Lusty lovers quietly question monogamy

Andy Dubbin


Is monogamy dead?

No, but based on anonymous relationship confessions posted on the secret-sharing app Whisper, young people appear to be looking for alternatives.

Of several hundred recent monogamy-related Whispers, the vast majority — more than 70 percent — came from users who were struggling with monogamy and questioning its status as the ideal relationship model. Of the few pro-monogamy Whispers, most were variations on, “Does anyone believe in values and monogamy anymore? Starting to lose hope.”

Whisper users, who tend to be young, open-minded and tech-savvy, are not representative of the larger population. But relationship experts agree the data coincides with a growing cultural shift in relationship norms and expectations.

The following selection of anonymous confessions (text is taken directly from actual Whispers) provides a glimpse into a growing community that is actively exploring alternatives to monogamy.

“Love is cursed by monogamy”

The second-most quotable Kanye West line from “No Church In The Wild” proved to be a big favorite among the more cynical Whisperers.

Before we jump to the conclusion that monogamy is ruining love in the modern era, let’s take a look at what we know:

Non-monogamy certainly appears to be having a moment.

Articles and studies questioning the merits of one-size-fits-all monogamy have popped up more frequently, and books like Sex at Dawn and The Polyamorists Next Door are sparking broad conversations on the subject.

“In the past two or three years, people have become more aware of non-monogamous relationship models,” says Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, a sex researcher and professor of psychology at New York University . “The younger, more progressive segment of the population is becoming open and curious.”

Although consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is getting more media exposure , CNM relationships are almost completely absent in popular culture. In the same way that women, minorities and gay people were left out of TV shows, movies and commercials until relatively recently (they’re still underrepresented), there is little exposure to to non-monogamous relationship models.

“Slowly, over time, we started seeing the ‘token black guy’ or ‘token gay couple,’ in pop culture,” says Vrangalova. “We haven’t even gotten to that point with CSM relationships. “

And with no reference points, it’s nearly impossible to gain an understanding of non-monogamous relationships, which may be a major reason why such a strong stigma still exists.

Stigmatizing non-monogamists

It's ironic that most of the women I've talked to would be more comfortable with me cheating on my wife rather than having the honest open relationship she and I have.

The stigma against non-monogamous relationships is so strong that cheating tends to be viewed more favorably than a consensual open relationship. It seems to defy logic, but considering social norms, it’s not surprising.

Cheating is a known entity. Chances are that we’ve all been intimately exposed to infidelity, whether within our own relationships or through friends and family.

Beyond familiarity, it’s easier to make black-and-white moral judgments about cheaters than consensual non-monogamists. That is: cheaters are bad because they break the one rule of monogamy.

CNM relationships are much more complex.

“Cheating is at least something people understand and have a framework for, even if they don’t like it or approve of it morally,” says Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist and author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families. “But open relationships seem like chaos and consenting to sharing lovers smacks of all sorts of rule breaches. Who knows where that might lead?”

Not knowing where things might lead may make monogamists uncomfortable, but it’s among the most appealing aspects of non-monogamy. Take this Whisperer, for instance:

I'm in an open relationship, in love with two different people. I've never felt so alive.

People in CNM relationships report a number of different advantages, but novelty — feeling alive and excited — tends to rank highly. As anyone familiar with monogamous relationships understands, it’s not easy to keep things spicy with a longterm partner.

“Sure, you can find new places to have sex, new toys, new role play, but there’s nothing like a new person,” says Vrangalova. “Sexual desire often functions on novelty, which is a fundamental element of an open relationships.”

While the rules of monogamy are simple and universal (don’t cheat!), the rules can be vastly different from one CNM relationship to another.

Making the rules

The idea of a open relationship sounded fun until all the rules where made.

Contrary to popular belief, consensual non-monogamy isn’t some wild, erotic free-for-all, complete with weekend orgies and threesomes.

Those who decide to embark on CNM relationships need to set clear, individual guidelines based on what works.

“There are so many things that can be made into rules,” Vrangalova said. “It ranges from who you can be sexual with, when, where, who is off limits. But in the end, it’s about managing insecurity.”

There’s evidence that setting clear and concrete expectations prevent relationship woes that plague monogamous couples. Namely, jealousy.

“A big part of what makes someone feel jealous is when their expectations for the relationship are violated,” Jennifer Theiss, a communications professor at Rutgers University who studies relationships, recently told The Atlantic. “In poly situations, where they’ve actually negotiated the ground rules—‘I care about you and I also care about this other person, and that doesn’t mean I care less about you’—that creates a foundation that means [they] don’t have to feel jealous. They don’t have uncertainty about what’s happening.”

Is monogamy natural?

Monogamy is not natural.

This one came up a lot. Are humans meant for lifelong partnerships with one other person? Does monogamy go against our “biology“?

Consider the hard data: exactly zero species of mammals have been shown to be “definitively monogamous.” Of the more than 4,000 mammal species on Earth, only a small handful even practice monogamy.

Of course, this data hasn’t convinced anyone to dismantle the institution of monogamy. And there is evidence that many of us – humans and otherwise – do enjoy and benefit from long-term pair bonds, as exist in monogamous relationships.

“The best way to interpret the present evidence is to view it as a spectrum,” said Vrangalova. “It’s a totally individual thing, and preferences can shift over time.”

Is Kanye right?

Let’s take a look.

Evidence — both anecdotal and scientific — shows that love is not, in fact, cursed by monogamy. There are other models that don’t rely on monogamy’s tenets. People involved in CNM relationships are more than capable of experiencing just as much love as their monogamous counterparts, despite what the latter tends to think.

There is no universal answer to the question of whether monogamy is the ideal relationship model. We can, however, have more open and honest conversations about our sexual lives. As the Whispers show, the appetite for alternatives is strong.

For more Whispers on monogamy and relationships, try Whisper here.

Cartoons by Andy Dubbin

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