I have a confession to make: My partner and I are happily monogamous.
Some of you may read these words and wonder why this is such a scandalous admission. After all, most relationships are still monogamous. (A fact that is changing quickly.)
Others might be genuinely surprised that someone who specializes in teaching about alternative relationship models would be in such an “old-school” dynamic herself. Within the sexual health community, there seems to be an expectation that providers will be just as iconoclastic and adventurous in our own relationships as our clients are in theirs. And in many ways, we are! But for my spouse and I? Monogamy just works.
And yet, biology tells us that humans are not wired for monogamy:
“There are two possible levels of monogamy. ‘Social Monogamy’ refers to a male and female who are spatially close together, having sex, and cooperating in tasks like parenting. But it does not necessarily mean that they are not sleeping around. Such exclusivity is called ‘sexual monogamy,’ and it is much rarer. A cynic would say that many human relationships are social monogamy masquerading as sexual monogamy.”
Indeed, it can be incredibly difficult to find science-based reasons for embracing monogamy. Across time and species, non-monogamy has been the biological default. For polyamorists, this explains the natural ease they feel with maintaining multiple relationships. The fact that everyone is bringing these relationships (both sexual and emotional) out into the open fosters trust and allows for deeper bonds between the partners and their metamours. For poly folks, the science aligns with their experience.
I often see monogamous couples who feel embarrassed by their relationship model. They worry that choosing to be a closed dyad means that they aren’t sex-positive enough, that they’re enmeshed in detrimental ways, or that they’re simply not as “woke” as their poly peers. I’ve had more than one woman express concern that choosing a monogamous, heterosexual relationship somehow made her a bad feminist. These concerns are reinforced when feminist scholars write articles with titles such as “Does Monogamy Hurt Women?” and argue that “The theory and practice of non-monogamy were… seen as a challenge to oppressive heterosexual relationships—by both lesbian and heterosexual feminists.”
As our social awareness of the potential for toxic monogamy, which is hallmarked by features such as jealousy, possessiveness, and codependency, increases, more and more of my clients are beginning to question whether or not they “should” be monogamous. If they’re somehow doing something wrong by eschewing an open relationship. My answer to them is the same as it is for my clients considering opening up:
The best relationship model is the one that has been negotiated, clearly communicated, and embraced with enthusiasm by all involved.
For many of the folks I work with, this will be polyamory or some other form of open relationship. And still others will continue to choose monogamy—not because they want to perpetuate patriarchal systems of oppression, but because they genuinely benefit from the closeness that a narrow focus on one primary relationship offers to those involved.
Bisexual activist Robyn Ochs describes two types of monogamy: reflexive monogamy and radical monogamy. “Reflexive monogamy is when you’ve internalized messages about monogamy being the way to date and relate, and you are, therefore, monogamous,” she says. “Radical monogamy is when you decide to unpack those cultural biases, ask yourself what type of relationship actually works best for you, and then choose monogamy.”
Monogamy can be a radical choice, when it is an intentional choice.
Building on the radical transparency, negotiation, and communications skills modeled by our polyamorous peers, 21st-century monogamists have a tremendous opportunity to reclaim and redefine what it means to be in an exclusive relationship today. We can integrate the feminist values of egalitarianism, agency, and voice into our dyadic relationships (of all orientations) and tear down the patriarchal systems of hierarchy and ownership that have defined monogamous marriage for far too long.
The polyamory movement has been phenomenal in teaching us that we can create the romantic, intimate, and interpersonal relationships that we want to have—unconstrained and unrestricted. Those among us who choose monogamy can take up the torch and continue the work of revolutionizing what every relationship can be.