Non-Monogamy: What’s that all about?
Note: This article was written by Summer Clarke, a 4th year undergraduate at McMaster University. She volunteers as a Team Lead for the Student Wellness Centre’s Sexual Health Team and is passionate about educating people on all things sexual health, intimacy and non-monogamy.
Non-monogamy has become increasingly common over the past few years, especially among younger generations. However, it is a big topic with a lot of diversity, which can make it challenging to get clear information on what non-monogamy means and how it works. If you’ve been wondering what this non-monogamy thing is, you’ve come to the right place.
So first, let’s answer the question…
What even is “non-monogamy”?
Non-monogamy is an umbrella term for any relationship style that involves more than two people. People of all romantic and sexual orientations can practice non-monogamy; this means that these relationships may or may not include a sexual and/or romantic component.
Some people in non-monogamous relationships prefer to use the term Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM) or Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM) to distinguish themselves from people who cheat. Cheating has occurred when one person in a relationship has not consented to how a partner is engaging with people external to that relationship. In monogamy, cheating could look like one partner engaging in a romantic/sexual relationship with a third-party. In non-monogamy, it could look like one partner keeping an additional romantic connection a secret when they had agreed to non-monogamy with open communication about new connections. To practice non-monogamy, consent from all parties is a must.
Types of non-monogamy
You may be wondering what falls under that umbrella of non-monogamy. We are going to go through a few types of non-monogamy to get you started.
As a side note, the language surrounding non-monogamy is constantly in flux. How terms are used varies between people and over time. There may be discrepancies in how you understood a specific term compared to how I chose to define it here. If someone uses a term that has various definitions or applications, it’s best to clarify what that term means to them instead of assuming.
This is another umbrella term for any dynamic that involves a relationship where the needs and desires of the original relationship are prioritized over other sexual and/or romantic connections. When this happens, a hierarchy is created where there is a primary relationship with other secondary relationships. Secondary relationships vary in the level of commitment or intimacy they include. The following terms fall under the hierarchical non-monogamy umbrella.
Prescriptive hierarchical polyamory: Polyamory is the practice of engaging in multiple simultaneous loving relationships which may include sexual and/or romantic attraction. To have a prescriptive hierarchy means that the primary partners have chosen to prioritize their relationship while also engaging with other secondary connections.
Open relationships: Open relationships have traditionally involved a primary couple that has additional sexual interactions while maintaining emotional/romantic exclusivity. However, some open relationships do not involve romantic exclusivity. Being monogamish, seeking a third/fourth sexual partner together or separately, or swinging may fall under the umbrella of open relationships too.
Monogamish: Monogamish couples are primarily monogamous, but engage in occasional casual sex with other partners. Monogamish couples typically have more specific rules surrounding how their external sexual interactions can occur. Rules may revolve around the time, locations, the types of sexual activity allowed, or the frequency of interactions with external people.
Swinging: Multiple couples choosing to swap partners for sexual engagement.
Non-hierarchical dynamics do not involve a primary couple that is prioritized. Each relationship has its own set of needs which must be cared for by the people involved so that everyone is satisfied. Within non-hierarchical dynamics, one typically does not place rules upon what one’s partner can do with their other partners like in some hierarchical dynamics.
However, this doesn’t mean that separate partnerships will never have different types of entanglements (e.g., living together/nesting, having children, marriage, sharing finances). All the relationships will look different; this can sometimes result in a “descriptive hierarchy”. This means the natural progression of each relationship has resulted in some type of hierarchy, but still, one relationship is not consistently or intentionally prioritized over others like in a prescriptive hierarchy.
Polyfidelity involves an exclusive, loving relationship between more than two people. These relationships are typically considered “closed”, meaning the people involved are not seeking out new partners. For example, a triad/throuple is a relationship involving three people, and a quad is a relationship involving four people; these may or may not be considered polyfidelity depending on whether they are closed.
Essential Principals for Exploring Non-Monogamy in a Healthy Way
There is no way that I can deliver all the essential advice on non-monogamy within one short article, especially since there are so many relationship styles which all require different considerations. However, I’ve selected three key principles to navigating the early waters of non-monogamy that, in my opinion, are necessary in all types of dynamics. Hopefully these can point you in the right direction.
Western culture values monogamy as the “best” and sometimes “only acceptable” relationship structure. You may have a lot of learned behaviours and expectations to unlearn and a lot of natural emotions (e.g., jealousy) to work through if you choose to engage in non-monogamy.
When starting non-monogamy, it is important to not ignore how you feel in situations that make you uncomfortable or distressed. Take the time to consider why you feel a certain way regarding a potential or current relationship you are involved in. Are you upholding a standard of monogamy that doesn’t fit here, and you need to learn to cope with this feeling? Are your negative feelings identifying an unmet need you have that you need to communicate with a partner?
Don’t ignore what’s going on inside your mind. Staying aware of how you are feeling is essential to building a sustainable dynamic.
Being vulnerable can be uncomfortable for many people. However, it is extremely unlikely that you will be able to maintain multiple relationships if you are not open to communicating your feelings and needs to others.
There is no standard “script” for what any specific connection within non-monogamy will look like. You collectively decide what relationships work for you and the others involved. This can be freeing, but it can also be disorienting.
As you continue to introspect, you will need to share many of those thoughts with the people you are dating. Sometimes, communicating will help you realize quickly that you and another person are not well suited for each other since you have different expectations and needs for the connection. Other times, partners can work to address the needs of everyone involved, and the relationship is better for it.
If communication is something that scares you when starting non-monogamy, try practicing your communication with people you have established relationships with. Communication gets easier the more you do it.
Research, research, and more research
Since monogamy is the “expected” relationship structure within Western society and many societies globally, you might have an idea about what healthy and unhealthy practices/dynamics look like within the context of monogamy. Most likely, you do not have this exposure to non-monogamy.
Starting non-monogamy with a “learn as you go” mindset, without referring to the advice and warnings of experienced non-monogamous individuals, can result in hurt feelings and unsuccessful relationships. This can also lead to the misconception that “non-monogamy doesn’t work”, when in reality, how you were practicing it might have contributed to its breakdown.
If you are looking to start non-monogamy, you can follow non-monogamy educators, read their recommended books, watch videos on the aspects you have little knowledge about, and think critically about what would work best for you. You don’t have to be a non-monogamy expert before you start, but it is good to have some knowledge so you can avoid the frequent pitfalls of non-monogamy newbies.
If you’re interested in practicing non-monogamy on your own or are attempting to open up a relationship, don’t stop your research here!
Check out the first section called “Non-monogamy terminology and definitions” of Leanne Yau’s (she/they) Frequently Asked Questions on their non-monogamy blog “Polyphilia”. You will find many links to Leanne’s short videos where she defines various terms that the non-monogamy community uses.
If you are curious about non-monogamy yourself or are just looking to have a better understanding of it, I hope this article was able to get you started. There are more options out there for engaging in relationships that might work for you. You don’t need to fit into the traditional, monogamous mould in order to have satisfying and successful relationships. Good luck on your journey! Thanks for reading.
A Few of My Favourite Non-Monogamous Creators
Marjani Lane (she/they): A pro-black polyamorous and non-monogamy educator. They often address how white supremacy and disability intersect with non-monogamy.
- Instagram, TikTok, & Twitter: @marjanilane
- Sensory Sensitivity and Accessible Instagram: @marjanilane_v2
Leanna Yau (she/they): A polyamorous and non-monogamy educator. They are a queer, Asian, and autistic creator. She posts memes and advice related to non-monogamy and the queer experience through her various platforms and in workshops.
- Instagram, TikTok, & Twitter: @polyphiliablog
Cathy Reay (she/her): A disabled, queer, polyamorous writer on disability justice, sex & dating, single motherhood, and skincare. She shares often about her personal experience related to her intersecting identities.
- Instagram: @cathyreaywrites
Gabrielle Smith (she/her): She provides intersectional polyamory education through workshops and on Instagram. She is afro-latina, solo-polyamorous, and bisexual+.
- Instagram: @bygabriellesmith
- Twitter: @gabrielleasmith
Chad (he/him): A creator looking to normalize polyamory. He posts a lot of non-monogamy memes which frequently tackle the topic of toxic masculinity within relationships including men.
- Instagram: @polyamfam