Yes. Mono/Poly or consensually non-monogamous relationships CAN work. However, many people don’t believe so. Even some polyamorous authors like Kathy Labriola, author of The Jealousy Workbook, don’t think they work. Kathy claims “mono/poly relationships are doomed” . Why do they think mono/poly relationships are “doomed”? Because there’s misalignment in needs and values.
Monogamy SEEMS to offer: love, security, specialness, ownership, unity, a partner for a lifetime, loyalty, a secure family structure…but we know that none of this is real. Statistics show us that about 15-20% of married people ADMIT to being unfaithful; that number is probably much higher. About 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. There is little “ideal” in marriage. We may feel special for a time, but when half of us are unhappy enough to pursue divorce after an average of 8 years, it’s clear that our desire to be special, to be with a loyal loving partner “forever”, etc. just isn’t reality.
NOTE: Divorce rates ARE decreasing, and I wonder if it’s because more people are open to the idea of being open. Or maybe it’s because fewer people are opting to be married, or they’re getting married later in life.
Sure, many marriages don’t end in divorce, but that doesn’t reflect a successful or healthy relationship necessarily. Common marital advice to a man? Learn to nod and say “yes dear” and know that she’s always right. Common marital advice to a woman? Treat him like a king and don’t embarrass him publicly. Neither of these approaches has much to do with authentic intimacy, clear and vulnerable communication or honesty.
When we VALUE monogamy, we value those mono-normative ideals that it seems to offer and we have bought into the messaging from religion, fairy tales, music lyrics, movies and books about what love SHOULD look like. But we are most definitely ignoring what love actually DOES look like.
Successful partners – regardless of what relationship dynamic or structure they are in – show up for one another, they ACCEPT their differences and they find the common ground. They love from a place of wanting the most, the best possible and the absolute FULFILLMENT for their partner. They don’t lose themselves in their relationship, becoming enmeshed, entangled and co-dependent, but instead they work to retain their autonomy, authenticity, and INDIVIDUALITY while encouraging opportunities for that to happen for their partner as well. They support their partner in their growth and exploration of self and value transparency.
At the start of a new relationship, we are experiencing a chemical cocktail designed by evolution to keep us together long enough to procreate. Dopamine and oxytocin the “feel good” hormones are released, which lower our pain, increase our sense of euphoria and create a desire to repeat the experience. Vasopressin is also released which increases our need to attach to that person and feel protective of them with a lot of hyper focus. Combine all that yummy closeness with a decrease in serotonin (which stabilizes our mood and sleep) due to increased testosterone and the increase in epinephrine and norepinephrine, and we also experience a rise in anxiety and aggressiveness. So we are feeling great, wanting more, attached, hyper-focused and protective, unable to sleep and feeling anxious (which we describe as excited or “butterflies”). THIS is what we call “falling in love”, “infatuation”, “crushing”, “limerance” or “the honeymoon period”.
There’s TONS of desire in New Relationship Energy because with a new relationship we are at risk of loss almost constantly (also remember the heightened anxiety cocktail), we must overcome obstacles to be together, we must pursue and court, we put our best selves forward, we do the mating dance (often literally) for our partner to increase that desire for one another. The stress we experience in the risk of a new relationship actually is prime motivator for socializing MORE with our new interest.
Why is this important to a discussion about mono/poly relationships? Because over time, our desire WANES, and part of that drop occurs between 6-24 months after starting a new relationship when the chemistry shifts out of what we call New Relationship Energy. Reality starts to set in.
The good news is that around this time, what we call Established Relationship Energy enters the picture. This offers us nurturing, love without risk, stability, reliability, familiarity, predictability and a calmer, more grounded way of loving. Unfortunately this is NOT a recipe for DESIRE.
We can maintain the intimacy and sexual desire only for a few years in Established Relationship Energy as we adjust to it and begin to value what it offers, but pretty soon, sex and emotional intimacy is less interesting to us with that partner. What do we need to do? We need to shake things UP! Our established relationship is too stable, and it becomes too predictable. It’s typically at this point that couples discuss introducing things like toys, porn, fantasies, kink, fetishes, etc. Cue the entrance of discussions around introducing other partners.
For many couples, the idea of our partner with another CREATES desire. Why? Because it introduces competition – risk of loss – which we had initially. If our partner is desired by others, and desires others, then we can no longer afford to be complacent. This infusion of risk is one way that many folx have found a way to recharge their desire for one other.
Additionally, it seems the more sex we have, the more we WANT. Our hormones are in charge of us once again, telling us to be ready to go and to actively seek it out more (remember the “feel good” hormones?). Good sex releases endorphins that trigger positive feelings that mimic the effect of morphine, and increases our desire. We feel calmer, more in tune with our bodies and more attractive overall. Our mental health is more positive, and our confidence goes up. Even sex without orgrasm supercharges the body for that release, and so we seek sex out.
The less sex we have, the LESS desire we have for it as well. This is because there are many times when craving sex would put us in too vulnerable a position to survive, so nature made sure that if we aren’t having sex, we want it less overall. Thousands of years ago, stopping for a shag in the middle of a battle, while sic, or while tending to children, crops or livestock may have made us too easy a target for the enemy. So nature dims down the desire within.
There are many more reasons why a person may want other partners and why their partner may want that for them. There may be a sexual misalignment such as a high libido in one person and a low libido in the other. Or a desire for a certain type of sex, fetish or kink to be involved that turns the other person off.
It isn’t always just about sex. For those who want more of a heart connection with another, it may be because their spouse/partner is busy with career, kids or other activities that take them or their focus away for extended periods or chronic conditions that make them emotionally/mentally or physically unavailable or limit their capacity for intimacy. They may have different interests in life developing and a desire to have someone to share it with. They may have a feeling of having “grown apart” but they still value the relationship overall. They may crave the excitement of novelty and discovery. They may have a deep desire to rail against the aging process, the mundane, the traditional.
Often, polyamorous or consensually non-monogamous people don’t choose this desire for others; it’s an inherent part of them, an IDENTITY. Some people call polyamory or consensual non-monogamy their “relationship orientation”. Much like with a sexual orientation, when they come to know this as part of who they are and how they express themselves in the world, they want to come out to their partner. Sometimes this occurs after years of repression and trying to fit into the mono box. This can be a difficult time for the monogamous partner. They may struggle to wrap their head around this “poly bomb”. If they deeply value monogamy more than they value remaining with their partner in a poly/CNM dynamic, they might choose to leave. After all, this isn’t what they sign up for, and that’s okay.
The monogamous partner may, in fact, WANT their partner to experience their identity fully, to have whatever experiences light them up and improve their lives. They may feel what’s called in the poly community, “compersion” – or happiness for their partner’s happiness – which can occur simultaneously with insecurities and fears. There also may be a sexual kink knowing their partner was with someone else that thrills them. They may have an overwhelming love for their partner, without a burdensome attachment to monogamy, which gives them the ability to make the transition to a mono/poly dynamic more easily. Or they may be in a state of flux, somewhere between compersion and fear, struggling to support their partner while not letting go entirely of what they need and want.
Is monogamy normal? Our nearest genetic primate relatives, the bonobo monkeys, don’t practice mating in pairs – in fact, they are extremely promiscuous. We have been, for longer than not on this planet, tribal, which allowed for polyandry (multiple male partners that gave women more providers for their children) and polygyny (multiple female partners which provided more caretakers for children and opportunity for men to pass on their genetics) to occur naturally. This happened alongside serial monogamy; where pairbonds form, are lost through death, boredom or abandonment, and the individual finds another monogamous pairbond. Rinse and repeat.
It wasn’t until the ownership of land, harvests, taxation and passing our riches onto our heirs became a thing that a lifelong commitment to monogamy became institutionalized. Religion supported monogamy, providing a moral judgement against those who didn’t, and thus was born the mono-normative programming that continues to influence our cultural and societal norms today.
It can be said that the cultural and societal acceptance of infidelity is alive and well in many places around the world. It’s embedded in our literature, our films and music and seen as a normal desire, especially during a middle age crisis. Ironically, it’s okay to “cheat” but it’s not okay to honest and transparent about your needs. It’s okay to “protect” my spouse from the truth because I love them so much, but it’s not okay to want to communicate to them what I’m doing and provide them the opportunity to give fully informed consent to be in a consensually non-monogamous relationship – or NOT. To me that seems backward. I want my partner to show up authentically, to know they can tell me anything they need or that they’ve come to learn about themselves AND I want to be able to rely on them to respect me enough to give me the ability to make fully informed decisions. None of that is possible when we sneak around. We take away our partner’s choices when we lie.
How do you make a mono/poly relationship work? Recognize that this is a decision and an AGREEMENT that you both value and CHOOSE for your own individual reasons. Hold to the idea that the relationship is a SAFE HAVEN and SECURE BASE from which you can each grow, experiment and change without fear of losing the loving connection to each other. Keep the lines of COMMUNICATION open, even when it’s hard. Be VULNERABLE. Intentionally DISENTANGLE as a couple with compassion. Reduce the amount of privilege afforded to you as a couple so as not to marginalize the needs of the other partners who are involved with the non-monogamous partner (educate yourself about couple privilege). Create personal BOUNDARIES based on your core values, and use those as a basis for creating relationship agreements (NOT RULES that CONTROL another) that you’ll continue to revise as needs change over time. Choose to be CURIOUS instead of defensive. Know that jealousy and guilt are NORMAL protective emotions to be mindfully and carefully managed so as not to feed negativity. Be COMPASSIONATE to each other and lead from the heart.
Perel, Esther. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. HarperCollins.2006
Ryan, Christopher Ryan and Jethá, Cacilda. Sex at Dawn. HarperCollins. 2010
Schacht,Ryan and Kramer, Karen L. “Are We Mongamous”. frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. July 2019
Seshadri, Krishna G. “The Neuroendrocrinology of Love”. The Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. July-August 2016.
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