The Curious Couple's Guide to Occasional Non-Monogamy

One sexual relationship at a time is not the only viable option.

Posted Oct 14, 2013

In the 2011 romantic comedy, Hall Pass, two wives grant their husbands one week of unlimited sexual escapades with no marital consequences. The movie itself is forgettable, but it raises an enduring issue—couples’ commitment to sexual exclusivity.

Our culture reveres monogamy—and demands it. For many couples, any breach of sexual exclusivity spells disaster. “He cheated. It’s over.” But some people feel stifled by absolute monogamy, and if their spouses insist on it, well, that explains many divorces.

Monogamy is not the only way. Only 9 percent of mammal species are monogamous, and given extra-marital affairs and sex work, it’s difficult to argue that Homo sapiens is among them. Humans are descended from apes whose alpha males maintained large harems. In the Bible, polygamy was common—several wives or one official wife and several concubines. Mormons were publicly polygamous until 1890 (and reportedly some still are). Other cultures have practiced polyandry—one woman, several men. Julius Caesar noted that polyandry was widespread in ancient Britain. Meanwhile, the Lusi of Papua, New Guinea, believe that healthy fetal development requires pregnant women to have intercourse with many men. And some cultures have institutionalized sexual near-free-for-alls. In 1985, anthropologist Thomas Gregor counted 88 ongoing sexual relationships among one Amazon village’s 37 adults.

But non-monogamy is not just for remote tribes. Most U.S. cities—and many rural locales—boast sex and swing clubs. The former are open to anyone, the latter, to couples and single women. Or check Craigslist Personals under Casual Encounters. Some couples virtually everywhere advertise for threesomes, partner swaps, and group sex.

Strict monogamists often claim that non-monogamy in any form “just doesn’t work,” but I know several long-term couples who have happily practiced occasional non-monogamy for decades. One couple is basically monogamous, except that the woman spends a long weekend each month with her secondary man an hour’s drive away. Another is generally monogamous, but each year, to celebrate the woman’s birthday, the man arranges for another man or two to join them in bed. In a third, the two spouses are monogamous at home but grant each other hall passes when they travel solo for business. And in a fourth, each spouse gets together with a secondary lover or two about once a month or when the spouse is away. “I’m in love only with my husband,” says the woman of this couple, who have been married for 30 years, “and he’s in love only with me. But we both enjoy playing outside our marriage. It may be unconventional, but it keeps our marriage fresh and sexually exciting. Occasionally, we run into one of our secondaries around town. We say hello and make introductions. It’s fine.”

Non-monogamy is not cheating. It’s based on full disclosure, diligent safe sex, and mutual consent (though one spouse may be more into it).

Non-monogamy doesn’t mean constant orgies. For the vast majority of couples, it’s an occasional, carefully negotiated break from the ordinary.

How many American couples are committed to occasional non-monogamy? At any moment, about 1 percent, sexologists estimate, with another percent or two “curious” enough to visit sex or swing clubs now and then. Currently, the U.S. has 60 million married couples. If 1 to 3 percent play with non-monogamy, that’s 600,000 to 1.8 million couples—enough to support sex and swing clubs in most metropolitan areas, which is what we have.

If you’re interested in occasional non-monogamy, the first issue is mutuality of consent. Ideally, both partners should be equally into it. If not, couples typically try it once or twice, then the one who’s less interested says, “Never again.”

Assuming you’re both interested, ground rules are key. What exactly do you want to do? What exactly can you tolerate your spouse doing? And are you more into clubs or private get-togethers? Couples happiest with non-monogamy discuss all the what-ifs extensively beforehand. The fact is, adventurous sex accounts for only part of non-monogamy’s allure. Equally compelling are the what-if discussions that deepen partners’ emotional intimacy. Be as specific as possible, and work to prevent freak-outs. “I’m okay with you kissing a stranger, getting naked, and giving hand jobs, but not oral or intercourse.”

Another issue is spousal presence. Many non-monogamous couples insist on same-room play to keep an eye on each other. Others feel comfortable with separate rooms or hall passes. Threesomes are popular, but while one plays, the other may feel ignored. Discuss this. Remember, the goal of non-monogamy is to draw couples closer, not drive them apart. But despite careful emotional preparation, when one sees the other cavorting naked with strangers, freak-outs are always possible.

During same-room non-monogamous play, it’s prudent to arrange a “safe word,” a discomfort signal, for example, “red light.” When one utters it, the other immediately stops everything and attends to the partner’s concern. Abide by your safe word absolutely.

If you’re curious but nervous, a good first step is to visit a club and watch others play while touching only your spouse. Clubs go out of their way to make newcomers feel welcome. Just watching is fine and rules are clearly posted, typically: No alcohol. “No” means no. And condoms required for insertion. Most clubs provide free condoms and lubricant, and have monitors who enforce the rules. If watching works for both of you, during subsequent visits, you might become more adventurous. A slow, step-by-step approach usually works best, with plenty of what-if discussions along the way.

To find opportunities, Google “sex clubs” or “swing clubs” and the locale. For swing clubs, you might also visit the National Association of Swing Clubs of America.

Now it’s your turn. Have you ever tried non-monogamy? What have you done? How has it affected your relationship? And do you continue to play that way?