Exclusive With Exceptions

Lifelong monogamy is no longer the gold standard for relationships in our society. The divorce rate in North America proves that ‘til death do us part’ is not true for half of the people that utter those words at the altar and even the ones that stay together frequently cheat on each other. Having sex with only one person for the rest of one’s life is a daunting concept to many.

On the other end of the spectrum, open relationships give people the freedom to explore sexual possibilities with other people without the restrictions of monogamy, but they are not for everyone. A successful open arrangement requires a lot of communication, a lot of trust and a rewiring of the jealousy reflex.

Couples that don’t see complete monogamy as a realistic option, but don’t want to go the route of total openness either are leaning toward the middle ground alternative of monogamish relationships.

Sex advice columnist, Dan Savage, is credited with coining the term monogamish to describe committed relationships that allow for sex with other people in some circumstances. He acknowledges that there are benefits to monogamous relationships, like sexual safety and paternity assurances, and admits that monogamy can work for some people. In his own experience and that of many of the readers he has advised through his column, however, he believes that having a little wiggle room when it comes to fidelity can actually make relationships stronger.

Some couples start out monogamish and some adapt to a monogamish arrangement. Henry and Clare have been together for six years. Their monogamish relationship developed naturally. “The first encounter happened early into our dating relationship,” Clare explains.“He had gone away for work and slept with an ex-lover, which he told me about when he got back from the trip. We were casually dating and didn’t yet have an exclusive commitment. For about three seconds I felt what I suppose would be interpreted as insecurity, then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, he’s here telling me about it and he has made it clear that he’s into me and attracted to me and wants to develop our relationship further.’ I realized that the affection he showed me was real and genuine and I thought we could give it a go.”

Robinand Wesley began their relationship when both were involved in open relationships with other partners. Neither of the original primary relationships ended up lasting, but Robin and Wesley fell for each other and soon committed to being together. Although both had experience with significantly open relationships in the past, they found that the same level of non-monogamy did not work for them with each other.

Each monogamish relationship has a different set of rules and trends when it comes to who can be involved, what can happen and where it can take place.

In Henry and Clare’s arrangement, most of the outside encounters have occurred when one of them is out of town and most are discussed beforehand, but spontaneous hook-ups have occurred and are allowed as long as they are immediately disclosed. They try to choose partners who are comfortable with openly discussing their relationship structure as well as their sexually transmitted infection (STI) status and testing history. They always use condoms with outside partners and get tested regularly. The bed Henry and Clare share is off limits to other guests, unless both of them are present. There are certain people that are not on the list of potential outside partners and each of them has veto power on the other’s choice of partner at any time.

Another important rule for Henry and Clare is that they can always revisit the rules, which is a pretty common practice among the monogamish. Robin and Wesley’s relationship is presently only open to other partners when both of them are participating, but they don’t dismiss the possibility that it could change in the future to either stricter monogamy or more openness. “I could see the potential for it to go either direction,” Wesley says, “and I’m okay with both as long as whatever arrangement happens to form is fully accepted and wanted by both of us. I feel no pressure to have it move one direction or the other or even change for that matter.”

Clare is pretty sure she and Henry will always have a monogamish agreement. “How actively we pursue outside encounters will change and evolve as our life circumstances change, but the option will always be there,” she says.

Many people are sceptical about whether or not a monogamish relationship can succeed. We usually only hear about the failures with non-monogamy and there are certainly relationships of an open nature that go wrong and end, but there are couples who are perfectly happy with not having complete fidelity from their partners. “Luckily, my partner and myself are right on the exact same page so there’s no having to test boundaries or make compromises,” Wesley says.

One of the biggest potential pitfalls to a monogamish situation is the presence of jealousy. Robin and Wesley had carried on open relationships in the past with minimal problems with jealousy, but when it came to each other, the idea of the other being with someone else on their own didn’t sit right. They chose to welcome shared experiences as a way to indulge in sexual variety and to broaden their sex life together.

Statistics on how many couples would classify as monogamish are hard to come by since people who have these kinds of relationships typically don’t talk about them with anyone but each other and any additional partners they welcome into their lives due to the stigma attached to anything beyond strict monogamy.

Henry and Clare have found some challenges with explaining their situation to others. “I have never actually had an outside encounter and this is hard for people to grasp,” says Clare. They are both free to be with others, but Clare has never had a situation arise that she was compelled to act on. “I often get overly sympathetic responses to this from healthcare workers, friends and outside partners alike, because people assume that I am somehow being unfairly treated. They perceive the relationship as imbalanced or are concerned that I am not actually okay with our arrangement. In truth, I have not had any outside encounters because I am simply not as outgoing as my partner, and unlike him, I do not have past partners whom I trust to play with.”

Open and honest communication is an integral part of successfully navigating the monogamish lifestyle. Both couples agreed that part of what makes their situations work is the freedom they feel to share their feelings and reactions with each other. “This communication is essential for maintaining our trust and enjoyment with our arrangement,” Clare says.

Clare sees the option to have other sexual partners as a good thing for their relationship. “Being allowed to explore outside our relationship adds variety to our sex lives. We can explore new kinks and practices. We trust that we want to be together, we know we can come home to each other and we know that our relationship extends well beyond sex and is based on trust, communication and profound emotional connection. Sexual pleasure can be obtained easily from anyone, but our relationship is more that that. The monogamish arrangement lets us play, explore and appreciate each other even more.”

Monogamish couples realize that maintaining lifelong monogamy can be extremely difficult and don’t feel that attraction to other people should be totally supressed, but still appreciate the comfort and security that comes with a committed, trusting and loving relationship.