Healthy lives for young people
Relationships

Non-monogamous relationships

There are no one-size-fits-all rules for doing relationships. It’s about finding out what works for you. For some people this means being monogamous – having only one partner. For others it means being non-monogamous, which means having more than one partner, or having one partner but having sex with other people as well. 

Research shows that about five per cent of relationships are openly non-monogamous, or polyamorous. We’re not talking here about secret non-monogamy – otherwise known as cheating – here. 

An openly non-monogamous relationship is one where partners agree that they want to be together and are open and honest about the fact that they have other partners. For this reason, it is also sometimes referred to as ethical non-monogamy.

Types of non-monogamy

Open relationships
An open relationship is one in which a couple agree that they are both free to have sex with other people. While sex with other people is OK, loving someone else is generally not OK.
Polyamory
Literally meaning ‘many loves’, in polyamory it’s considered OK to love more than one person as well as have sex with them. Polyamory is the most common sort of open non-monogamy among people who are bisexual.
Hierarchical polyamory
Some people have one main partner then other relationships that are not so important (primary and secondary relationships), known as hierarchical polyamory. In this case, the partner of a partner is sometimes known as a metamor.
Egalitarian polyamory
There isn’t considered to be a hierarchy, with each partner considered equal. This is referred to as egalitarian polyamory and in this instance, they may live together in a triad or quad.
Monogamish
This refers to relationships that are a little bit open.
Solo poly
This refers to a person that lives alone but visits or is visited by several partners.
Relationship anarchists
This refers to people who question distinctions between friends and partners and may have many close people in their lives.

One thing that most open (or ethical) non-monogamous relationships share is that everyone involved is open about the arrangement and consents to it.

One couple interviewed as part of Enduring Love? research project, Emmie and Theo, have a hierarchical polyamorous relationship. They consider themselves a couple and see each other as their main source of comfort, but they can both see other people and have a mutual lover called David. 

The rules stay the same for both of us, we can both have other partners but we have to be open and honest about it … you see that in the relationship with David, that’s exactly what we do, it’s that kind of openness, that kind of honesty and that is really at the heart of our relationship.”

 Emmie, Enduring Love? interviewee

How do non-monogamous relationships work?

Just like monogamous relationships, non-monogamous relationships can be happy and satisfying, and last just as long. And just like monogamous relationships they can difficult and challenging. But being in a non-monogamous relationship doesn’t mean you are any more likely to be unhealthy or unhappy.

The question of jealousy is a common one and for many people might be a natural response to a partner having some form of relationship with another person. But people who are polyamorous have challenged this by encouraging the idea of ‘owning’ those feelings or even feeling ‘compersion’ or ‘frubble’. These words have developed to express the opposite of jealousy and refer to the feeling of happiness or joy soemone feels when their partner is happy with someone else.

As with monogamous relationships, people in non-monogamous relationships have lots of different ways of managing their relationships. For example, some people want clear rules on how to do their relationship, while others give each other lots of freedom, trusting each other to make good choices. Some people in open relationships tell each other everything, whereas others prefer to keep their various relationships private.

And, of course, people in non-monogamous relationships are just as likely to break the rules and keep secrets as people in monogamous ones.

Emmie and Theo, who were interviewed as part of Enduring Love? stressed the role of trust and honest communication in their relationship, as well as more everyday practices or rituals that marked the specialness of their relationship.

Monogamous or non-monogamous

It can be useful to see monogamy and non-monogamy as on a spectrum rather than being an either/or thing. You may find the following activity useful to help you think about what kind of relationship you prefer. 

Imagine a line representing emotional closeness with monoamory (one close intimate relationship and no close relationships outside this) at one end and polyamory (multiple close relationships) at the other. Draw an X at the point on the line where you think you’d generally like to be (of course, this might alter over time). Then think about where any past and current partners would be on these scales. Are you both in the same place? Perhaps you’re in different places? Is everyone happy with where they are? 

If it helps to think about specific examples, the emotional closeness continuum could include, at the far end, just having one partner you talk with about everything and nobody else who feels that close. Towards the middle it could involve having several friends who are as close to you as your partner – who you could call up at 3am or who you share something with every day. Towards the opposite end it could include a very close relationship you’ve kept with an ex-partner or staying up all night talking with a person you’ve recently met. 

Now do the same with physical intimacy, and imagine a line with monosex (no physical intimacy at all outside a main relationship) at one end and polysex (multiple sexual partners) at the other.

At one end, it could include things like only hugging your partner and no-one else. Towards the middle might be things like being okay with fantasising about other people but not actually doing anything, or perhaps having online sex. Towards the opposite end would be the kinds of non-monogamous relationships mentioned above. 

The important thing to say is that there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ place to be on these lines. Different things work for different people. If you find that you and your partner(s) are in different places then it may be good to talk things through. 

Some of our advice about communication could be useful here.  

What if you don’t agree about non-monogamy?

So what if it turns out that you and your partner are in very different places on the monogamy or non-monogamy spectrum? 

If you are monogamous, you may feel hurt and rejected if your partner wants to be with other people as well. After all, society tells us from a young age that we need to find ‘the one’.  And if you are non-monogamous you may feel suffocated by the idea of monogamy and resent your monogamous partner’s demands.

The first thing to say is that, just because you are different in this respect, it doesn’t mean that one of you is wrong. What it does mean is that, if you are going to be together, you will both need to make compromises. Bear in mind that this is true in all long-term relationships.

The important thing is to be honest and clear with each other about what you want from your relationship and about any concerns you have. That way you may be able to work together to come up with a set of relationship rules or a contract that means you can both be happy. 

If you are the monogamous partner, you may say that you want to meet your partner’s other partners, for example. If you are non-monogamous, you may ask that your other partners are treated with respect. 

Some of our advice about communication could be useful here.  

The important thing is that, once you agree your relationship rules, you stick to them unless you both agree to renegotiate them. Breaking the rules, lying, cheating or not looking after each other’s feelings will all put extra strain on your relationship (and, of course, that goes for monogamous relationships as well). 

You may decide that a monogamous/non-monogamous relationship is not for you and agree to go your separate ways. While this may be painful it’s important to remember that neither of you means to hurt the other. It’s simply that the differences between you were too wide to bridge. See our page on breaking up.

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