What was your favorite fairy tale as a kid? Whether it came from the brothers Grimm or Walt Disney, there’s a high chance the happily ever after followed a predictable formula: man and woman meet, fall in love, maybe fight some dragons or sea monsters, and then ride off into the sunset together.
What if the story didn’t end there? What if Prince Charming and Prince Valiant wanted to give swinging a try? What if Cinderella wanted to try on partners instead of slippers? And what if the result was a new kind of relationship, one that made us all rethink what it means to be intimate, trusting, or even in love?
A monogamous relationship isn’t the only path to romantic and sexual happiness, and more people than ever are building the kind of love life that truly works for them — instead of the one society tells them should. We reached out to relationship experts and some non-monogamous people to find out why these arrangements are gaining popularity and what you should know before trying them out for yourself.
To start, it’s important to understand that not all forms of non-monogamy are the same. Although there are no limits to the types of romantic and sexual relationships in the world, typically non-monogamous partnerings can fall into these three categories:
Typically (but not always) an “open relationship” refers to two people. They can be any sex, gender and sexual orientation but they have, in many ways, a traditional partnership. However, unlike a monogamous relationship, an open relationship allows for one or both partners to have additional sexual partners. This is something both partners have agreed to and have set boundaries for, which is why having an open relationship is NOT the same thing as cheating.
This term is most often used by married heterosexual couples (but again, not always). Swingers tend to be in a committed relationship and engage in sex with other individuals or couples together.
Sex and Relationship Guru Scott Brown, Founder of Sexpressed.com explains swinging well: “Swinging is exclusively about sex and “sexual recreation” usually appended to the traditional male/female couple. In other words, swingers don’t individually engage in sex with people who aren’t their life partner — it’s an activity they do together as a way to add variety to their marriage/coupledom.”
Like swinging and open relationships, polyamory can allow people in relationships to have sex with others.
However, Patricia Johnson and Mark Michaels Co-authors of Designer Relationships and Partners in Passion explain, “The emphasis in polyamory is more on emotional connection, and the term implies at least a willingness to love more than one person. There’s also considerably less of a couple's focus in polyamory, although many self-identified poly people are in dyadic relationships.”
Sex therapist Michael J. Salas, MA adds, “Polyamory is a little bit of an umbrella term to describe various relationship styles. This can include triads, primary and secondary relationships, and pods, etc.”
Alina Kislenko MA, a therapist specializing in ADHD, Asperger's, and Sex therapy shares some additional forms polyamory can take: “A popular format of it includes people having a primary partner that they are closest to (and have some guidelines with around being with other partners), as well as possibly secondary and tertiary relationships with partners they are less bonded with in comparison to their primary partner. You can have closed groups, such as those who are monogamous with one another but there can be three or more people within this monogamous bond, or it can be polyamorous, meaning that monogamy is not expected.”
In fact, some poly folks may not be sexually active at all or can identify as asexual. Although they may only have sex with one partner or may not have sex at all, they can be in romantic relationships with more than one person and therefore identify as polyamorous.
Not yet — but many experts agree that other forms of relationships are certainly becoming more popular. It’s difficult to say exactly why this is happening, though many researchers, therapists and relationship gurus have their own theories.
“The current shift has been influenced by a wide variety of cultural factors,” says Patricia Johnson and Mark Michaels. “In addition to the growing and politically active polyamory community, the swinging and kink communities appear to be gaining many new adherents.
Therapists like Esther Perel and Tammy Nelson have been challenging conventional wisdom, exploring the potentially positive transformations that can take place in the aftermath of an affair, and moving the professional discourse away from the knee-jerk assumption that non-monogamous arrangements are intrinsically problematic.”
Scott Brown believes popular T.V. shows are also introducing more people to non-monogamy. “For example, the two main characters in the hugely successful House of Cards TV show have a non-monogamous relationship — an unhealthy one, but nonetheless definitely non-monogamous. Likewise, the success of the reality series Sister Wives starts a lot of conversations, even though that relationship is also pretty unhealthy. Notice a trend here? The media is doing a great job of starting the conversation by portraying non-monogamy in our entertainment, but they’re not doing such a good job of showing how a healthy, positive, and successful open relationship works.”
Alina Kislenko thinks additional cultural shifts may be influencing the uptick in non-monogamous relationships. “People are now living much longer and marriages that were originally intended for just 25-35 years can now be extended to 50 or 60 years due to changing life expectancies. Pair that with people being so stretched that even two incomes won't due, the rise in ease of non-socially risky ways of meeting others into non-traditional relationships (the internet), and the drop in religiosity which condones a very specific type of relationship and no sex before marriage, and you have a rise in non-monogamy.”
These factors might explain how non-monogamy has gained traction, but what are some of the benefits of open relationships, swinging and polyamory?
We went to the source and asked some real poly folks why they chose non-monogamy. Here’s what they had to say:
“Polyamory sneaks up on you in subtle ways. I fell for two different girls at about the same time. Society tells us to choose one and move on but that didn't feel right to me. I kept asking myself ‘Why can't I love both?’ Turns out I could.” Brandon, Toronto
“For me, it felt like ignoring feelings for people besides the person I was currently committed to felt dishonest. I have always known I could be attracted to multiple people, so when I discovered polyamory it felt like I was able to be honest about it for the first time. I have had to miss out on relationships with people I had very strong connections with simply because they entered my life at a time where I was already in a relationship with someone else, and I bitterly regret those losses.” Hayden, creator of Poly Pop Reviews.
“My Significant Other and I discussed the subject while we were dating. She was bi and wanted to be with a man and a woman. On my part, I liked the idea of being able to love who I wanted, and not having to choke back emotions because I was already with someone. And to be honest, I liked the logistics of the whole thing. I liked the idea of being a 2-income family while still having someone stay at home with the kids. I liked the idea of having another person to share chores with. I liked the idea of alternating one person being at home with the kids while the other two went out together, and just rotating who was staying home.” Matthew, Oklahoma
“If you feel love for more than one person at a time, monogamy might not be for you. It was really that simple for me: I am happier when I can express my feelings without shame or restriction.” Christine, Orlando
Our experts also had their own thoughts on the benefits of a non-monogamous lifestyle. Many agree that arrangements like swinging, open relationships and polyamory help individuals communicate in ways that monogamy doesn’t.
“Something that monogamy doesn’t really have built into it is the need to communicate about the relationship,” says Scott Brown. “There’s one rule in monogamy and it’s very straightforward — there’s no need to discuss it, because it’s so simple. Things are way more complicated in alternative structures. Thus, you’re forced to express your wants and needs to your partner(s) on a regular basis; the relationship stays dynamic and changes as you change as an individual.”
“They also can allow one party to fulfill fantasies, fetishes, etc., that their partner doesn’t want to take part in. In this way, the couple can maintain their emotional relationship and get their physical needs met too,” says Marriage Consultant and Coach Lesli Doares.
The communication that comes with open relationships, swinging and polyamorous relationships can also make a sex life safer. Patricia Johnson and Mark Michaels claim, “Compared to ostensibly monogamous people who cheat, people in consensually non-monogamous relationships are more likely to practice safer sex and less likely to be intoxicated during their encounters.” Those definitely sound like upsides to us!
With all the positives, it makes sense that more and more people are giving open relationships, swinging and polyamory a try. But it can’t be all amazing sex and personal freedom, can it? Sadly, non-monogamous relationships do have some downsides.
If you’re currently in a committed monogamous relationship and decide to “open” that relationship to the possibility of other sexual and/or romantic partners, a lot of things could happen:
While these are all possibilities, the majority of the negativity you experience may come from monogamous people who don’t understand your decision.
“I wish people would understand that non-monogamy does not equate to promiscuity, fear of commitment or greed,” says Brandon.
“The biggest drawback is the world around you,” says Scott Brown. “When my girlfriend and I get into an argument or have some sort of issue, she can’t go to any of her mono friends to talk about it, because the first thing they say is, “Well, it IS an open relationship…” Even if the problem stems from money or family problems, or something completely unrelated to non-monogamy, they feel that that’s where all the problems come from. It’s a lack of understanding that makes the world tricky to navigate.”
Hayden adds, “Just because I am dating multiple people doesn’t mean that my relationships are less intense than monogamous ones. It’s not that I only give 50% of my love to one partner and 50% to the other; they both get exactly as much love as they would if they were the only person I was seeing.”
Non-monogamous couples may also face discrimination or find themselves struggling to overcome legal hurdles. Christine explains, “My husband and I share our lives equally with a third partner. My husband and I have insurance coverage through his job, but our partner is ineligible for coverage because he is not legally recognized as part of our family. So, I'd say the hardest thing about being poly is navigating the challenges that come with living in a world built for couples.”
Should you try swinging, creating new open relationship rules with your partner, or shifting to a polyamorous relationship? The only person who can answer that question is you (and your partner). Before you make your decision, try to answer these questions:
“Be careful in setting up rules/regulations and how you "enforce" or word them,” cautions Matthew. “If I say ‘No, you may not date John, or else I am dumping you.’ it is a lot different than if I say ‘I'm not comfortable with you dating John.’ and them letting them make up their own minds. If they decide to date John anyway, I have options and can do what is best for my health. I can decide John isn't such a bad guy, and I can continue on, or I can decide it makes me too uncomfortable, and I can end my relationship. What is even better, however, is to communicate at a deeper level and explain things, for example ‘I am not comfortable with you dating John, because he dated Jane, and was very abusive to her. I don't think I could stand watching that happen to you, and may have to distance myself from that situation.’"
So keep those lines of communication open. Share your feelings when they happen instead of bottling them up, and be brave enough to admit when something isn’t working. If you are, you may just find your happily ever after — or at least a very happy afternoon.
Have you ever been in a non-monogamous relationship? What advice would you offer others who are thinking of following in your footsteps? Share your thoughts with us by tweeting them to @ASTROGLIDE!
Images are for illustrative purposes only.