Your lover looks over at you, hesitant, and says ‘So… what are we?’
You know the drill. It’s been a fun few days, weeks, months of getting to know each other, and suddenly here you are. Defining the relationship.
Only, it’s not quite as straightforward as it used to be.
Traditionally, the results of this conversation are expected to be binary – either you’re in, or you’re out. We live in a mononormative society, where the positive outcome of dating is going ‘exclusive’. At which point your relationship becomes the nucleus of your social system.
Now, despite my cynical tone, I have nothing against monogamy. But I do believe it’s time we acknowledge that it’s no longer the only option. In fact, many people already live differently.
Which begs the question, what are your options?! What relationship models are available to us in the 21st century?
Monogamy or ?
Let’s start with the basic binary.
First, you’ve got the option of monogamy, or not monogamy. (Mononormative society, remember.) We’ve aptly named this category ‘non-monogamy’, and thrown every other relationship model you can imagine into that bucket. Naturally, this makes venturing out of familiar monogamous territory a daunting prospect. But the great news is, there is a lot of space for different models to suit our unique preferences and desires.
If monogamy is a commitment to exclusivity between two romantic partners (til death do us part), then non-monogamy is any model for non-exclusivity in romantic relationships. And before we dive into the details of what that means, let’s be clear – we’re talking about ethical non-monogamy here. If your partner hasn’t given their enthusiastic consent for opening the borders of your relationship, it’s not non-monogamy, it’s infidelity.
The Two Axes of Exclusivity in Romantic Relationships
So let’s break down what exclusivity in romantic relationships is really about. When you’re making the commitment to enter into any kind of relationship with someone, you’ll likely be connecting with them sexually, romantically, emotionally, experientially, spiritually and/or intellectually.
In the tradition of monogamy, what separates a friendship from ‘something more’ is sexual and romantic intimacy. Exploring emotions, experiences, spirituality and learning with friends is – in most cases – not a problem.
That means when you’re thinking about opening up and finding your style of non-monogamy, you have two axes to explore: Sexual (non-)Exclusivity and Romantic (non-)Exclusivity. And they’re on sliding scales.
You’ll find some people are cool with their partner(s) having sex with other lovers, as long as it’s only physical. Others are open to forming fully committed relationships with multiple partners. Some couples will only explore together. Others reject the concept of exclusivity altogether. And there are a bunch more options for relationship models in the tail-end of this article.
But before I throw a whole list of possibilities at you, let’s see how you feel about Sexual Exclusivity and Romantic Exclusivity.
Sexual Exclusivity in Relationships
Most people hold a pretty solid view on where physical intimacy becomes sexual, and the line is drawn somewhere between a kiss on the cheek (innocently platonic) and a kiss on the lips (first base). That doesn’t have to be your line. But wherever you draw it, these are the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask yourself (and your partner!) to figure out where on the Sexual Exclusivity scale you want to play.
Questions for Exploring Sexual Exclusivity
- Could you be open to connecting with other lovers sexually, and still honour your commitment to the relationship you’re in?
- Could you be sexually exclusive with your partner, and still honour your commitment to living a fulfilled life?
- At what point does physical intimacy (like a hug) become sexual?
- How do you feel about being sexually intimate with other people?
- How do you feel about your partner(s) being sexually intimate with other people?
- Is it different if feelings are involved?
- If feelings are not involved, are you still interested in connecting with others sexually?
- Is it different if you’re sexually connecting with others together? (For example, in a threesome)
- What if it’s just a one time thing? Or a sex party?
- Are there some aspects of your sex life that you would want to remain exclusive?
- Are there some desires that you would only be able or willing to explore with other sexual partners?
With all this considered, would you prefer relationship models that are more Sexually Exclusive or Open?
Romantic Exclusivity in Relationships
This one’s a little harder to define. We used to talk about emotional exclusivity but it’s increasingly common to have emotionally intimate friendships, and thank god. But now we can no longer use heuristics like ‘I love you’ to distinguish between friends and partners, we’re left to talk about this nebulous concept of romance.
For you, romantic connection could look anything like opening up the most vulnerable kind of intimacy, thoughtfully planned dates, pet names, eye-gazing, sensual massages, celebrating special occasions like big holidays and anniversaries, being the plus one at your sister’s wedding, talking about your future together, boyfriend/girlfriend labels, being the first person they tell, hanging out with each other’s friends, living together, falling in love. In essence, it’s about being part of a couple dynamic – and we all have our own (often subconscious) expectations of what that means!
Questions For Exploring Romantic Exclusivity
- Are there some romantic experiences that you could only experience with a new partner? (For example, the feeling of new relationship energy, anticipation, first times.)
- Could you be open to connecting with others romantically, and still honour your commitment to the relationship you’re in?
- Could you be romantically exclusive with your partner, and still honour your commitment to living a fulfilled life?
- At what point does emotional intimacy (like talking about your feelings) become romantic?
- Are there any parts of your relationship that you consider to be sacred?
- How do you feel about being romantically intimate with other people?
- How do you feel about your partner(s) being romantically intimate with other people?
- Is it different if sex or physical touch are involved?
- How do you feel about you or your partner forming committed, loving relationships with other partners?
- Would you be interested in exploring other romantic connections together?
- Are there some aspects of your romantic life that you would want to remain exclusive?
With all this considered, would you prefer relationship models that are more Romantically Exclusive or Open?
The Mono-Poly Scale of Relationship Models
Seeing the two dimensions of Sexual Exclusivity and Romantic Exclusivity as scales creates many shades of gray, beyond the rudimentary categorisation of ‘are we exclusive?’ or not. This gives you space to explore a whole bunch of relationship models, and find (or create) one that works for you.
So let’s look at some of these options. Here are 8 of the most useful relationship models for anyone who’s questioning monogamy as the default.
8 Relationship Models for the 21st Century
Some of these will fit like a glove, others might sound alien, and one or two might scare you a little… or is that excitement? It’s not about finding a label that puts you in another box, but opening your eyes to a selection of what’s possible. Take what serves you, leave what doesn’t.
Your regular commitment to sexual and romantic exclusivity with one person. For better or worse, this is what most people will assume you’re moving towards when you’re dating and ‘looking for a relationship’. In the best case, you both have a healthy acceptance that you’ll likely feel attracted to others at some point, and make space to talk about this when it happens even though you don’t intend to act on it.
For all intents and purposes, you’re monogamous. But you love loosening the leash just a little. Perhaps you go to sex parties but only play with each other, enjoy casual flirting, get turned on sharing fantasies about others, go to strip clubs together, make out with that hot stranger (as long as I can watch). You two find your own ways to bend the classic rules of monogamy for your mutual pleasure.
All the exclusivity of monogamy… with multiple partners. Perhaps you’re in two romantic relationships at once, or a closed triad or polycule. Whatever your configuration, you’ve committed to each other and agreed not to pursue sexual or romantic relationships outside of your dynamic.
When you’re sexually exclusive with one committed partner and nonetheless open to forming emotionally and physically intimate connections with others, that may have a romantic flair.
With its notorious key parties, swinging was the first form of sexual non-monogamy to make it into mainstream media. It’s primarily for couples and by most accounts, it’s a very satisfying dynamic. You’re in a romantically exclusive relationship, and get to explore your sexual freedom together through swingers clubs, sex parties, partner swapping or private play weekends with other couples.
Read more in this fascinating article on the origins of swinging.
You’re both committed to your relationship, and you’re also open to dating and sexual exploration outside of your relationship. More often than not, your dynamics with other lovers will be casual dating, hookups, group sex, or friends with benefits arrangements. But open relationships don’t have to be 100% romantically exclusive, and you might also enjoy romantic experiences with other lovers, like sensual intimacy or weekend getaways. But, at the end of the day, you’re committed to only one person.
Read more on the reasons people choose open relationships.
Whether it’s your orientation or your philosophy, you believe it’s possible to love multiple people at once and you’re living your life accordingly. With the enthusiastic consent of everyone involved, you’re in (or open to) multiple loving connections at the same time, and all of them can involve sexual and romantic intimacy. Your level of commitment, however, may vary depending on your specific poly formation. Is there a hierarchy? Are you making a coupled commitment with any of your partners?
Frankly, this model defies our romantic-sexual scale because the idea of exclusivity doesn’t fly with the philosophy of relationship anarchy. In RA, the terms of all relationships – not just the romantic ones – are mutually agreed by the two people in them, and evolve with honest conversation over time. Romantic love and sexual intimacy may be part of any of these relationships, but it doesn’t make those relationships more significant than platonic ones.
Bonus: Hybrid Relationship Models
In case you’re getting through this list and starting to worry that you and your partner have different desires, here’s the good news – that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. There are plenty of people in hybrid relationships where one partner is monogamous and the other is open or polyamorous.
The trick? You can’t just go along with a relationship agreement that makes you miserable in order to keep your partner. It takes a high level of maturity and security to make this work, and a solid commitment to your preferred way of relating – both partners need to be genuinely happy with the arrangement even if it might look unbalanced to an outsider. But if it works for you, it works for you!
Now, if this all feels a bit overwhelming at first, you’re not alone. We’ve spent a lifetime being shown one model for relationships, and questioning that opens up a whole world of possibilities.
Bear in mind that discovering what works for you and your partner(s) and enjoying meaningful, fulfilling relationships is not like choosing a dish off a menu. You can’t just slap on a label and assume you’re on the same page about how that looks in practice. It’s a journey of exploration and growth. And open communication!
If I can send you off with one question to explore together it’s this:
What makes your connection truly unique, beyond an agreement of exclusivity?
Curious to Explore?
I can guide, support and facilitate your journey to creating thriving relationships that really work for you. Subscribe to my newsletter here or book a discovery call for a complementary relationship coaching session with me.