all parties involved, and being

Since non-monogamous relationships are not recognized by the law and are even banned in a lot of countries, individuals in these relationships do not have any legal protections. This means that if one partner were to cheat on or abuse the other, the victim would not have any legal recourse.

In addition, non-monogamous individuals also miss out on many of the legal benefits that are given to monogamous couples. These benefits include things like spousal support, inheritance rights, and hospital visitation rights.

Non-monogamous relationships are not perfect, and face challenges that monogamous relationships do not. These obstacles are often magnified by the stigma surrounding non-monogamy, as well as the lack of legal protections and benefits.

Despite these challenges, non-monogamous relationships can be incredibly rewarding and satisfying for all parties involved. If you’re considering entering into a non-monogamous relationship, be sure to do your research, communicate openly with your partner(s), and set clear boundaries and expectations.

Frequently asked questions about non-monogamous relationships

Frequently asked questions about non-monogamous relationships

1. How do you know if you’re non-monogamous?

Knowing if you’re non-monogamous can be tricky, because there isn’t a right or wrong answer. The best way to figure it out is to explore your relationship style and see what works best for you and your partner(s).

Of course, your attitudes towards different relationship orientations can change over time, so it’s important to stay open-minded and keep communication channels open. Exploring and trying new things is a natural part of any relationship, so don’t be afraid to experiment!

2. Are non-monogamous relationships healthy?

Even though monogamous relationships are often the common subject of research on healthy relationships, non-monogamous relationships can be just as healthy – if not healthier! – than monogamous ones. 37

The key to a healthy non-monogamous relationship is communication. This will already be likely prioritized in your relationship if you’re considering opening up, but it’s worth emphasizing. In any relationship, communication is key to ensuring that everyone is on the same page and that everyone’s needs are being met.

A willingness to compromise also goes a long way in keeping any type of relationship healthy. 38 Different types of relationships will work for different people, so it’s important to find what works best for you and your partner(s).

3. What is an ethically non-monogamous relationship?

An ethically non-monogamous relationship is one in which all parties involved have consented to the non-monogamy. This means that everyone is aware of and agrees to the non-monogamous arrangement.

This is hugely different from nonconsensual non-monogamy, which is when one partner cheats on or otherwise violates the monogamous agreement without the knowledge or consent of the other partner.

Ethical non-monogamy can take many different forms, so figuring out what works for you and your partner(s) is key. Some common ethical non-monogamous arrangements include polyamory, swinging, and open relationships.

4. Why do people choose non-monogamy?

People often enter into non-monogamous relationships for different reasons. Some of the common ones typically fall into one of the five categories: autonomy, belief systems, growth and expansion, sexuality, and relationality. 32

Of course, these reasons are not mutually exclusive – someone can enter into a non-monogamous relationship for more than one reason! It’s also important to remember that everyone’s reasons for choosing non-monogamy will be different, so don’t make assumptions about why someone is in a non-monogamous relationship.

5. How common is non-monogamy?

Contrary to popular belief, non-monogamy is actually quite common! A 2016 survey among nearly 9,000 single adults in the US revealed that one in five Americans have engaged in non-monogamous sexual behavior at some point in their lives.A Canadian survey also yielded similar results a year later. 39

Though the research is limited, these surveys suggest that non-monogamy is more common than we might think. And this statistic is likely to grow as more people feel comfortable exploring different types of relationships.

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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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