What is Non-Monogamy?

Some individuals are realizing that their emotional, mental, sexual, or spiritual needs cannot be met by one person alone. However, they’ve found that their needs are met if they veer off the path of traditional relationship roles and expectations, which is leading more and more people to define their relationships on their own unique terms and discover their own route to happiness. One of these routes is non-monogamy. Unlike traditional monogamy, non-monogamy cannot be simplified so easily, as depicted in this chart by Franklin Veaux (click on the chart to view it full-size).

nonmonogamy franklin veaux

Gone cross-eyed yet?

Here is a brief overview of non-monogamy styles:

Casual relationship: a physical and emotional relationship between two unmarried people who may have a sexual relationship.

Open marriage and open relationships: one or both members of a committed couple may become sexually active with other partners.

Swinging: similar to open relationships, but commonly conducted as an organized social activity.

Ménage à trois: a sexual (or domestic) arrangement involving three people that are all sexually involved with each other.

Relationship anarchy: participants are not bound by set rules.

Group sex (aka orgies): involving more than two participants at the same time.

Group marriage (aka polygynandry):  several people form a single family unit, with all considered to be married to one another.

Polygamy: one person in a relationship has married multiple partners. Like the show Sister Wives.

  • Polygyny: men have multiple wives. Interesting side note: in the book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price, a dentist who traveled the world in the 1920s and 1930s and examined the tooth and bone health of non-modernized tribes around the world, most tribes fed their young women special diets before marriage and spaced out their children though a system of plural wives to ensure the health of both the mother and children. In places where modern food was and children were not spaced out, mothers often had the most dental problems of any group.
  • Plural marriage: a form of polygyny associated with the Latter Day Saint movement in the 19th-century and with present-day splinter groups from that faith. It is also associated with an evangelical splinter group which advocates Christian Plural Marriage.
  • Polyandry: women have multiple husbands. In some places in India, this tradition is still upheld today.

Polyamory: participants have multiple romantic partners; polyamorists love more than one person at a time and consider each relationship meaningful. Like the show Polyamory: Married & Dating.

Poly families: similar to group marriage, but some members may not consider themselves married to all other members.

Line families: a form of group marriage intended to outlive its original members by ongoing addition of new spouses.

Polyfidelity: participants have multiple partners but restrict sexual activity to within a certain group.

As you can see, there are many different kinds of relationship situations people can have.  Christopher Ryan and Calcida Jétha, authors of Sex at Dawn, suggest that this variability may not be a new phenomenon. Even though numerous cultures throughout history have practiced some form of non-monogamy, for centuries in Western society – hello, Darwin! – it was thought that sexual monogamy came naturally to humans, but Sex at Dawn challenges our assumptions about our ancestor’s sexual behaviors and how they used to live through comparisons with our closest primates, fossil records, current evidence and observations.

You may wonder how anyone can know anything about sex in prehistory since nobody alive today was there to witness it and since social behavior leaves no fossils. Is it all just wild speculation? Ryan and Jethá mention an old story about the trial of a man charged with biting off another man’s finger in a fight. An eyewitness took the stand. The defense attorney asked, “Did you actually see my client bite off the finger?” The witness said, “Well, no, I didn’t.” “Aha!” said the attorney with a smug smile. “How then can you claim he bit off the man’s finger?” “Well,” replied the witness, “I saw him spit it out.”

They make the case that, especially before the agricultural revolution, people lived in egalitarian groups that shared just about everything: food, child care, and in many instances, sexual partners. No doubt the agricultural revolution changed a lot of things, some would argue for the better, some – like Jared Diamond – would argue for the worse – but I was skeptical about the connection between ownership of land and ownership in relationships. I’ll admit when I started reading this book I wondered how it was possible a man would not care about the paternity of his children. Isn’t it just ingrained in them? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps when a man did not have his own land and resources to pass along after he died everything was for the betterment of the tribe.

Some of the most compelling evidence supporting the idea of non-monogamy in humans is male anatomy. In primates like gibbons that live in family groups consisting of an adult pair plus offspring, the male tends to have a small and relatively unspecialized penis. Human males on the other hand, have flared glans that form the coronal ridge, which, combined with thrusting actions, create a vacuum in the female’s reproductive tract. “This vacuum pulls any previously deposited semen away from the ovum, thus aiding the sperm about to be sent into action. But wouldn’t this vacuum action also draw away a man’s own sperm? No, because upon ejaculation, the head of the penis shrinks in size before any loss of tumescence (stiffness) in the shaft, thus neutralizing the suction that might have pulled his own boys back.”

The fact that testicles dangle outside the body also suggests there was a level of sperm competition. “A scrotum is like a spare refrigerator in the garage just for beer. If you’ve got a spare beer fridge, you’re probably the type who expects a party to break out at any moment. You want to be prepared. A scrotum fills the same function. By keeping the testicles a few degrees cooler than they would be inside the body, a scrotum allows chilled spermatozoa to accumulate and remain viable longer, available if needed. Anyone who’s been kicked in the beer fridge can tell you this is a potentially costly arrangement. The increased vulnerability of having testes out there in the wind inviting attack or accident rather than tucked away safely inside the body is hard to overstate – especially if you’re crumpled in the fetal position, unable to breathe. Given the unrelenting logic of evolutionary cost/benefit analyses, we can be quite certain this is not an adaptation without good reason. Why carry the tools if you don’t have the job?”

Without a large penis and the “spare beer fridge,” men would have tiny genitals and produce few sperm. In addition, monogamous species, males and females are the same height and weight, and in polygynous species, males are typically twice the size of females. Humans are somewhere in between, where men are 15 to 20 percent larger than women.

If you’re curious about how non-monogamy works in modern day reality, check out the book, Opening Up: A Guide to Sustaining and Creating Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino. Opening Up covers many relationship styles including: open relationships, monogamy, nonmonogamy, group marriage, swinging, polyamory, and polyfidelity. Tristan goes into depth on each style as well as which relationships work for some people and not others. She describes the challenges that accompany the different styles and offers several resources for readers, such as a self-evaluation, in the book as well as on Opening Up‘s site.

Whether you were familiar with non-monogamy or not before reading this post, I encourage you to think about what relationship style is best for you, and why one style might intrigue you more than another. Monogamy is a wonderful thing for some people, but for others it just doesn’t work. Regardless, it’s worth thinking about why it is the dominating relationship style in our society today.

– Nikita

Further reading:

Marry Me. And Me.

I’ll Have What She’s Having: What Do Women Want?

Face it: Monogamy is Unnatural

Successful Non-Monogamy discussion and tips

Up for Polyamory? Creating Alternatives to Marriage

STDs Might Have Driven Us to Embrace Monogamy

Non-Monogamy Forum on Reddit