You Need Help: Am I Still Into Non-Monogamy or Not Really?

feature image by Zackary Drucker for The Gender Spectrum Collection

Q:

My partner and I have been monogamous for 5 years, non-monogamous for 1 year. When we decided to open last year, we were both equally interested. At first, I was very excited and had a lot of great experiences, and I feel like on paper, I have what I wanted: a beautiful community of queers who I have sex with from time to time and an anchor partner I am so excited to be with. But fast-forward a year later, and I feel extremely ambivalent. About 8 months in, the inevitable feelings of anxiety and insecurity, miscommunication, stress, constant emotional processing, re-hashing boundaries, and logistics were wearing me down. A bunch of outside life events came to a head, and my mental health tanked. A similar thing happened to my partner, and they asked to slow down going on dates or hookups. I ultimately asked for a non-monogamy break a couple of months after that.

The break just started, and I’m worried that I’m just not as non-monogamous as I thought I was. I know it’s hard opening up relationships and I’ve read the books, gotten the therapist, am “doing the work,” but I miss the simplicity and security of one sexual partner. I also love the friends I see, but I could take or leave sex with them at this point. My partner is not sure what relationship structure feels best for them right now, but has mentioned that they do find some things great about non-monogamy, and it feels sort of worth it to them to do the work. I feel just the opposite, it’s sort of not worth it to me anymore.

I’ve expressed my increasing ambivalence, but I also wonder if I’m ambiamorous, where sometimes I do want non-monogamy and feel great in it, and other times it’s just no longer for me. How do I navigate not knowing for sure whether monogamy or non-monogamy is for me? And how do I communicate that to my partner and my sexy friends?

A:

Hello, dearest!

I’m coming to you from the cozy cavern of a seventeen-year-long monogamous relationship, which may make you wonder why I’d feel at all able to answer your question. However, what that long bout of monogamy doesn’t belie is that I’ve also experienced what I, in my youth, incorrectly categorized as “experimenting with non-monogamy and polyamory.” After learning the term for the first time a few years ago, I’ve ultimately come to the conclusion that I’m definitely ambiamorous. I can’t say if you are, too, of course, but I’d love to help you explore the questions in front of you.

Non-monogamy has been appealing to me for about as long as I’ve been a person who dates other people. It’s always made sense to me, personally, in that romance, sex, and love have always been unique and separate things for me and I know for a fact that you can love more than one person at the same time. My first serious teenage relationship was open for the majority of our one year together and we were actively dating other people and having multiple relationships for most of that time. We lacked the adulting communication skills to actually maintain our relationship as we both grew into different life stages, but I had only positive feelings about the non-monogamous aspect. In my very next relationship, I was monogamous with my boyfriend of three years. We, again, lacked the adult communication skills to support each other through growth and the evolution of ourselves, but monogamy wasn’t the primary problem.

I have had and can imagine having different types of relationships with different types of people. Non-monogamy is delightful and can look many different ways. Monogamy can be joyful when practiced intentionally. Trust and room for individual growth have always been at the center of my most successful relationships and that’s true of my current monogamous relationship of almost two decades.

OK, so that said, I feel like, within certain feminist and queer communities, non-monogamy is sometimes presented as the most radically ethical, liberated thing to do a.k.a. the best way to show how queer you are and how free you are from the cisheteropatriarchy. To be 100% clear, I’m not saying that non-monogamy is trendy or forced. I actually think it’s a very logical and natural way for humans to live and love. I’m glad it seems to be increasingly normalized and that queer people are leading the way in busting down the doors of conformity and heteronormativity even within poly and non-monogamous discourse. What I’m saying is that there can be loads of pressure to conform to what a certain vision for queerness is, and that can include a lot of stereotypical things including practicing ethical non-monogamy even when you’re not sure that it’s right for you.

I, myself, went through a period of time during college when I declared I’d never be monogamous again. And I meant it at the time. This was coming out of that three-year monogamous relationship with my lovely heterosexual boyfriend, after which I tumbled into another queer couple’s lovely open relationship. It felt very liberating to make this declaration at that time in my life and it’s true that I think having multiple partners can be a lot of fun! And meaningful! And loving! And amazing! Honestly, it brings me a lot of joy and I totally could imagine myself having ended up in an open or poly relationship.

That said, my truth has also been that monogamy also works just fine for me. As you said, I’m kind of ambivalent about it. If I’m in a loving, fulfilling relationship, where I’m also trusted and supported and encouraged to have a wide social network, where we see our relationship as a living thing that changes over time, I’m down with monogamy. I don’t feel stifled. There are pros and cons of course, but so long as I am free to create other types of intimate relationships (friends, crushes, chosen family, etc.), I’m good!

Even though I have practiced and agree with the concept of ethical non-monogamy in various forms, I’ve never related to poly folks who feel very deeply and earnestly that monogamy can’t work for them. I’ve never felt that I need it in my relationship or my life, which made me question whether I could call myself part of the poly community for a long time. Finding ambiamorous orientation as a real option and realizing others felt as I do was pretty exciting.

What I’ve learned about myself is that, much like gender doesn’t dictate who I’m attracted to as a queer pansexual bisexual non-monosexual person, whether we are monogamous or not isn’t what brings me satisfaction in a relationship. I want to be in a relationship with someone with whom I can have intentional and consensual understandings about the boundaries of our relationship, where we are both able to grow and change individually and together, and where we make choices about how to engage other people and other types of intimacies. It’s not particularly important what comes from that so much as that we have made the choices intentionally, together.

So back to you. As you write in your question, it takes a lot of work to have a healthy non-monogamous relationship. (Frankly, it takes a lot of work to have a monogamous one, too, or it should, but many don’t realize they need to be actively working on their monogamous relationship boundaries and evolutions.) Especially if you have, as it sounds like you do, an “anchor partner” whose relationship you prioritize over other relationships you cultivate, it can be a lot of time-consuming and complex communication. It often requires a lot of communication and constantly navigating boundaries and feelings and, oh boi, schedules. I think, if it brings you joy, it’s very much worth the work! And if your head isn’t in it right now and if you don’t feel like you even need to practice it, that’s OK, too.

Only you know what’s in your heart. It could be that you’re ambiamorous. Or maybe you’re just reconsidering the boundaries of your current relationship. Or maybe you actually prefer monogamy for any number of reasons. From what I understand, being ambiamorous can mean that you have no preference for monogamy or non-monogamy. It can also mean that someone is equally happy in monogamous or non-monogamous relationships. There’s a subtle difference there that feels important to underline. It can mean absolutely no preference at all and it can also mean a slight preference, but the ability to be happy in either type of relationship. And I think, I believe, like all things related to sexuality and attraction, it can also be a thing that fluctuates regularly and that’s very individual to the person. For me, it’s also individual to the person who I’m in a relationship with.

While relationships where one person is monogamous and one person is non-monogamous can definitely work, I personally like to be exactly on the same page as my partner in this way. If I have a partner who is monogamous, I want to be monogamous. If I have a partner who’s poly or open to non-monogamy, I want to explore that together! And regardless of how the relationship is structured, no matter what, we’re going to need to have shared values and understanding around what’s OK, what’s not, and how we approach our individual orientations to both attraction and behavior with others. For both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, that approach and those boundaries and needs can change over time and need adjusting.

This brings us to how to talk about this with your partner and “sexy friends.” It sounds like you already have pretty good open communication going with your partner and your friends, so I don’t think that’s what you are asking about — how to talk to intimate people in your life. I think you’re asking how you communicate to them, specifically, that you are ambivalent about monogamy and that it may change for you from time to time or that you’re in the process of figuring that out.

I think first you need to separate what you feel and want from what your partner feels and wants. I know I just said I like to match up with my partner, but that’s because I know that’s what I want. What do you want? Take your partner out of the picture for a second. Stop and think about what you, truly, desire. In your question, you expressed that sometimes monogamy works for you and sometimes it doesn’t. You also wrote that you currently crave the “simplicity and security of one sexual partner.”

Regardless of how you identify, is that where you are right now, this day? Do you feel like your orientation fluctuates regularly or infrequently? When you think about opening your relationship again, how does that make you feel? When you think about remaining monogamous forever, how does that make you feel? If the answer is that you feel like either option is fine, you may indeed be ambiamorous. If you find yourself having an adverse reaction to one direction or another, it’s possible you’re not. If you asked yourself all those questions and are finding you don’t have answers right now, that’s ok! You don’t have to have the exact answer right now. You just have to have thought through what you actually do know (even if it’s that you don’t have the answer yet) and how it feels to you, taking your partner(s) out of the calculation entirely.

Now let’s bring back in the other folks, especially your “anchor partner.” The next question to ask yourself is how you feel about your anchor partner making this choice for themselves. It sounds like your assessment is that they prefer non-monogamy and would like to get back to that. If you’re currently more into monogamy, how would you feel if your partner was non-monogamous and you were not? Would you still feel compersion for your partner? Would you feel differently if they pursued other folks and you didn’t? Would you be comfortable with them practicing non-monogamy while you figure out where you’re at and what you want? Do you think your partner would be comfortable with you having a more fluid identity that can change from time to time? Do you know what you’d need from your partner to make that happen? Do you think they’d be able to support you? And you, them?

In other words, thinking of your and your partner’s desires and needs separately from each other, can you imagine a future where you’re both getting what you need? Can you imagine that future together? What I read into your question isn’t a concern about how to bring up difficult topics or navigate boundaries. It seems like you’re already doing that well, in that you have evolved your relationship more than once and are in conversations about your relationship right now. What I think you’re really worried about is if your partner, who you love very much, is on a different path than you and if this will lead to you going off in completely different directions.

I won’t lie. It very well might. It’s also possible that it will work out just fine. You’re going to have to talk to them to find out. You’re going to have to find out what they need. You’re going to have to ask for what it is you need. First, you have to determine what you need.

I don’t think you need advice on how to have that conversation, but for the benefit of the wider internet, I always recommend that you bring up relationship talk in a neutral place, not in bed or right after intimacy, not in a place where either of you would feel exposed or vulnerable. A private chat during daylight hours works best for tough discussions. Given that you already, it seems, talk regularly about your relationship, you could even ask for a time to talk and put it on the schedule. When you do talk, realize that it may be hard. You may have more questions than answers coming out of the talk. It may surface new feelings or reactions for you. It may require more than one conversation and you or they may need time to think it all through in between. If you’ve never had this type of talk before, it can be much more challenging for everyone involved than if you are already regularly discussing your relationship, as it seems like you are!

Whatever you decide, you deserve to prioritize your happiness, to be seen and understood, and to have a relationship or relationships with others who lift you up and love you as you are. Choosing non-monogamy or monogamy or a more fluid understanding of monogamy should feel like a real decision made fairly, not a burden or consolation sacrifice made on the altar of love. I wish you much happiness, safety, and a life full of love, whatever your path forward looks like. Best of luck figuring it all out!


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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KaeLyn

KaeLyn is a 39-year-old (femme)nist activist, word nerd, and queer mama. You can typically find her binge-watching TV, standing somewhere with a mic or a sign in her hand, over-caffeinating herself, or just generally doing too many things at once. She lives in Rochester, NY with her spouse, a baby T. rex, a xenophobic cat, and a rascally rabbit. You can buy her debut book, Girls Resist! A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution if you want to, if you feel like it, if that's a thing that interests you or whatever.

KaeLyn has written 228 articles for us.

18 Comments

    • I don’t talk about it a lot or use it as a primary ID, as I guess it just doesn’t come up? But when I heard it (not that long ago, really), I was like, “Yes, that’s it! That’s exactly how I feel–like I don’t feel strongly specifically one way or the other about monogamy.”

  1. This is a thoughtful response with great advice.

    I can maybe offer an additional perspective, since I’ve grappled with where I fall on this spectrum too. I think what I’ve figured out is that my ideals align with polyamory, but I’m functionally ambiamorous. What that means to me is that I don’t necessarily need multiple partners to feel fulfilled, but I do need any relationship I’m in to allow for the possibility of intimate connection with others if it eventually happens. I don’t know if that might resonate with you at all, but for me it helps me frame any ambivalence I feel about trying to date outside of my anchor relationship as less to do with whether I’m truly inherently polyam, and more to do with my current circumstances, energy levels etc.

    • Ooo I really like that Chandra. I’ve recently been thinking of myself as “polyamorous but polysaturated at 1 person”
      That looks like monogamy but the messy way that can interfere with monogamy for me is still having strong friend connections to exes, not necessarily automatically prioritizing romance over friend connections, and being totally open to established and comfortable “comet” type connections even if I don’t have the energy for dating. My partner seems to have an ideological attachment to monogamy and it’s surprising how much conflict we have about it even though functionally our styles look the same day to day.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Chandra! I totally get what you’re saying. I kind of feel the same way, though have a shared understanding with my partner of what the boundaries of our relationship are. I, like you, feel like I’m more aligned with a poly or ethical non-monog ideology from a sense of my own ideals. It just makes sense to me. And I’m also able to have crushes, have flirty friendships, form close friendships outside of my monogamous relationship and that works for me. I think, for me personally, I’ve always had an orientation towards one person as my main person (whether in friendships or love) and that makes it easier, I think, for me to adapt to monogamy in a way that still meets my needs. No matter what, I’d likely prioritize one relationship over others based on my previous behaviors.

  2. Thanks for this. Monogamy / non-Monogomy has always fascinated me because of the complex emotional issues it entails.

    I have been married to the same partner for 30+ years. I think that qualifies as Monogamous? :)

    A big part of my Monogamous relationship was looking to create stability and a solid family relationship around un-conditional love which I did not have growing up to put it mildly (parents were clear I was not wanted (an “accident”) and brothers were abusive).

    But I have great respect for people who can make non-Mongamous relationships work and I am very curious how they navigate the various emotional issues that would completely wreck me.

    • I mean this in the gentlest way possible, but poly relationships are equally capable of being marriages and/or lasting for over three decades, so a 30-year marriage doesn’t indicate monogamy *or* polyamory without one of those descriptors explicitly attached <3

      • Dragonsnap, thanks for stearing me straight on that….after I saw what you wrote it was like one of those knock on the forehead moments: “of course they have nothing to do with each other”….so I appreciate you pointing that out…..

        And I totally take it in the spirit in which it was given, which is to say, taking me gently by the hand and guiding me in the right direction on that point…..AND I APPRECIATE IT!!

        Take Care, <3

    • I love how you both interacted with each other here–so caring!

      Also, I just want to reiterate that some people are strongly oriented toward monogamy. Or polyamory. And that’s ok. That’s really, truly, OK. Attraction is weird science and I don’t know why we’re wired the way we are, but I do believe that it’s 100% fine to prefer and only pursue monogamy! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! It’s weird to have to say that, but I do feel like heteronormativity has put this emphasis on monogamy in such a way that we queers feel we have to rebel against it and, like, look, we are who we are. And who says we can’t queer and reclaim monogamy?!

  3. i’ve never seen someone advocate for mono-poly couplings, so i want to offer that i’m in a relationship with someone who’s other partner (spouse) is working thru some of these same questions – & who is currently “not hungry” for relationships outside their current marriage. & i’m coming to see my partner’s other relationship as a mono-poly coupling that has been poly-poly at times, that has moved thru such thought & intention around their poly practice & ethic. it’s been special & cool to witness this! that ppl do have changing needs and desires, that even in a marriage u don’t have to, will maybe never have, exactly the same needs, & that doesn’t make it any less functional, kind, or ethical.

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