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There's More Than One Way to Be Monogamous

monogamy
The HBO series "Sex and the City" spent a full six seasons obsessing over the question of just what monogamy means and whether or not there are multiple definitions of the concept (left to right, actresses Kim Cattrall, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis). HBO/Getty Images

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"I wondered," Carrie Bradshaw mused in season 1, episode 7 of "Sex and the City" (and literally every other episode of the series), "In a city like New York, with its infinite possibilities, has monogamy become too much to expect?" The 1998 episode, aptly titled "The Monogamists," explored the main characters' desires for and aversions to — you guessed it — monogamy.

Over two decades later, the dialogue around sexual practices and partnerships certainly seems to be much more mainstream. But even as society has come to better understand and recognize "open relationships," many of us are still confused or under-informed on what monogamy is really all about.

What Is Monogamy?

"The dictionary definition of monogamy is having a sexual relationship with exclusively one partner," says Emily Morse, doctor of human sexuality and founder/host of the SiriusXM Radio show and podcast Sex With Emily. "It's certainly the pervasive relationship structure modeled most often in society and media. However, I believe for many people, it can be limiting."

"I'd define it as having only one sexual/romantic partner at a time," says author and educator Carol Queen, who is also the staff sexologist at San Francisco-based sexual health and pleasure company, Good Vibrations. "Some studies differentiate serial monogamy from lifelong monogamy — that is, only one partner over the lifespan."

According to Queen, lifelong monogamists are now in the minority in the United States (which research indicates may be due to the unprecedented commonality of divorce and infidelity; half of marriages today end in divorce, which is double the divorce rate of 1960). "We could also differentiate mutual monogamy from those relationships in which only one partner is monogamous throughout the duration of the relationship — in that sense, the partner is monogamous, but the relationship isn't."

Where Did Monogamy Come From?

If you think monogamy is the default setting for every mammal, think again: Only about 3 to 5 percent of all the 5,000 or so species out there — including humans — form the kind of lifelong bond we think of as monogamy. Bats, wolves and beavers are among the monogamous mammals, but they're clearly in the minority.

Scientists have long debated why any species would take part in a monogamous relationship. One theory posits that monogamy makes sense in terms of division of labor — i.e., it makes it more likely that both parents will take part in parenting — but other experts argue that monogamy is in no way a guarantee of equal responsibilities. In fact, it's thought that in over 40 percent of monogamous species, males still don't participate in the child-rearing. Many believe it's more likely that because many members of monogamous species tend to live mostly in isolation, it makes it difficult for males to, well, spread their seed. Under those circumstances, it makes the most sense for males seeking to pass along their genes to single out one female and commit. Romantic, no?

Is Monogamy the Human Norm?

It's tough to know exactly how many people around the world identify as monogamous, but according to a 2018 study (based on findings from the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior), 89 percent of the 2,270 respondents said they practiced monogamy (4 percent were in an open relationship and 8 percent participated in "nonconsensual nonmonogamy," which some would simply call "cheating").

Different Flavors of Monogamy

The dictionary may have one narrow definition of what monogamy means, but can the concept mean different things to different people?

"Sure, although this is a moving target and has more to do with the way a couple might define things," Queen says. "For some, emotional monogamy is probably not a thing. For others, it absolutely is. Some other variants I've heard people use involve fluid-bonding (that's the 'monogamous' partnership, all others are safer sex-restricted); monogamous in town, not out of town; monogamous in person because sexting or online dalliances don't count; and of course Dan Savage's famous 'monogamish': 'allowing occasional infidelities, which [a couple is] honest about.'"

"For most of my life I defined monogamy like most of us do: exclusive sexual and emotional intimacy with one partner," says journalist Robin Rinaldi, author of "The Wild Oats Project: One Woman's Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost." "When I tried an open marriage for a year and found myself among people who structured their relationships in various ways, I saw that what we loosely call 'monogamy' could take several forms, from total exclusivity, to the occasional sexual liaison that didn't breach a couple's emotional tie (what Dan Savage calls 'monogamish'), to strictly emotional (nonsexual) affairs in which a partner still thought of themselves as 'faithful.'"

"Everyone gets to decide what falls in their definition of monogamy," Morse says. "Most people tend to focus on the physical aspects, not kissing or sexually touching someone other than their partner. However, there are emotional aspects that can come into play. For example, emotional cheating could be developing feelings for someone else, sharing intimate details of your life that you aren't sharing with your partner, etc. It's all about communicating with your partner about what your boundaries are within your relationship. For some, even 'sliding into someone's DMs' could be deemed cheating, whereas others wouldn't necessarily see anything wrong with that."

Has Monogamy Changed Over Time, or Have We?

"The definition of monogamy overall hasn't really changed, but more people are realizing there are other relationship models and choices out there," Morse says. "Just like with everything sexual, relationships have a spectrum."

Queen says the various sub-definitions of monogamy — serial, lifelong, mutual, etc. — all serve to cater to the evolving worldview and interpretations of the term. "All those above variations are ways of trying to grasp this change," she says. "Even though I think there was a time when lifelong mutual monogamy was assumed to be the approved definition — among some conservatives, I imagine it still is, and none of those variants would really count."

While those in the know may attach significance to the specific terms used to define their brand of monogamy, Queen says the proliferation of new vocabulary doesn't necessarily mean behaviors have changed all that much — we now just have labels for them. "It doesn't mean that all lifelong mutually monogamous relationships actually were mutually monogamous," she says. "Historically, women have had less of a pass to be non-monogamous than men have had — the 'virgin-whore dichotomy,' and all that."

While sexual behaviors may not have drastically changed as much as we sometimes think, Queen says the more modern, nuanced interpretations of monogamy are due to social context. "Monogamy can be looked at as a more diverse phenomenon now thanks to the cultural changes that have brought all this out in the open," she says. "Particularly over the last 70 years or so, post-Kinsey Report and certainly over the last half-century, post-Summer of Love. Second-wave feminism initially had a lot to say about it too, most of it not very complimentary — that it was a double standard, and that marriage was a trap for women, especially back when we couldn't get a credit card or buy property without our husband (if we had one) to sign for it."

Polyamory in Relationships

Queen also believes broader awareness of monogamy alternatives has served to enhance many people's knowledge of all kinds of sexual practices. "I'd argue that the increased understanding and acceptance of polyamory plays a role, too," she says. Polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, emotionally intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of everyone involved. "When you're looking at consensual open relationships the way the poly community does, it shines a light on alternatives — sort of the way the coining of the term 'homosexual' meant there had to be a converse word, hence 'heterosexual.' And incidentally, the gay community's relationship diversity probably has a role to play here too, as we understand the non/monogamy variations that exist."

As for Rinaldi, her year in an open marriage may have offered a new perspective on relationships overall, but her initial views on monogamy still apply. "My definition has remained the same: monogamy is a one-on-one psycho-sexual bond that takes primacy over other bonds," she says. "It's a prioritizing of one person above all others. What changed isn't my definition of monogamy but my assumption that it's the only way to conduct a healthy relationship. It's just one way, which happens to be society's favorite."

In the end, experts say labels are labels, and what really matters is what the participants in a relationship deem acceptable, important and respectful. "I think more people need to talk about and learn more about other types of relationships, instead of defaulting to monogamy," Morse says. "It doesn't work for everyone and that's fine, it's just about clear, open communication and making sure you're both on the same page."

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