Monogamy is perhaps the most visible hallmark of the Relationship Escalator (intimate relationships that follow social norms). But what is monogamy, really?
The definition of monogamy really comes down to what the people involved in a monogamous relationship want it to mean.
Under current social norms, monogamy refers to some substantial level of exclusivity between two — and only two — partners, in terms of physical and emotional intimacy.
…But when you really talk to monogamous individuals and couples about this (as I often do), it turns out that what is and is not allowed under that agreement varies quite widely.
Generally, monogamy involves exclusivity on sharing certain any of three basic types of intimacy:
- Sexual or sensual contact. Monogamous couples may reserve only for each other physical contact for pleasure ranging from cuddling, massage and kissing to oral sex and intercourse. The lowest common denominator among the vast majority of people who consider themselves monogamous is a hard line prohibiting any contact for pleasure with others that involves genitals or breasts. However, some monogamous people place further restrictions: they consider off-limits behavior to include flirting with or complimenting others, looking at attractive people, mentioning that you find others attractive, spending time alone with potentially attractive people, dancing “too close” with others, or enjoying pornography.
- Romantic emotions and expression. The heady, flirtatious, passionate emotions and behaviors commonly associated with seduction, crushes, infatuations, courtship and falling in love. These are generally considered sensitive territory to be reserved for your monogamous partner. Of course, this is open to interpretation. For some monogamous couples, merely having romantic fantasies or feelings for other people may be considered out of bounds — even if those feelings are never expressed to the third-party object of your desire. Other monogamous couples are comfortable flirting with, or having crushes on, other people — as long as those connections aren’t pursued very far.
- Emotional bonding. Sharing deep emotions, or emotionally laden experiences, with others whom you might also find romantically or sexually attractive. This might include confiding in potentially attractive people about emotionally sensitive topics — especially about your Escalator relationship, or your unfulfilled desires, dreams or needs. For some monogamous people, this is no concern at all. But for others, turning to potentially attractive third parties for emotional comfort, reassurance, validation, or to share joys and triumphs may constitute a deeper threat than having an emotionless night of hot sex with a stranger (hence the term emotional affair).
…That’s a pretty broad range. Ideally, partners in a monogamous relationship are in clear agreement about what monogamy does and does not mean in their relationship, where their boundaries are. Too often, however, partners in traditional relationships don’t discuss in much detail what monogamy (or other boundaries and agreements in their relationship) means to them.
For instance, I recall one friend who was adamant that her husband “cheated on” her by going to a strip club and stuffing a tip into a dancer’s g-string. Was he cheating? He didn’t think so — but since they never discussed the details of their monogamy, it’s really impossible to tell. (Fortunately they eventually resolved this disagreement in a way that strengthened their love and trust for each other — after two weeks of bitter arguments.)
As I read through the nearly 1500 responses to my survey on all kinds of unconventional relationships (the basis of my forthcoming book), one thing that really surprised me was this: Couples who engage in swinging (consensual recreational sex, often through organized “lifestyle” culture, and usually kept private), sometimes consider themselves monogamous:
“My wife and I are monogamous in the idea that our love is only for each other. Sexually, we each have lovers on the side. This includes one-on-one boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, plus swinging in group settings. But we still consider ourselves monogamous in the idea that our marriage is on such an elevated status above other connections.”
— Mr. Wilson
Similarly, sometimes couples consider themselves monogamous even if they sometimes engage together in group sex with others:
“My partner and I are now currently monogamous, but we have occasional threesomes with friends.”
Are they wrong? Not necessarily! If you look at several dictionary definitions of monogamy, some of them only refer to monogamy as the practice of having one marriage, or mate, at a time. Yes, some dictionaries (like Merriam-Webster) do refer to practice of having only one sexual partner during a period of time. But the term is definitely open to debate — and interpretation. Some swingers, especially, are quite adamant that they are monogamous. And I don’t feel like it’s appropriate to disagree with them about such a personal choice.
Are you monogamous? If so, what does that mean to you? What does that mean to your partner, if you have one? Have you ever disagreed with, or misunderstood each other, about that?
Have you ever discussed clearly with a partner what monogamy means to you? If not, go ahead, I dare you. 🙂
Please comment below or contact me to share your views and experiences.