One topic that I see batted back and forth often, particularly in gay male communities, is around the value of monogamy in long-term relationships. I’ve recently come across a few articles acknowledging that a sizable proportion of long-term gay male couples do not practice sexual monogamy in their relationships but arguing that secretly all gay men really want monogamy and are unable to sustain it, or alternately arguing that somehow because many gay men now have access to legal same-sex marriage they are obligated to practice sexual monogamy.
Gay men are not the only population in which people practice non-monogamous models of relationship. Non-monogamy includes a range of relationship models, including people who are emotionally in a closed relationship but able to have sexual experiences outside the relationship; people who have two or more committed sexual and romantic partners; and far more than I care to spell out here. (Inevitably I will leave models out or unfairly lump a few models together.) Dan Savage coined the term “monogamish” for couples that largely practice monogamy with very occasional sexual experiences outside the primary pair.
Some folks who highly value monogamy tend to insult or pathologize non-monogamous relationships. Arguments include that non-monogamy exposes the people involved to higher risks of sexually transmitted infections and romantic infidelities, or are inherently unstable. Some folks who highly value non-monogamy tend to insult or pathologize monogamous relationships, saying that those within the relationships are somehow stuck in a rigid moral code that is unhealthy and retrograde, or only do so out of fear and blind adherence to religious and social codes.
I do not think there is a “correct” model of relationship, and I do not think anyone should be pressured into a kind of relationship that goes against their values and needs. I think every long-term human relationship requires commitment, respect, friendship, intimacy, communication, and the ability to manage conflict. If a person feels isolated and neglected because their partner is out every night and does not come home to spend time with them, that is a problem in the relationship, not an indictment of whatever relationship model they’re working.
Entering into a nominally monogamous relationship does not guarantee that both parties involved will never have any risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection; never have any risk of one partner leaving them for another person; never have any risk of feeling jealous, left out, resentful, or hurt. All of these things can and do happen to people who thought they were in monogamous relationships. Monogamy is a practice, and for many people this practice is deeply fulfilling and in line with their values and desires.
Entering into an open relationship or polyamorous relationship does not mean that those involved are somehow more evolved or freer, that they will have relationships free of jealousy, boredom, loneliness, or possessiveness. Every person comes into a relationship with a unique map of attachment and wounding, and every person has a limitation or vulnerability that needs respect when establishing healthy boundaries. “Open” does not mean “without rules,” it means that the rules are determined by all parties involved and require as much accountability and mutual respect as monogamy does.
Infidelity and betrayal happen in every type of relationship. Every rule can be broken in a way that is deeply hurtful. People could be belittled or ignored in any style of relationship, but so too can they share intimacy, respect, friendship, and mutual support. Relationships take the form of the people involved. We are complex human beings with complicated and contradictory needs, and relationships seem almost designed to stir up our vulnerabilities and fears even as we look to them to fulfill our needs. Every partner’s needs, desires, and frailties should have space for expression and respect within the relationship. These things also change with time, and so too must relationships.