7 Signs a Monogamous Relationship Isn't For You
Monogamy is all around us. It's the relationship style we see every day in the media, pop culture, religion, and, generally, in our everyday lives.
Unfortunately, compulsory monogamy is also all around us. Compulsory monogamy culture assumes that everyone strives to be married (or partnered) to/with one person and finds complete fulfillment in that romantic endeavor. It's the idea that this one romantic partner not only completes us, but also fulfills every need and desire we have. (And FYI, even if you do want one partner, it's still impossible for that one person to meet all your needs).
Many people who are just beginning to navigate their sexual desires and romantic relationships are taught that monogamy is the only relationship structure available to them. As a polyamorous sex therapist, I believe when someone knows their options for relationship structures, they can decide what feels best for them.
Knowing that non-monogamy is an option does not mean that it will be for everyone — it simply allows people to decide what relationship structure and boundaries work for them while eliminating the shame some may feel when they have a hard time fitting into the monogamy mold.
It's super important to note that practicing monogamy doesn't put you on a higher moral ground than someone practicing ethical non-monogamy (ENM). And practicing ENM doesn't put you on a higher moral ground than someone who is monogamous. Your relationship structure is just that. How you treat other humans determines what moral ground you're on, not your relationship structure. Just trust that everyone is making the best, informed decision for what feels the best for their life.
So, let's go over what exactly ethical non-monogamy is. Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term for all relationships where all partners are aware of the dynamic and consent to their partner(s) either dating or having sex outside of the relationship. Some of the ways folks can practice ethical non-monogamy are stranger sex, polyamory, random hookups, relationship anarchy, swinging, and friends with benefits.
Quite a few myths surround ethical non-monogamy, so let's tackle the stigmas first before diving in!
Myth: Ethical non-monogamy is cheating.
Reality: Non-ethical non-monogamy is cheating. Cheating is the non-monogamy part without communication or consent. Anytime we aren't being truthful to people who trust us is not ethical — ever.
Myth: Something is wrong or lacking in the "primary" relationship.
Reality: Practicing ENM brings folks closer together, presents many new challenges, and it's not meant as a "hail mary" to save a relationship. Ideally, and in what I've seen in my practice, most folks who decide to try or practice ENM are fully happy together. In the same way that a single person ideally needs to be a complete human before entering into a relationship, a couple will have more success and have healthier relationships if they are solid and happy.
Myth: Ethical non-monogamy is an excuse not to commit.
Reality: Commitment doesn't necessarily mean exclusivity to genitals, and everyone's definition of commitment is different. Just like you can be committed to multiple friendships, you can be committed to multiple romantic relationships as well — and there's nothing wrong with being single, whether you identify as monogamous or not!
Myth: Ethical non-monogamy is all about sex.
Reality: For some, yes, and that's perfectly okay. For most, ENM is complicated because of our compulsive monogamous culture, and those complications are "too much" for "just sex." It's also a naive understanding of ENM, to begin with — we don't assume monogamous people are only together for sex, so it's silly to assume the same of ENM.
Myth: Ethical non-monogamy can't work long term.
Reality: There are so many happy ENM individuals, couples, throuples, quads, and families living worldwide. Because of the compulsive monogamous culture we're living in, we just don't get to hear much about this!
Isn't it interesting that it's the societal norm to have one romantic partner, whereas it's entirely "normal" for us to have many friends? We don't ever ask, "won't your other friends be jealous if you see that friend tonight?" Romantic relationships are relationships, just like friendships are relationships. Relationships are relationships are relationships are relationships are relationships are relationships. If you love your friend and your other friend, you know what it's like to love two people and what it's like to be in multiple relationships with varying levels of intimacy — sex or not!
Now that we've defined what ethical non-monogamy is and isn't — let's talk about the signs that monogamy may not be the best relationship design for you (and that you may be wired for ethical non-monogamy!) Please note that this list is not comprehensive. Also, every person is wired differently, so remember to take extra care and use compassion with yourself and others when thinking about this stuff.
Signs Monogamy Isn't Right For You
You have a history of "serial monogamy."
A serial monogamist feels most comfortable in committed relationships. They have a series of monogamous relationships and don't typically take breaks between relationships to be single or to casually date. This is the closest thing to ENM there is while still practicing monogamy. Usually, when a serial monogamist ends a relationship to move to another one, it is because they want to try something new and have been told that means they need to end their existing relationship. So, they do — and the pattern forms.
You've cheated in your past relationships.
We talked about how cheating is "bad." Still, often when someone cheats, it's not because they are trying to be malicious — it's often because they are missing something in their life, acting out, processing trauma, or trying to navigate a lifestyle that is expected of them.
For example, many people who cheat while married don't wish to be divorced — but want a casual sex partner that isn't their life partner that they do taxes with. This is an AND. Not everyone who cheats has intention -- sometimes, they just do it without thinking. If you've cheated in past relationships, ask yourself about your motivation. Did you want out of the relationship? What were you looking for? Was something missing in your relationship, or was it truly an AND?
You don't think there's one person out there that can fulfill everything you desire, want, and need.
If you're feeling this way, it's likely felt super confusing at times when the world is screaming monogamy at us. And I want to remind you that it's okay to try things out in our lives and see how they feel! You don't have to label yourself as something to try it out — you can try it on for a bit and see if it feels natural and most you. The same goes for ENM relationships!
If this is something you have been desiring, by all means, start ethically dating multiple people and exploring this part of you. What's interesting about toxic monogamy culture is that it doesn't realize that we already have so many people in our lives meeting different needs for us — it's not just our partner(s). If you want this but in a romantic capacity as well — go for it! It's out there!
You have or have had the desire to have multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships at once.
I want to put this in perspective for you — sex and romance with different people are just that, different. I've heard people say, "but won't you be worried your partner will leave you if they have better sex with someone else?" There's a lot to break down here, but firstly — no, I'm not. If what's keeping my partner with me is solely my genitals, we have much bigger problems. Relationship foundations aren't just based on sex and romance, AND it's quite natural to want this kind of intimacy with multiple people.
You've felt the desire to explore a relationship more freely than you've been able to.
Have you ever met someone and immediately felt chemistry of some sort? It's that feeling of "wow, this person needs to be in my life, and I want to know them and do things with them" — even before knowing what those things are? Yeah. Same.
Usually, we meet people in a context — we're set up on a romantic date, or we get introduced to someone for business — we're told the role this person could and will play in our lives before we even interact with them. If you've ever felt the feeling or thought, "I wish I could see what was really here between us," sexually or romantically, you may be wired for ethical non-monogamy.
Something is missing for you — even though you adore your current partner.
One of the myths monogamy teaches us is that it's "wrong" or "bad" if our one partner doesn't meet all of our needs. "Well, they must not be "the one" if we feel like something is missing for us," we'll think or say to ourselves.
Just because you want more of something or want an AND doesn't have to correlate with how much you love your current partner. It's just the reality — you want more. And that is absolutely 100%, a-okay.
You believe that communication is important, emotions are valuable, and it's worth having hard conversations to live a life you're fulfilled with.
If you're reading this and thinking, "Oh my goodness, okay, that's me, I think I want to try ENM, but how do I even bring this up to my partner? Don't worry; I've got you.
When approaching our partners about new desires, possibilities, or opportunities, it's best to approach them with gentleness, curiosity, and empathy — always empathy.
It starts with AEO — acknowledge, explain, offer. Acknowledging to your partner that you understand where they are coming from helps let them know that you care about their feelings and emotions, too. Explaining and being honest about your feelings helps them see you — it also helps them know why the thing you are discussing is so important to you. Offering opportunities to your partner gives them autonomy to decide their boundaries, what they are comfortable with, and if they want to continue the current conversation.
Our partners, and any relationship for that matter, will be far more positively responsive if we approach them with an offer instead of an ultimatum.
Here are examples of how to use AEO in conversation:
A: "I know we've never really talked about monogamy before."
A: "On our first date, we talked about threesomes, and since then, we haven't really talked about monogamy."
E: "I feel scared to talk about this concept with you."
E: "I feel excited about the idea that we could ethically and honestly have multiple partners."
O: "Can I share an article I found with you about this?"
O: "What I'd love to do is find a time to talk about ENM and an article I read; what do you think?"
Bottom line: Monogamy isn't for everyone. Ethical non-monogamy isn't for everyone.
We cannot possibly know what's best for ourselves unless we understand what we're choosing and that we actually have a choice. Whether you go forth and practice intentional monogamy or take a leap into mindful ENM, continue to be intentional and learn. There isn't one right way to "do" relationships, and figuring out what aligns best for you (and your partner) is an integral part of the evolution of your relationship(s).
Rachel Wright, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, sex educator, and relationship expert based in New York City.