Could Updating Your Idea of Monogamy Help Your Marriage?

Talking about your shared definition of monogamy, per Dr. Tammy Nelson, can lead to new levels of intimacy and excitement.

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Couple laying on their sides and having a conversation in bed

The traditional monogamous relationship, where two people stay together until death do they part, is slowly becoming less common. There are numerous reasons for this. Some couples don’t want to be part of a construct that fails as often as it succeeds. Some see monogamy as a claustrophobic, patriarchal trap. And there are simply more flexible relationship arrangements gaining acceptance and visibility than ever before. If you’re in a traditional monogamous relationship, Dr. Tammy Nelson thinks talking about your version of monogamy is well worth your time.

“The reality is monogamy can be whatever you want it to be,” says Dr. Nelson, a renowned sexologist, author, and Executive Director of the Integrative Sex Institute. “We can define it to fit our lifestyle. You can be married to one person or in a committed partnership with one person, but you can define it any way you want. Don’t let anyone tell you the way it should be.”

In her latest book Open Monogamy, Dr. Nelson provides insight and directions for couples looking to discuss and implement different kinds of relationships. Yes, if a couple wants to explore an open marriage or other non-monogamous relationships, the book will help guide them through that scenario. But it also asks couples who have no intention of exploring a “non-traditional arrangement” to speak openly and honestly about their wants and desires so they can create their ideal relationship. For those couples, Dr. Nelson says the point is to help them realize that traditional monogamy is a spectrum and can be molded to fit your shared views. Communicating about what that monogamy looks like for you both and refining it as you see fit allows couples to escape what can be a stifling construct and experience new levels of intimacy and excitement.

“It’s not that monogamy is about morality or sexual fidelity,” she says. “It’s about honesty and transparency. That’s your true north about everything.”

Fatherly spoke to Dr. Nelson about discussing monogamy agreements, kickstarting the conversations, and why open dialogue is key to a more content relationship.

What inspired you to write a guide for helping steer couples through a re-thinking of their monogamy?

Well, monogamy is on a continuum, and I think that people are much more likely today to look at their relationship to create it in a way that works for them. This isn’t your grandmother’s monogamy. The world is a different place, and the definition of monogamy is different. There’s a whole new conversation that must happen about what it means to be monogamous.

What is your definition of open monogamy?

Well, open monogamy means that you have a primary or central partner or spouse, but you have some kind of flexible or fluid agreement. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a polyamorous relationship where you have other romantic lovers in your marriage, although it could. It could just mean that you’re open about the fact that you have lunch with your ex or that you are sending photos or clicking on someone’s Instagram. There’s a real wide spectrum, and it starts with an open conversation.

How does this slot in alongside terminologies like ethical non-monogamy or consensual non-monogamy?

To be honest, all the open relationship people hate the term “open monogamy” because they say, ‘No it’s ethical non-monogamy,’ ‘It’s consensual non-monogamy.’ ‘It’s not monogamy.’ But I’m like, well, it kind of is. It’s just you doing it your way.

All the traditionally monogamous people are mad at my definition, too. But the reality is monogamy is a legal term. It means being married to one person. And we have used it interchangeably to make it mean sexual fidelity with one person. Monogamy is a legal term like being polygamous, which means being married to more than one person.

The reality is monogamy can be whatever you want it to be. We can define it to fit our lifestyle, and that’s what I’m trying to say. You can be married to one person or in a committed partnership with one person, but you can define it any way you want. Don’t let anyone tell you the way it should be.

So, what does the open conversation look like? How do you start?

In my book, I say to start with the “What if” conversation. “What if we try X.” And it begins with “Oh, I heard this on a podcast.” Or, “I read this in an article. And what if we did something like this? What would be the problems and what would be the positive?” The P and P conversation. What would be the potential disaster and what would be the benefit? And you go from there.

I tell people that you can have this conversation for the rest of your life and never do anything. You don’t ever have to take whatever you discuss into action. It could just be out of curiosity or fantasy. And that could be super-hot. You don’t ever have to do anything and still have the benefit of having the erotic energy in your relationship. You’re talking openly.

And these “What if” starters could certainly lead to, “Oh, I never knew you wanted that…”

Exactly. It could just be one of those fun Thursday night conversations. Like let’s do something sexy and fun this week, let’s have a what-if conversation.

I have a list of questions called ‘40 Questions to Ask About Your New Monogamy Agreement.’ They start off on this continuum. ‘What if we flirted with other people?’ ‘What if you had an emotional connection with someone else? Is that okay?’ ‘What if we looked at porn together?’ ‘What if we went out and went dancing together and you danced with someone else?’ ‘What if we went to a sex club together and just walked around?’ Or ‘What if we went to a sex toy store together and just looked around?’

It gets further down the spectrum from there. But all of these are examples of conversations that could shape your new monogamy agreement.

Let’s be honest. Many will hear the phrase “new monogamy agreement” and immediately think about their partner seeing other people.

I think the reality is that you’re married but you’re not dead. You’re always going to be curious or attracted to other people. Back in the day, we did it in secret. We felt that if we had this attraction to someone else that there was something wrong with our marriage, or that we must break up or get a divorce.

Now, people can say maybe that’s not true. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with our marriage. Maybe we still love one another, and maybe we can bring new energy into our relationship and make our relationship sexier and more alive. And what would it be like to have a truly honest conversation with one another?

That’s a whole new level of love. And it’s a different level of maturity.

How does one have this conversation without jealousy or defensiveness taking center stage? Or what do you do when you don’t like your partner’s proposal? Some people might feel stuck if their partner says they want to try X because of fear that saying no will end their relationship.

It has to do with those four resources in a relationship: time, attention, affection, and sex. Jealousy is a completely normal emotion and sometimes we use it to describe this sort of blanket feeling of discomfort when really it could be a canary in a coal mine to say, I don’t feel right about this scenario. Something is off. And we need to give one another a veto because we need to stop now, and this isn’t working.

That makes sense.

So, the way to talk about it is to ask yourself, Is what they’re proposing bothering me because of the time factor? Maybe it’s because you and your partner spend so little time together as it is and now they say they want to spend time texting with someone else or looking at pictures of someone else or whatever it may be.

Or maybe it’s about attention. Maybe you want to go out to lunch with someone else — a friend, even. And just paying attention to that person might bring up jealousy. Your partner might think When was the last time you invited me out to lunch?

Or maybe it’s the affection. Every time they see their friend, they go up and give them a big hug and kiss them on the cheek or whatever. And you get jealous because they never do that with you and you miss that touch, that physical affection.

Is there another point couples should keep in mind when thinking about monogamy?

That there’s nothing necessarily wrong with your partner if you’re not feeling attracted to them at different phases of your relationship.

Attraction comes in developmental stages, not only in you but in your relationship. Before you get married or committed, we tell people to date around or don’t be monogamous. Then you settle down to start a family so you can create safety. And then when the kids are a little bit older people often get divorced, come to therapy, or they start looking around for other relationships to bring back that feeling of Oh, I’m still a sexual person.

That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your partner or your relationship. It’s developmentally on target. That might be the time to shake things up in your relationship and know that you’re trying to remember those dismembered parts of yourself that you may have put aside for a while. And you can do that as a couple. You don’t have to do that outside of your relationship. You can create a relationship that does that.

That’s important to know. And for many people, a scary thought.

It is. But it doesn’t have to be terrifying or catastrophic. If you need help managing those times, therapy can help but it’s also about having these conversations. The bottom line and the true north have to be being honest and open.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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