Monogamy: What does it mean to you?

Might you and your partner disagree on monogamy? Inconceivable!
Might you and your partner disagree on monogamy? Inconceivable!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
— Annie

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.

3 comments on “Monogamy: What does it mean to you?

  1. Hi,

    I honestly don’t know if anyone is still commenting on this article, but I would like to add my interpretation of monogamy.

    I am currently single, but I do consider myself to be a “monogamous swinger”. As in, when I am in a couple, the love we have for each other is exclusive to us, including the emotionally charged physical acts that go along with it, like affectionate kissing or cuddling or the like. However, with my boyfriend, I enjoy partaking in casual sex with others, but only in a swing setting. So that means, no other partners on the side. Basically we sleep with other people together, but at the end of the day, if we didn’t do that, we would be “purely” monogamous.

  2. I consider myself monogamous but i don’t expect monogamy from my partner. My relationship was monogamish for a while and we are now in a long term relationship with another woman who is sexual and romantically entangled with us both but on the understanding that I can offer far less emotionally and physically than my partner can. I see my secondary relationship as more along the lines of friends with benefits. This is fully negotiated and understood by all parties.

    My emotional and physical attraction to my primary partner is incredibly intense and somply not something I feel capable sustaining with multiple people. I’m not adverse to the idea of developing such a connection with someone else but I cannot imagine it at this point in my life.

    Others have looked at my relationship and classed me as bisexual and poly, which I’m not adverse to in principle, but they are not labels that I feel fit my mind set. I do worry that my relationship looks a lot like the unhealthy hereronormative poly the media likes to highlight – reluctant bisexual wife being pressured into a threesome for her partners gratofication – when that is almost the complete opposite of what happened. I love my current polycule and the honesty we all have regarding our needs and expectations is paramount.

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