Monogamy is NOT The Only Way: An In-Depth Exploration With Dr. Jessica O’Reilly
Have you ever felt like monogamy wasn’t for you but not known where to begin in terms of other feasible options? You are NOT alone. There are countless options out there, and there’s room for every single individual to exist within the spectrum of relationships. Though the options are far from lacking, information about them certainly is. For us, misinformation and lacking information simply will not do. So, we decided to consult an expert.We sat down with Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, Sex & Relationship Expert Ph.D. to learn more about people’s struggles with monogamy and the other options out there. We hope you enjoy her insights as much as we did!
Dr. Jess began as a public school teacher in Toronto working with youth aged from 16-20. She then went back to school to study Sexual Health Education with the end goal of offering support and training to our educators. “Very few teachers receive formal training in sexual health, yet they’re expected to teach this highly controversial subject; it’s no wonder students report that classroom sex ed. is inadequate, out of date and out of touch with their lived realities” Dr. Jess began.
“When I was teaching, students would come to me with a range of issues that could have been (at least partially addressed) via effective sexual health and relationship education: abusive relationships, STIs, unplanned pregnancy, gender identity questions and slut shaming. I wanted to be part of a classroom-based solution that would improve access to information and help to instill confidence in young people.”
We picked Dr. Jess’s brain about many topics surrounding monogamy,
but one thing she said really stood out to us:
What are some other options out there aside from monogamy?
Note that all of these terms involve a good degree of variety; not everyone will agree on rigid definitions. You can identify with relationship styles/language that work of you.
- Consensual non-monogamy refers to all relationships in which some form of non-monogamy is practiced.
- Swinging often refers to couples who change partners with other couples, but it can also involve groups and singles. Great variety exists in all types of relationships.
- Polyamory is often used as an umbrella term referring to relationship arrangements that involve more than two people engaged in intimate, loving and/or sexual relationships. There are many forms of polyamory. Polyfidelity often refers to a group (more than 2) who practice polyamory only within their group. Polyamorous relationships really involve a wide range of formats.
- Cheating refers to having an intimate or sexual relationship with multiple partners without their consent.
- Polygamy refers to marriages to more than one person. Polygyny refers to an arrangement in which a man has multiple wives and polyandry involves a woman with multiple husbands.
Do you find that it’s really true that humans are “hard wired” for monogamy like some people say?
I don’t believe we’re hard-wired for monogamy. Monogamy may be a culturally valued goal that developed in response to lifestyle changes, but for many people, it’s neither desirable nor realistic. Some people do desire monogamy and some can cultivate cultivate happy monogamous relationships; others, however, simply sign up for monogamous relationships because they don’t realize they have other options.
The problem with monogamy is that we accept it as a default setting. We erroneously place it at the top of the relationship hierarchy when it’s one of many valid options. Monogamy works for some people. They really do live (almost) happily ever after with one person for decades on end.
For others, however, consensual nonmonogamy is preferable. It improves their relationship quality and is also stands the test of time.
The bottom line is that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, but we have a tendency to judge others’ experiences based on our own. Those who are steadfast against consensual non-monogamy (CNM) will insist (and make anecdotal observations) that CNM relationships fail because they’re non-monogamous; what they fail to recognize is that some monogamous relationships fail because of (failed) monogamy.
I’m not really concerned with whether or not monogamy is “natural”, as a great deal of variation exists from one person to the next. I want to focus on helping people identify what really works for them (which requires digging deep and being vulnerable) and then cultivating their relationships accordingly.
At times, monogamy feels incredibly hard. Why do you think that is?
In long-term relationships, passion inevitably fades. It’s a chemical shift, as excitement and novelty eventually wear off with time and familiarity. It’s perfectly normal, but I think our romanticized notions of love and relationships make us believe that passion should last forever and arise naturally. This makes monogamous relationships seem imperfect; we think that we haven’t found our soulmate because fireworks don’t ignite every time they walk into the room. And so when we feel the fireworks for someone or something else, we conflate these feelings with love.
Do you find that a lot of people are resisting/rejecting monogamy?
I’m not sure more people are rejecting monogamy than they have in the past, but we’re certainly talking about it more openly and bringing consent into the equation. People have been practicing non-monogamy since the beginning of time; in recent history, many people have done so by signing up for monogamous relationships (e.g. getting married) and then cheating on their partners.
I think young people are aware of the frequency with which people (including their parents) cheat and they’re looking for alternatives. For some, that means rejecting marriage. For others, they’re waiting longer to get married to find a partner with whom they can cultivate greater compatibility. And for others still, they’re option for consensual non-monogamy with the key shift here being the additional element of consent.
Exploring the World Outside of Monogamy
Do you have any tips to help individuals who are in monogamous relationships who may not identify with monogamy?
- Talk about how you’re feeling right away. Don’t let it fester. If you’re dating, talk about your definitions of and attitudes toward monogamy from the onset.
- Use popular culture references to open the conversation. You’ll see CNM relationships (from threesomes to polyamory) all over Netflix and online, so use these openings to start a dialogue. It’s often easier to talk about fictional characters than your own relationship-Do not feel ashamed of your inclinations/identity. You may be in the minority, but you don’t need to apologize for what you want.
Would you recommend the above monogamy alternatives options to anyone, or does it take a specific type of person to make it work?
I don’t know if it takes a specific type of person to make polyamory and other forms of CNM relationships work, but research does suggest that those high in openness are more likely to be in CNM relationships. A study conducted by the University of Michigan involved 2100 people; they examined satisfaction, commitment, trust, jealousy and passionate love, which is the intense love feeling often described in new relationships. Researchers found no difference between monogamous couples and consensually nonmonogamous (CNM) couples with regard to satisfaction and passionate love. CNM couples revealed lower levels of jealousy and higher levels of trust than monogamous couples. Overall, the researchers conclude that CNM and monogamous relationships offer similar benefits.
This being said, she went on to say: I wouldn’t recommend any specific relationship to anyone — you have to weigh your options and figure out what works for you.
How do you feel someone’s sex life can be different both in monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships?
In terms of monogamy, some people believe there are fewer openings for sexual and intimate threats, as you’re only with one person; others believe monogamous relationships are more risky, as humans are drawn to novelty and excitement. This being said, monogamous couples can have hot sex lives by injecting novelty and risk into their routine — new toys, positions, locations, fantasies language, role-play, movies, etc. can go a long way. You may remain monogamous, but visit a sex show, a strip club, a dungeon or a sex resort to spice things up. Being monogamous doesn’t mean you have to be “boring.”
On the flip side, when it comes to CNM relationships, You’ll often hear people in open relationships say that they talk about their feelings a lot more and negotiate boundaries more specifically; this makes sense since there are multiple partners involved. You’ll also hear “we talk about sex more than we have sex”; this can also be true, but research shows that talking about sex (beforehand and during) is positively correlated with greater sexual satisfaction. Though, some CNM relationships involve new partners (not all types do, of course), which can inject novelty into the relationship. Additionally, some CNM relationships (not all) can involve group sex, which is a top fantasy regardless of whether you’re monogamous or CNM.
If you’ve done your research and monogamy still seems like the optimal choice for you and your partner, Dr. Jess believes that you can still learn a little something from CNM relationships.
- Your partner cannot fulfill all of your needs. Practical, emotional, financial, sexual and spiritual needs are extensive, so you can’t rely on one person alone to meet each need. Turn to friends, family and other sources of support instead of relying on one person for everything.
- Spend time apart and leave space for individual growth.
- Talk before, during and after problems arise. Be clear about your needs, insecurities, and desires. Your partner cannot read your mind.
Want to Give it a Go? Here’s What You Need to Know
Is there a “first step” away from monogamy you would recommend to someone looking to break free from the societal norm?
I talk about “monogamish” – the gray area between monogamous and open relationships. Monogamish couples might look at other people, fantasize about others, talk about others, attend sex parties and/or participate in voyeurism or exhibitionism without actually touching another person. More here.
Do you have any more advice for someone who’s beginning to find that monogamy might not be for them?
- Stop claiming to be a “great communicator”. I find that so many people brag about their communication skills, but talking doesn’t make you a great communicator. The ability to sway or convince others doesn’t make you an effective communicator when it comes to intimate relationships — the willingness to talk about your vulnerabilities is more important. Talk about your struggles, fears, insecurities, and shortcomings — this will help to start more meaningful conversations.
- Watch TV shows and movies that involve CNM relationships. Talk about the way they interact — what you like and what you dislike. One study of “movie therapy” compared three groups of couples: one received no intervention, the other received traditional therapy and the other watched movies. The third group had the lowest divorce rate; this is likely because talking about issues from an arm’s length perspective helps you to better understand your partner without the heavy emotion of talking about your own insecurities (yes we need to talk about our insecurities, but sometimes we just need a safe space to discuss challenging issues without being triggered).
Some Final Advice to Live By From Dr. Jess
Because we couldn’t let this incredible women/resource slip away without giving us (and you) a few extra tips on making sex and relationships just that much better (truly, she’s one of the greats). Check it out:
- Let go of romantic notions of relationships — soulmates don’t exist. Relationships take work. You’re not meant to be together; you simply decide to make it work or you decide to break up and sometimes the latter is the better option.
- Instead of expecting your relationship to look like a rom-com, treat it like a business. Plan for success. Write down your goals and discuss them with your partner(s). Schedule check-ins regularly.
- Use lube. It will change your life
- Be selfish. Our culture is highly performance-based when it comes to sex and this detracts from pleasure, presence, and experience. Take and ask for what you want without shame.
- Don’t expect every round to be a knock-out. It’s okay if the sex sucks sometimes; it can get better.
Relationships are like everything else: no one’s business but your own! If you’re unhappy, seek information and support, if you’re happy, don’t worry about anything else! No one has any right to tell you how to live your life or conduct your romantic/sexual self, so do what makes you feel good and do so unapologetically. There are endless resources out there and individuals willing to help, like Dr. Jess (and us, of course!), so just know that you are never alone in any of your experiences.