Monogamy Vs. Non-Monogamy: Is A Polyamorous Relationship Right For You?

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When the email from NBCToday arrived last week, I knew this was going to be an interesting ride. 

NBC Host Megyn Kelly was planning an episode about “consensual non-monogamy” — something I’ve discussed at length, most recently on, in a piece titled “How Do You Know Whether You’re Ready For a Three-some?" — and I'd been invited to join the discussion. 

Why in the world would a traditionally religious sex therapist like myself be talking about non-monogamy? Especially one who'd just written a book, Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship, about how to be sexually happy in a traditionally monogamous relationship.

The reality is, more couples now are looking at alternatives to traditional monogamy.

And I believe we traditionalists should engage fully in the discussion — since we bring a somewhat different point of view.

“Consensual non-monogamy” is the new term for what used to be referred to as an “open marriage.” As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, another traditionalist, wrote a few years back in The New York Times, “In the mid-1970s, only 51 percent of well-educated Americans agreed that adultery was always wrong. But far from being strengthened by this outbreak of realism, their marriages went on to dissolve in record numbers.”

I was a teenager at the time, and I still recall the era vividly. The excitement in the air. The almost weekly announcements of divorces in the neighborhood.

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So why in the world are we going there again?

One, we’re now more accepting of the fact that people are sexually diverse. Once you accept the reality that some individuals just happen to be gay, bisexual, kinky, or whatever, it’s not a big jump to accepting that some folks just don’t seem to be cut out for traditional monogamy.

Still, does non-monogamy work?

Current psychological research suggests that, for some couples, indeed it can.

When I told NBCToday I'd be willing to appear on the show, I was happy to learn that we’d be joined by Dr. Terri Conley, who’s done perhaps the best research on non-monogamy.

She’s a social psychologist at the University of Michigan who’s famous (at least among sex therapists) for her finding that monogamous and non-monogamous couples have roughly equivalent levels of relationship satisfaction; and in particular that people in what’s known as “polyamorous” relationships (more on that below) actually report less jealousy than people in strictly monogamous relationships.

That’s surprising, since presumably these poly couples had more to be jealous about.

On the negative side, Dr. Conley’s research clearly shows that non-monogamy is still among the most highly stigmatized things a person can do — at least in the US.

The show ended up featuring several non-traditional couples who appear to be doing quite well. And for balance, they invited journalist Robin Rinaldi, who chronicled her own year-long adventure in married non-monogamy in her book, The Wild Oats Project. During the year in question, Rinaldi had extra-marital relations with ten men and two women, and ended up divorcing her husband and finding happiness with one of the men she met while non-monogamous.

I was pleased to see Rinaldi featured together with these happily non-traditional couples on the show, because the contrast indicates what’s probably the most important principle for anyone considering non-monogamy:

Don’t choose non-monogomy to cure an unhappy relationship.

Inviting someone new into your bed in order to fix an unhappy marriage makes about as much sense as having a baby to fix an unhappy marriage. Forget it. It’s not going to work. I’ve seen this in my practice more times than I can count.

There’s a temptation to think that adding another person will take care of some need in a couple that’s been unfulfilled. But the reality is that extra-marital others are not simply need-satisfying machines. They’re real people, with their own needs, feelings, and conflicts — just like everyone else.

By the way, that’s why having a baby to save your marriage doesn’t work either. Your new child has no interest in saving your marriage. In attempting to resolve a problem, you’ve only made it more complex.

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According to most experts, the most enlightened approach to non-monogamy, if that’s what you feel called to do, is what’s called “polyamory.”

On the show, Dr. Conley defines polyamory as having permission to experience both sex and love outside the relationship. This distinguishes polyamory from “swinging” and “open marriage,” where usually the expectation is that you’ll only go outside your primary relationship for sex — not for love.

I prefer an alternate definition of polyamory — one that I learned from polyamorists Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert. According to this alternative analysis, swinging and open relationships are really “monogamy-plus.” Like traditional monogamous relationships, they serve to privilege and protect the primary couple. The primary couples sets the rules, and the stability of their relationship is considered paramount.

Polyamorous couples tend to rely less on rules, and more on the real needs of the various people involved. These “others” are seen less as need-satisfying objects, and more as full individuals whose needs, feelings, and conflicts are given equal weight.

That involves substantially more risk, and a lot more negotiation. But the enterprise takes on a whole new ethical dimension.

I was impressed that the non-monogamous individuals who appeared on the show seemed to have crossed this ethical threshold. They took their responsibilities to each other seriously, and they seemed to act with integrity and concern for the needs of all parties involved.

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For most of us of course, it's not simply a choice between monogamy and non-monogamy.

Monogamy is the automatic default, and to choose anything else requires commitment and a willingness to live with stigma — not to mention the major cost in time and energy.

For religious people like myself, it's not an option at all. But I was impressed by the commitment of the non-traditional couples I heard from on the show, and thought we traditional folks could learn a lot from them about good communication and honestly negotiating for what we need in a relationship.

Stephen Snyder, M.D. is a sex therapist, psychiatrist and author of the book, Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship, who helps committed, long-term couples regain passion, sexual intimacy and closeness in their relationships. Connect with Dr. Snyder at for more information and to get started on your journey of sexual fulfillment today.