Key Points: Traditional views about romantic relationships are changing, leading some to wonder if monogamy is still a good relationship model. But the form of a relationship matters less to its success than maintaining honest boundaries.
Cultural norms and practices around sex, love, and marriage are shifting. In Western cultural contexts, romanticized, often religiously-informed views of marriage as a partnership between a man and a woman who meet, fall in love, get married, procreate, refuse sexual or romantic encounters with anyone but their spouse, and live happily ever after are being questioned. More flexible conceptualizations of gender identity, sexual orientation, and relationship satisfaction are also leading to increased psychological research on consensual non-monogamy (Sprott & Schechinger, 2019). For example, polyamory as described in the 2020 book A Happy Life in an Open Relationship is gaining popularity as a model of romantic partnerships, particularly among millennials.
As the world grapples with different kinds of romantic connections, I am often asked whether monogamy is still a good model for relationships. Some people ask because they are struggling after cheating has occurred, leaving one or both partners confused, angry, and unclear about the future. Others ask because their current sexual experiences are unfulfilling. Others ask, in a self-exploratory way, questions like:
- I recently learned that my spouse is cheating on me. What do I do? Do I leave? Can we fix it?
- My spouse watches porn every day. Can porn use be considered cheating? What if he/she is having a video chat with another live person? Is that an affair?
- Do I want to commit to one person? Is that even possible? Do I want to be in love with more than one person at the same time? What is the purpose?
- I have been married for 15 years and we have a family. I no longer have the same sexual connection with my spouse. Should we explore other options?
Questions about monogamy are centrally about how to have successful romantic relationships. Traditional views of marriage define monogamy as having one romantic mate or sexual partner at a time. Yet, what is more important to relationship success than your specific model (e.g., monogamy, polyamory, swinging) is honestly living according to the agreed-upon boundaries of your relationship.
Why Boundaries Are So Important
Boundaries are relationship expectations: They reflect how you want others to treat you and how you want to treat them. In romantic relationships, boundaries are usually based on shared values and beliefs about how you want to live, what you need to be sexually or romantically intimate, and what you believe leads to a fulfilling life. For example, boundaries usually articulate how you will behave when you meet other individuals you are attracted to and what behaviors would lead you to no longer want to be intimate with your spouse.
Boundaries are important because being in a committed partnership is a choice. People and couples make that choice for myriad reasons—because they believe life is better with this person than without; because they want their children to have two parents; because they don’t want to be alone; because their family wanted it; because it is consistent with their religious or spiritual beliefs. Whatever the reason, it is up to the couple to decide what the boundaries of the relationship are and to—in good faith—try to maintain them. Boundaries serve as the basic foundation of the relationship from which a shared life grows.
As such, sexual and romantic boundaries are highly variable. For some couples, masturbation is considered “cheating” or a breach of relationship boundaries; for others, it is not. For some couples, having sexual intercourse with paid partners is considered cheating whereas for others it is not. For yet other couples, pursuing romantic connections and intimate feelings for a person outside of the marriage is considered a violation (even with no sexual touching) whereas for others it is not.
Many of the lines that determine whether something is a violation are based on cultural norms, lived experiences, and values reflecting what a couple wants from a marriage. It is up to the couple to decide what boundaries are important to them and to agree that both members of the couple will strive to uphold those boundaries with honesty and integrity.
Honestly Maintaining Boundaries Matters More Than the Model Itself
When looking at monogamy as a model for romantic relationships, it is more important that each member of a couple strives to uphold the agreed-upon boundaries than the details of the model itself. In other words, that you will not intentionally manipulate or lie to the other, and will not knowingly take advantage of the other person’s trust. This is critical because the real threat to a relationship does not come from the outside world; it comes from an inability to set and honestly uphold boundaries consistent with your relationship agreements when you encounter the outside world. The liability to a marriage is not actually other attractive people; it is an inability to act in a manner consistent with relationship boundaries when you and your partner are apart.
The truth is that after getting married, you will still go through life and meet people you would date if you were single. That is a given: We are social beings who will meet other potential partners. As we do, we have to trust ourselves and our partners to create clear boundaries that reflect our marital agreements. To do that, we have to monitor ourselves closely. If a potential affair could happen and we are committed to being monogamous, we pull back. If it went a little too far or we become uncomfortable with a dynamic in a new friendship (for example, being too flirtatious or developing romantic feelings), we reestablish the boundary.
Unfortunately, people often make a commitment to their partner that they cannot uphold. Instead of talking about their feelings, one or both partners have a string of potential and actual affairs that are deceptively hidden (and often self-deceptively justified in their own heads). At some point, the truth comes out. Yet, a shared process of reviewing relationship boundaries and revising (as desired) the expectations of the partnership can no longer happen until and unless the couple can forgive boundary violations that have already transpired. Often, this leads to an emotionally tense, often bitter and resentful breakup because lying, manipulating, and deliberately taking advantage of another person by claiming to be behaving in one way (i.e., according to the relationship boundaries) but acting in another will universally hurt your connection. Trust will disappear.
Be Honest with Your Partner and Yourself
Whether you choose to have a monogamous, polyamorous, or sexually open relationship of some sort, the most important factors for its success are honesty and integrity. Sharing time, intimate experiences, and vulnerable information with another person is a choice. Marriage is a choice. Everyone has access to sexual and romantic partners: The world abounds with opportunities to meet interesting new people. When you are in a committed relationship, the most important thing you can do to maintain your relationship is to set boundaries and talk to your partner about your experiences before you violate those agreements.
As you live and grow, you may change. Sometimes that means you must revise your relationship agreements as you (as a couple) learn. And, if it becomes clear that you are no longer a good romantic pair, being honest increases the likelihood that you can separate with respect and love, not resentment and distrust. For when we decide we want to travel through life with a romantic partner, we are also agreeing to share power with them in a unique way. In doing so, we put our heart, our physical bodies, and our lifestyle in their hands as well as our own.
Copyright Cortney S. Warren, PhD ABPP
Note: I cannot respond to personal requests for advice over the internet. Best on your continued journey.