Did the Pandemic Signal the End of Monogamy As We Know It?

It could be that the pandemic has created a heightened awareness of the need for more people to fill our needs.

by Dr. Tammy Nelson PhD
A torn photograph of a smiling couple hugging in black and white symbolizing the end of monogamy as ...

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that it really does take a village. Many have realized that it’s impossible for one single person to offer us complete satisfaction. A spouse or committed partner isn’t enough. With the extended social isolation brought on by the lockdowns, many marriages have crumbled. The pandemic has become a pressure cooker for intimate relationships with many questioning whether they’ve invested in the right people after all. Our traditional support systems have taken a massive hit and, with them, our social lives and our personal satisfaction.

When the lockdowns were first put into place, many couples found joy in spending 24 hours a day with their partner. It was a reprieve from the hectic lifestyles we were accustomed to, a large portion of which took place outside the home. This new reality was an opportunity to spend quality time with our at-home partner. Many couples found the undivided attention made their sex lives more exciting as well.

However, as the pandemic dragged on and the lockdowns continued, the novelty wore off and financial and job loss, school closings, and extended confinement meant high levels of stress instead. This led to marital challenges and a decrease in sexual connection. Dealing with kids, extended boredom and frustration, and continued forced togetherness led to mood and mental health issues. Some couples began to wonder if the one partner traditional monogamy structure was working for them.

And yet, they didn’t look to end their marriages. Ashley Madison, the married dating site, surpassed the 70 million member mark at the end of 2020. The company recently found that while the majority of its members continued to pursue extramarital affairs during the pandemic, they were not at all interested in divorce. In fact, they say that many cheaters love their spouse deeply, but find themselves sexually and/or emotionally unfulfilled.

It’s that missing piece in an otherwise happy marriage that leads them to search for an extramarital partner online, which could, of course, lead to the crisis of separation, but doesn’t have to. For many, it can dissolve any inclination toward divorce.

Why? Because in a lot of ways, the cheating partner may find that an affair helps them to stay in their marriage. In fact, the partner who is being cheated on may also come around to a more open form of monogamy, where an outside partner doesn’t have to destroy what the spouses have built. Many partners come to terms with the fact that marriage isn’t a fairytale and one person may not give them everything they need. Sometimes with an affair, they can maintain their primary relationship and outsource the pieces that aren’t working at home. In other words, they’re having their cake and they’re eating it, too.

So why can’t having multiple partners become more of the norm rather than something people hide? It’s possible that our society is shifting in this direction. A more open monogamy would mean that partners have the choice to have more than one partner while maintaining their primary relationship. It could be that the pandemic has created a heightened awareness of the need for more people to fill our needs, while at the same time removing the threat to the central relationship at home. We may see a societal shift to a more open and fluid monogamy as the restrictions in our social life begin to lift.

The average person has a close handful of friends, each of whom serve a different purpose. We have different friends for different reasons. Some we hang out with for laughs, others we go to for advice. Other friends are best at keeping our secrets. One friend may enjoy hiking more than another, or a night in watching movies. We depend on our friends to satisfy us in different ways. When one can’t, we reach out to another.

With our romantic lives, we have come to expect an almost epic quest for “the one.” If and when we find that mythic person, we center our lives around them and our expectations for our needs to be met by that one person last forever; a lifetime of pressure. Many relationships can handle the pressure, and the partners evolve to provide enough stimulation and support for the partnership to thrive. But for many spouses, a romantic relationship benefits from a friendship approach – many people for many needs.

Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is an agreement between two partners to explore outside relationships, with permission, in order to have their various needs met. Open Monogamy (OM) is the agreement between two primary or central partners to open their relationship agreement to explore outside relationships. CNM and OM are similar, though Open Monogamy implies that the marriage or committed relationship will always remain a priority and all outside relationships feed the marriage, improving the intimacy and connection at home. It may relieve the pressure, make things more exciting, or just help each individual explore their own interests.

CNM and OM may stem from the need for excitement or simply a desire to have more than one romantic and sexual partner. As the pandemic progresses and more and more married people are feeling an imbalance of responsibilities, it may become a valuable lifestyle choice for couples seeking more companionship, increased financial stability, and a more equal distribution of domestic responsibilities. During this global pandemic we are all learning new ways to survive and thrive, the most important lesson of which may be that we need to be in this together.

In order to thrive, romantic couples require time, attention, affection, and sex. Some couples can give more than others. One partner may be generous with their time and attention but their partner could require more affection or sex. Finding a balance can be hard, but these four areas are a way to explore what is needed in a relationship and what one feels is lacking. Historically, those who feel a lack of one or more of these relationship “pillars” will try to get their partner to increase in that area and eventually give up if they don’t get their needs met. These four resources are all important for a satisfying relationship, but some people are better at giving than others. Some partners need one or two more than another.

If one partner is frustrated and feels deprived in one area for long enough, they may begin to search for fulfillment outside the relationship. What CNM or OM offer is the ability to remain committed to the primary partner while outsourcing the need for the attention, affection, dedication, and/or physical intimacy the primary partner can’t provide.

Research stresses the importance interpersonal relationships have on both our emotional and physical health and wellbeing, even going as far as to say that they give us our purpose in life. With that in mind, limiting ourselves to one partner when our desires go beyond their capabilities may be futile. A consensually non-monogamous relationship doesn’t mean the primary relationship is in trouble or has to end. It can be a sign that it’s time to talk about our needs and share a deeper understanding of what we need to create a more solid long term relationship.

Long before the lockdowns began, married people were exploring open relationships. They questioned their expectations of the one partner traditional monogamy structure that has been in place in our society for a long time. They wondered if they could find satisfaction from one person. Now, changes in how we manage our relationships are happening faster than ever before. We are pivoting into new ways of managing our lives. Some couples will find that their marriages may not survive the lockdowns, while others will be in a stronger marriage than they were before this all began. Those who thrive will find that the key to their happiness will be openness, honesty, and for some, a willingness to accept a more flexible, and fluid monogamy.

Dr. Tammy Nelson is a sex and relationship expert and licensed psychotherapist with almost 30 years of experience working with individuals and couples. She is the Director of the Integrative Sex Therapy Institute, and the author of such books as The New Monogamy as well as When You’re The One Who Cheats