How do non-monogamous relationships work?

Tabby Kibugi 17 May 2022

What does being in a non-monogamous relationship really entail? And why is this type of bond particularly popular with millennials?

Growing up, 35-year-old Tim Matthews from London always thought that monogamy was the only way to be in a relationship. However, after many years of dating and a series of failed relationships, Matthews realised that the monogamous lifestyle wasn’t ideal for him. Eager to venture into a non-monogamous relationship, he sought people who were already in such relationships in a bid to comprehend how the relationship dynamic could work for him. It was during his quest that Matthews, together with his wife, ended up having a girlfriend.

“The three of us have been in a polyamorous relationship for five years now,” Matthews explains. “When you become part of such a relationship, you gain more than just a romantic partner. You gain an entire support system where everyone cares about one another, and we all work to make sure that all the relationships in the home are healthy.”

A millennial thing?

Offline studies have shown that just like Matthews, more young people are seeking non-monogamous relationships. Last year, a sex census by sex toy company, LELO, revealed that young people in the UK are more open to polyamorous relationships than any demographic. While 28 per cent of the British respondents said that a polyamorous relationship would tick all their intimacy boxes, this figure rose to 38 per cent among young people. The same census also revealed that 1.5 per cent of young people said that they were already in a polyamorous relationship, a higher proportion than in any other age group. And it’s not just in the UK. A 2020 poll by YouGovAmerica found that only 56 per cent of Americans want an entirely monogamous relationship, with young people expressing the least interest in having only one sexual and romantic partner.

"Millennials aren’t very prone to be affected by the internet"

Callisto Adams, PhD, a dating and relationship expert and founder of HeTexted.com defines polyamory as the practice of being in multiple relationships with the consent of each partner. “An open relationship, on the other hand, has a base relationship between two people who are open to being sexually or romantically involved with other people as long as their partner consents to it,” Adams explains.

Asked why more millennials are opting out of monogamy, Adams attributes it to monogamy being more of a social construct than a natural drive of human sexuality and bonding. “Millennials aren’t very prone to be affected by the internet in general,” Adams notes. “Therefore, we can see how there will be a connection between the studies that show that monogamy is a social construct and the millennials being driven to not follow said social construct.”

More love in your life 

Last year, Jada Pinkett-Smith’s mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, hosted an episode on polyamory on the show, Red Table Talk, which featured Gabrielle Alexa from Brooklyn, New York. For the longest time, the 28-year-old always felt that she had the capacity to love more than one person but didn’t have tools or resources to do so. This was until a few years ago when she got into two polyamorous relationships. Even though Alexa grew up in a strict religious upbringing where she was made to sign purity pacts, this did not deter her from exploring a lifestyle which is often highly frowned upon especially by the older generation.

“Each of my partners have other partners and sometimes we hang out or go to play parties together,” she says. “I love that there’s so much love and freedom in this dynamic. Our relationships enhance each other, and we’ve become each other’s support system.”

"Those who engaged in consensual non-monogamy experienced significant increase in sexual satisfaction"

While Alexa notes that she wouldn’t be completely opposed to the idea of switching to monogamy, it would feel like a loss. “My partner’s other partners feel like my good friends and I really enjoy how much love I currently have in my life. Why would I want to give up something that is so beautiful and healing in my life?”

Despite the popular belief that monogamous relationships are of a higher quality than non-monogamous relationships, a 2018 study on consensual non-monogamy published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships disproved that narrative. According to the study, there is no difference in relationship quality or well-being between the two relationship dynamics. However, those who engaged in consensual non-monogamy experienced significant increase in sexual satisfaction.

Such was the situation for 32-year-old Blake* and 27-year-old Mia*, a couple from St. Albans, Vermont, who regularly enjoy playtime with a female partner once a month. “After dating for five months, we had our first unplanned threesome. We ended up having so much fun that we signed up for a threesome dating app to find more playmates,” says the couple, who preferred not to disclose their names due to the nature of the story. “The sex is incredible. We’ve tried things that most people don’t get the chance to. Even when we’re alone, we fantasise about the experiences we’ve had, which makes our sex even better.”

Communication is key 

Despite the perks that come with non-monogamy, open and honest communication is a key factor in making these relationships work. For some like Matthews, it was very important for him and his partners to all be aware of each other’s feelings and address them as they came up. While for Alexa, processing any feelings of discomfort or jealousy together with her partners has helped in curbing negative feelings like jealousy.

"As soon as you start to recognise feelings of jealousy, you should work out where they stem from"

Jessica Alderson, a relationship expert and the co-founder of So Syncd, stresses the importance of open dialogue in such relationships. “As soon as you start to recognise feelings of jealousy, you should work out where they stem from by having a sit-down with your partner and talking things through,” she remarks. “It’s also important to remember that feelings change and situations evolve. What works for you now might not work for you as a couple in six months’ time and that’s perfectly OK.”

Read more: How celibacy became cool 

Read more: How to put the sizzle back in your sex life 

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