While some cultural standards have idealized the goal of finding that one person to marry and spend eternity with, it appears that this is harder than it looks. Research continues to show that about half of marriages end in divorce, and a large amount of those divorces are a result of a person committing sexual infidelity or “cheating” on their partners. As a result of these statistics, studies seem to be beginning to show that more and more young adults are choosing different types of relationship models, and while there are many perceived economic and asset-driven reasons why this may be the case, another reason may be an attempt to avoid the pain and pitfalls that appear to accompany a significantly large portion of romantic relationships.
Monogamous romantic relationships are defined as a relationship in which two partners are sexually exclusive with one another, which means the couple has chosen not to have sexual contact with anyone outside of their relationship. When relationships begin to experience conflict, it is common for one partner to “stray” from their relationship and engage in infidelity, breaking this agreed-upon contract with their partner and engaging in sexual behavior with someone else. This leads a lot of couples to end their relationship and can cause a lot of pain for both members of a couple. This infidelity behavior in and of itself would be considered non-monogamy, or the act of having sexual contact with someone other than a person’s romantic partner. Obviously if this is something that their partner would not consent to, it can cause a lot of conflict in relationships.
As a result, many couples have begun to look at relationships in a different way and have attempted to evolve the idea of what it means to be in a committed relationship to avoid this pain, jealousy, and conflict. In this frame of mind, couples will come to an arrangement that works for them, and this arrangement, when approved of and consented to by both parties, can be considered ethical non-monogamy. Ethical non-monogamy involves loving partners communicating their sexual needs to one another and determining a way for each partner to get their needs met without ending the deep connection they have with their partner. This may mean that one or both partners may engage in sexual contact outside of their relationship to get needs met that their partner cannot provide. There are lots of ways this is done, and it is different for every couple, but overall it involves a couple coming to an understanding about what is acceptable to them in terms of sexual infidelity.
There are many stereotypes and lots of negative stigma that surround the idea of ethical non-monogamy, mostly because society currently sees monogamy as the gold standard relationship model that everyone must ascribe to. Many people see any sexual contact with someone outside of a relationship as “cheating” and judge others for not seeing their own relationships that way. On the flip side, however, those who prefer to have relationships that are ethically non-monogamous often criticize the restrictive nature of monogamous relationships and point to high rates of divorce and conflict as a reason for why monogamy doesn’t work in the long term. Ethically non-monogamous couples suggest that their relationships are more open, more communicative, and partners are more accepting of one another when they discuss all of their thoughts and feelings about having sex with other people rather than pretending they don’t think about it or want to.
Sex and sexuality are heavily evolutionarily interconnected parts of human life, and the urges and desires for sex that we have are relatively instinctual and a part of our genetic make-up. Once we hit puberty, our bodies begin to crave sexual connection, partially because of our biological instincts to procreate, but also because sex is something that helps us feel connected to those around us. The more instinctual and primal part of sexuality is what is hardest for us to control but has always been a source of stigma in society in large part because of religious beliefs about the purpose of sex. Humans have long been judged, criticized, and condemned for not having “appropriate” sexual practices… “appropriate” meaning society’s determination that relationships should involve monogamous, heterosexual sex behavior within marriages for the purpose of procreation. Anything outside of that scope was often seen as promiscuous behavior that was judged, scrutinized, and demonized.
While society has obviously relinquished some of their negative
associations with sex and sexuality, it is still a large point of debate in
social circles today. It appears, however, that people are beginning to feel as
if they have more agency about the decisions of how their lives will work, and
how relationships work is one of the areas where we are seeing the most change.
While not for everyone, ethical non-monogamy seems to be something that works
for many couples and can be a tool to develop trust, intimacy, and passion in
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events