What a non-monogamous relationship is and what it means to those within
Liz Garcia eagerly awaits Friday to decompress from the week behind her. The air is teeming with anticipation as she dolls up for date night with her long-term boyfriend who meticulously grooms himself to mirror her in his sleekness. These deliberate preparations are not in honor of the first dinner with their parents, which is something long behind them. The special guest of the evening is rather a new lover whom they hope to woo.
Monogamous relationships are omnipresent in American culture and are portrayed as the ideal form of romance. Non-monogamy serves as an umbrella term for anything outside the realm of conventional relationships between two romantic partners. A core condition is that non-monogamy involves three or more people. To those on the outside looking in, it can seem radical or boundary-shattering. To those within it, it is the organic expression and reclamation of human autonomy, something they’d rather have than the security of an exclusive significant other. Monogamous relationships may soon need to find new ways to keep up with evolving American sentiments that are beginning to favor a collaborative approach of having emotional and sensual needs met by more than a single partner.
Garcia is a recent graduate of California State University, Fullerton, who identifies as a bisexual woman in a heterosexual relationship with a man. She says the arrangement gives them both the grounding they seek from a significant other while she can explore her queerness. Another driving force behind their decision to approach this lifestyle was to add longevity to the relationship by hindering the shame that may come with curiosities about romantic exploration outside of the relationship. The discussion to bring others in wasn’t any easier than any other form of vulnerable communication brought up by a serious relationship. As she considered opening the relationship, Garcia questioned herself about how strong her emotional connection could be if jealousy could so easily knock it down.
“We have the capability to communicate with our partner and be honest with the way that we are feeling. You can communicate with them, but you also have to take a step back to communicate within yourself to understand why you feel the way you feel,” Garcia says. “I looked at the way I grew up with a fear of missing out which can result in jealousy. You have to be happy for your partner who is enjoying themselves, even if you are not the one responsible for it.” She says she’s trying to practice what’s called compersion more.
Compersion is the wholehearted participation in the happiness of others. It is a term coined by the Kerista Commune most associated with the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco from the 1970s to the 1990s. Compersion is thought of as an antithesis to jealousy and possessiveness.
Though Garcia is transparent about her lifestyle with her peers, she doesn’t share it with her family members. They see her boyfriend as her one and only. She contends that it’s for the sake of avoiding a taxing conversation. Should there be a playful affair that develops into a significant other, that is when the conversation will become worth having.
Findings from a 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health showed that a whopping 89% across all demographics reported monogamy in their relationships. Of the remainder, 4% were in open relationships and 8% reported non-consensual non-monogamy, which can be described plainly as cheating. Comparatively, a 2017 article in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy reflects a shift in values, showing that just over 20% of participants reported engaging in consensual non-monogamy in their lifetime.
A 2020 survey conducted by the dating app Tinder states that Generation Z users were more likely than their generational counterparts to express LGBTQIA+ sexualities as well as different gender identities on the app. This study states a third of users surveyed claimed they were more open to dating different genders and measured up similarly against other age groups as having an interest in polyamory.
Those who placed anywhere outside of a zero on the Kinsey scale were found in these publications to be more likely to report previous engagements in consensual non-monogamy. The Kinsey scale is a scored assessment of sexual orientation developed in 1948 that assigns a numeric value between zero, completely heterosexual, to six, complete homosexual. These engagements in non-monogamy can be anything from a trial run to a drastic shift in the way one will operate moving forward. The studies show that the growing number of people shifting to non-monogamy are doing so not to abandon relationship values, but to preserve them.
Stephanie Orozco is a first-generation Mexican American woman who is a certified sex educator with a double major in anthropology and gender and sexuality studies from the University of California, Riverside. She is a survivor of sexual assault who sought to become the role model for others to explain information about sexuality that she didn’t have when she was growing up. Healing is often a journey with the self where others are taken along. For Orozco, she agrees that healing can happen within the romantic support structures of non-monogamy.
“You absolutely don’t have to show up perfect. You can express the things you have difficulty with emotionally or sexually and learn from the different partners you have, the way you would with other platonic relationships in your life,” Orozco says. “Strong emotional intelligence is needed to enter non-monogamy. It’s not introductory dating. Find out your motivations and communicate them with your partner.”
Orozco believes there are both risks and rewards in this lifestyle of opening up a relationship. Some people worry that if they let their partners explore other romances, they will leave them for that new partner. The potential for that exists, but exploration is unlikely to be the wedge that drives partners away. People can outgrow each other. However, just as one can choose to open a relationship, the couple can choose together to close it, Orozco says.
Jaqlynn, who asked not to use their last name, is a young non-binary transgender barista from Whittier who identifies themselves as being in a polyamorous relationship. They expanded from their monogamous relationship to start having occasional romantic partners with a similar emotional connection. They started to shift to this lifestyle after conversations with their forward-thinking college peers as well as the introspective solitude that was brought on by the pandemic.
The spring of 2021 ushered in a new wave of hope with the widespread distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. Headlines forewarned a “Hot Vax Summer” where young people would seek to make up for lost time. While some might have pursued casual dating or a string of sultry encounters, for Jaqlynn, the appeal of numerous significant relationships surmounted those desires.
“You get to live your truth more and be more honest with one another,” says Jaqlynn. “I’ve been on both sides of it. Casual dating can be fine, but if things develop, you haven’t been transparent about other people you have been seeing. I found it’s best to state your intentions upfront and find something that works for everyone.”
Jaqlynn’s relationship status best fits the label of a hierarchical polyamorous relationship. As they checked in with their primary partner about their outside relationships, they found it strengthened their emotional rapport.“I enjoy hearing about her experiences,” says Jaqlynn.
The appeals of non-monogamy are not monolithic or universal. But those who live it all seem to share a core understanding that humans are nuanced, sometimes messy beings with varied wants and needs. As Gen Z enters young adulthood, they may further evaluate their interpersonal exchanges. Ultimately, their relationships—monogamous or otherwise— are theirs to accept or challenge, but they cannot be acted upon until they can be imagined. Perhaps what is most revolutionary is to honor one’s truth, which is subject to change.