The Key Differences Between Traditional and Modern Monogamy

Photo: Getty Images/Hinterhaus Productions

Once upon a time, commitment had a real “‘till death do us part” vibe to it. Really, ask Queen Victoria about that—when Prince Albert died, she went full hermit and holed up in all-black-everything for the rest of her life. But we're not living in Victorian times, and modern relationships include different dimensions of what commitment means. One 2016 study reports that 1 in 5 people have been in an open relationship (dubbed in this case as consensual non-monogamy) at some point or another, and rigid relationship boundaries are loosening with terms like 'monogamish' entering the public conscience. While instances of traditional monogamy certainly aren't rare, it does appear that there's room for a rebrand of answer to "what does monogamous mean?"

"I call this new definition of monogamy 'open monogamy,'" says Tammy Nelson, PhD sex therapist and author of The New Monogamy. "More couples than ever before are embracing open relationships, consensual non-monogamy, polyamory, and monogamish relationships. All of these have, at their core, a connection that can also include branches of sub-relationships, like branches of a tree. These can be new and unique ways of connecting with a multitude of other partners and new experiences." 

And, they might be onto something: Research from the University of Guelph finds that couples consensually leaving the door to their relationship open are just as happy healthy and happy as their coupled-up pals. (Different research suggests late-in-life open couples are even happier.) There is a bond, and there is joy, so there is a chance you might consider opening your relationship up a little bit..but that can mean many things.

What does monogamous mean for me?

If you're already in a committed relationship, the best way to go about this is to make the decision as a couple, starting by going over your monogamy agreement. First you point out what's working, then expand on what you already have.

"There is a continuum of expanding your monogamy agreement—things you are curious about, things you fantasize about, and things you actually want to take into action," Dr. Nelson says. "Make sure you are clear with your partner about which things are which. You don’t have to do anything at all. Just talking about what might change and what you want to stay the same could be enough to move things along."

How do I communicate what I want to my partner?

A good way to broach the subject is finding some quiet time to have an in-person conversation. Dr. Nelson recommends starting with a simple, “Hey, let's talk about our relationship. What's working for you, and I'll tell you what’s working for me, and let's talk about whats working for ‘us.’” From there, invite a dialogue—and big stress on dialogue here—about how to would want to rebrand or update your version of monogamy. Pose questions such as: 

"What has worked about our monogamy?"

"What does monogamy mean to us?"

"Do we want to expand on our monogamy agreement?"

"If so, what would that look like?"

"What do we want to keep the same?"

"Do we want to talk about fantasies, but not change anything?"

"What do we want to take into action?"

Really examine and envision what you want the contours of your monogamous agreement to look like by establishing clear boundaries of what is and isn’t okay, and what you want to actively do versus talk about or survey. “Do you want to watch porn together? What about having a threesome?" says Dr. Nelson. "Or is that something you’re both curious about but you don’t really want to take into action?”

Wherever you end up falling on the traditional-to-open monogamy continuum, make sure to go about the conversation with ample amounts of love, respect, and consent. With that being the priority, you’ll be able to define monogamous and commitment in a way that works well for all parties involved.

Need a bit more guidance? We have an eight-step guide for having a healthy threesome, from couples who swear by it. And if you're looking to exchange rings, whatever your dynamic, you want to ask these questions before getting married.

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