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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 08:37


This morning I have been writing a response piece for Sexual and Relationship Therapy about monogamy, so I thought I'd blog about it too. The original article and my response will hopefully appear in the August edition of that journal.

Basically the author of the original paper is arguing that sex and relationship therapists should be actively addressing monogamy with their clients because lots of sexual and relationship problems are rooted in monogamy. Thinking about it she has a good point. Obviously relationship conflicts and break-ups about infidelity are about monogamy. But from my own experience working with clients, I think that many other relationship conflicts and tensions are related to this broad issue as well. People often find themselves in different places in their relationships, over how free versus how together they want to be: how much they want to share and how much they want to be private and independent. Often one person is feeling more constrained and striving for more independence whilst another is feeling more insecure and striving for more of a sense of safety. And this frequently plays out around relationships with other people (is it okay to want more friends outside the relationship? Or to be a bit flirty with a colleague?)

Also, common sexual difficulties are often related to monogamy. A lot of people who have painful or unsatisfying sex continue to do so because they are scared of losing their partner to somebody else (and this tends to make it worse). A lot of people feel that they must continue to have 'great sex' throughout their relationship in order to affirm it, which creates the kind of pressure which can make it difficult to relax and tune in to what they really enjoy. The idea of being a 'sex addict' is sometimes linked to struggling with being monogamous.

The author of the paper pointed out that we generally get the message that monogamy is easy and 'natural', and that our partners will provide everything for us (emotionally and sexually). That idea can leave people feeling like a failure when it doesn't work out like that in their relationship. Actually very few people seem to manage monogamy across a life-time. As many as 50-60% of married people have affairs, and a recent study found that one third of young people in monogamous relationships didn't agree on whether they had discussed what monogamy meant to them and over half of them disagreed on whether the rules of monogamy had been kept or not.

So maybe it would be more useful (in therapy and in general) for people to have open conversations about how they want to manage their relationships: how monogamous they want to be.

I came up with the idea of two continua of monogamy for the book I'm writing on relationships. The emotional continuum goes from having all your emotional needs met by one person, to having multiple loving relationships. The sexual continuum goes from complete sexual fidelity to having multiple sex partners. I think it's useful for people to think about where they are on those continua and whether partners are in similar, or different places.

For example, on the emotional continuum we might consider relationships where it isn't acceptable to have any other close friendships, or to stay in touch with ex-partners, or where it is acceptable to stay up all night talking with someone you've just met, or to have several people in your life who are equally important to your partner. On the sexual continuum we might consider relationships where any form of sexual thought about someone other than the partner is considered wrong, ones where it is okay to look at pornography online but not to interact with someone sexually, ones where certain sexual activities with other people are considered okay, or ones that are completely open to sex with others. Obviously there is overlap between the two continua too.

At the end of my response I concluded that the following things would be useful for therapists, but also more generally:

  • Challenging the assumption that we all have the same rules about monogamy and being open to others being in a different place to ourselves
  • Recognising that relationships of all kinds are difficult and most people struggle around those tensions of freedom and togetherness
  • Communicating about where we are at currently on those continua, recognising that this might change over time and in different relationships, and that we might end up agreeing, compromising, or respectfully agree to disagree
  • Being aware of the variety of different relationship styles that are available , including different styles of monogamy, the new monogamy, open relationships, swinging, and polyamory

There's a lot more about open non-monogamy in the paper Darren Langdridge and I wrote on this topic last year.

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Great piece. I think one of the problems is that people automatically 'plug-in' to an idea of what a relationship is. Perhaps a kind of schema. Which doesn't allow for them to develop their relationship/s along the most appropriate lines for them. Instead, they try to adapt the relationship to fit other people's and society's universal concept which doesn't work for most individuals. Lengthy time of trying to live within the wrong shaped relationship eventually cause the stress and strain we've grown used to seeing within long-term, often apparently monogamous relationships. I believe the answer, if there is one, is constant re-examination and willingness to re-adjust appropriately. You're right, sometimes the construct we understand as monogamy is the right way to be in relationship. At other times not so appropriate. But following the paths of others, to the neglect of your individual relationships, is problematical.
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Response to Dee

Thanks Dee, very interesting points.

I think part of it might be that the common view of relationships is as static. That's why 'you've changed' is an accusation often made when relationships are at a difficult point.

I wonder if a recognition of the uniqueness of each relationship, plus the fact that they will inevitably be fluid and change over time would be good too. The idea of very rigid rules definitely can get in the way of that. An alternative might be regular checking in and realising that each person might not feel the same as they did a year ago can.

Thanks again for my first comment smile


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Therapists advocating non-monogamy.

A very useful comment on this blog somewhere else online raised the question of ethical problems if a therapist advocated a non-monogamous relationship to a couple who were struggling with sexual problems.

Just to clarify, I would have a huge problem too with any therapist who advocated non-monogamy (or monogamy, or any particular relationship style other than the one they have chosen). Rather I'm saying that it is important to get people communicating about what their expectations of the rules of their relationship are, instead of just assuming that they match (as that research found that they often don't). It's useful for everyone to know that there are lots of different monogamies and non-monogamies out there. But recommending a particular style of relating to other people is a very dubious practice!

Regarding situations where there are different sexual needs in a relationship, generally it is useful, I think, to start by examining what each person understands by 'sex', and what it means to them and what they get from it. Quite often you find that various different needs are being met in sex (e.g. passion, intimacy, validation, etc. etc.) and people can find other ways of meeting some of those needs to take some of the pressure off sex. And taking the pressure of it is a good starting point to then discussing how they go forward in the relationship in relation to sex.

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Very interesting post, and this prompted a very interesting conversation with my partner, where he mooted the idea of an interests (maybe pastimes?) continuum. As with the other continua there could be overlap. There are some relationships where pastimes must be shared, or discarded, and others where there is complete freedom to satisfy your interests with others. He noted that this can sometimes be rooted in gender norms for that hobby. For example, a guy can go out and play football with his mates, as it's a 'boy thing' but maybe would not be permitted to go to the cinema individually for a film that didn't interest a partner (especially with a mixed gender group). Thank you for a very interesting post, and one that prompted some very interesting conversation. I also absolutely agree that this is a very valuable concept to discuss in general or during counselling, as I have found myself surprised to discover that myself and a partner had a very different idea of the 'rules' of monogamy.
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Thanks @Linette

Thanks for the comment @Linette. I think that is such a good point.

The only thing I don't like about my continua idea is that it suggests that emotional and sexual matters are distinct (some people might always experience them as overlapping) and that these are the only two possible continua. Shared interests is such a good example of another one.

I also thought of: proximity (from living with one person to many), how vulnerable they can be around someone (from having only one person they 'let in' to having many), or time (from having one person they see much more than everyone else, to having many who they divide time between equally).