~ When we think about romantic love, most people imagine monogamy.
They picture two people, passionate about each other’s minds and bodies, devoting their time and energy to exploring each other’s deepest selves, moving through the world together as one.
But with monogamy seen as the default relationship model by so many, people fail to consider it as just one option among for how a relationship can function, and like every other approach to love, it comes with a myriad of strengths and weaknesses that will work for some couples and won’t work for others.
In fact, even the shape of monogamy has changed a lot over the course of history, as heterosexual monogamous relationships in particular have been impacted by the way gender roles have shifted over time.
In order to really consider monogamy’s value and how it functions, AskMen spoke with two dating experts about the enduring model for love, what kind of relationships it’s right for, and how to discuss it with your partner.
What Is Monogamy?
“Monogamy is the idea that one person can only love and commit to one other person at any given time,” explains Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness.
Meaning, when you’re in a relationship with someone else, you don’t pursue sexual or romantic feelings or actions with anyone but them for as long as you’re together with your partner, and anything that contravenes these rules is considered infidelity or cheating.
However, according to Jess O’Reilly, PhD., host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast, not everyone necessarily views monogamy the exact same way.
“In broad terms,” she says, “it tends to refer to sexual and romantic exclusivity between partners, but definitions of sexual and romantic behavior vary from person to person and culture to culture.”
One couple might see flirtation with another person outside the couple as breaking the rules, while another might not. One couple might see having fantasies for a celebrity crush, or expressing those to your partner, as being counter to monogamy, while another might not. While some couples who allow for more flexibility in their arrangements might consider themselves “monogamish” instead of monogamous, there’s no rule against calling yourself monogamous while retaining a little wiggle room.
Is Being Monogamous Right for Your Relationship?
Monogamy has long been the dominant mode of romantic relationships, but there are many instances throughout history of couples or cultures intentionally pursuing other forms of love.
For that matter, in recent years, there’s been a concerted shift away from monogamy as many people pursue ethical/consensual non-monogamy, open relationships, polyamory, and other relationship set-ups. So what kind of people is monogamy a good fit for?
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“People find it difficult to cut through all the external noise to explore what really works best for them — not for society, their parents, etc,” says Caraballo. “Monogamy works best when both partners are fully committed to that relationship style (it feels ‘right’ for them) and desire it for themselves as their primary way of relating romantically and sexually.”
O’Reilly believes that that monogamy works best “when you opt into it, as opposed to making assumptions or accepting it as a default setting.”
“Monogamy works for some people,” she says. “They really do live (almost) happily ever after with one person for decades on end. For others, however, consensual non-monogamy is preferable. It improves their relationship quality and it also stands the test of time. If we could accept that there is no one-size-fits-all relationship arrangement, I think we’d all be much happier and fulfilled.”
If you’re in the early stages of a relationship, it’s worth asking yourself whether monogamy is something you actively want or something you just feel expected to pursue.
Are you someone who can’t imagine your partner fooling around with someone else, or does that not bother you? Are you someone who is looking for commitment from someone else? How much do you treasure the feeling of excitement? Having honest and open conversations about these questions with your partner can give you a better idea of what will work best.
“If you want to wait until marriage to have sex with one person for the rest of your life, good on you!” says O’Reilly. “If you want to find a new partner every week, that’s fine, too.”
How to Discuss Being Monogamous With Your Partner
Depending on how old you are and what your expectations are, monogamy might seem as natural as breathing. Often, two people in a relationship have vastly different feelings about monogamy, and that can make for tension when trying to navigate their future.
If you’re dating someone in a non-monogamous context (or in a context that’s not clearly defined yet) and you’d like to become a monogamous couple together, that can feel daunting if you’re not sure how they feel about the idea yet.
O’Reilly notes that it’s important to explore “all of your feelings, desires and expectations!” and suggests the following prompts to get the conversation going:
“Why do you want to be monogamous? What draws you to monogamy?
Have you considered other options and if so, what are the benefits you expect from monogamy?
What does monogamy look like to you? Sexually? Practically? Emotionally?
What are some specific behaviours that you consider monogamous? What are some specific behaviours that you consider non-monogamous?
What will you do when you feel drawn to something or someone that violates your monogamous agreement? How will you react in terms of feelings and communication with your partner?”
“This isn’t a one-and-done conversation,” she points out. “You’ll (hopefully) have many conversations pertaining to ground rules over the course of your relationship, regardless of whether or not you’re monogamous.”
How to Make Being Monogamous Work
How do you make monogamy work? There’s no shortage of advice out there on the subject, given monogamy’s status as the de facto relationship model for the past few centuries.
That said, how does monogamy work in today’s culture where the instantaneity of connection has been forever facilitated by dating apps and a new date every night? How do two people navigate just being a couple and pushing back against the desire to explore all the other people out there?
Be Open and Honest About Your Desires and Needs
You might think that monogamy’s erasure of complex connections to polyamory or other forms of non-monogamy means it’s simpler, but in order to have a healthy and loving and growing monogamous relationship, Caraballo says that “just with any other relationship style, monogamy works best when there is a foundation of trust and open, honest communication between partners.”
For men, that means bucking trends of being stoic and silent and working on opening up with your partner about what you feel. That can feel daunting if you’re not used to it, but will help you and your partner in the long run by bringing you closer to forming a foundation of trust in the relationship.
Recognize That Monogamy Can Be Flexible
While monogamy means no dalliances or other partners, that doesn’t mean it’s a dynamic that completely shuts down all desire except the desire you feel for your partner. As O’Reilly puts it, it’s worth it to “be mindful of the reality that you can be monogamous in some ways, but explore non-monogamy in others (e.g. through fantasy).”
Talking about these issues with your partner and getting a clear idea of what their boundaries are will help go a long way towards establishing a healthy compromise that can still fit within the constraints of monogamy — whether that’s fantasizing about others, watching porn together, etc.
Consider Seeing a Sex Therapist
If the transition to monogamy is daunting or difficult, it’s important to recognize that it’s not something the two of you need to struggle through alone.
“If one partner is interested in monogamy and the other is driven towards polyamory or otherwise being ‘open,’ you might consider working with a sex therapist to find ways to encourage sexual and relational compatibility in ways that are unique and specific to you,” says Caraballo.
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Don’t Try to Force Something That’s Not Working
Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that monogamy isn’t for everyone, and that sometimes relationships between people who want fundamentally different things aren’t workable in the long-term if neither party feels they can compromise.
“It’s important to acknowledge when no further compatibility or mutuality among partners can be reached and you need to call it quits, despite how hard that might be,” says Caraballo.
Keep It Playful
Perhaps the best shot a monogamous relationship has at succeeding in the long term is to work on retaining some of that feeling of excitement that comes with new relationships. Plan dates, spring surprises, be romantic — not just on anniversaries, birthdays and Valentine’s Day.
If monogamy is about choosing one person with which to have a lasting and meaningful relationship, make them feel continually chosen, and not just the product of romantic inertia.
Little gestures on unexpected occasions can genuinely go a long way towards making the relationship feel fresh and exciting even when you’ve been together for years and years.