Defining monogamy in exclusive relationships


“Fidelity is not a condition of being with me.”

I made this declaration during a conversation with a married couple who were curious about my work.

The color drained from the wife’s face as she adjusted her posture. My statement made her uncomfortable. Her husband, on the other hand, had a very different reaction. The corners of his mouth curled into a subtle smile as his eyes twinkled with delight.

For her, monogamy was the only relationship design that made sense. But her husband seemed to be more than a little curious about other possibilities. Monogamy was the love style they agreed to when they married more than twenty years ago, willingly or perhaps by default.

They were both surprised to discover that they had such differing perspectives regarding commitment and loyalty. They each falsely assumed that the other felt the same as they did. But how wrong they were.

Are there people who are monogamous by nature? Absolutely.

Some people are happily and unconditionally monogamous. But for many folks, monogamy is a conditioned belief, more so than a way of being. And for some, monogamy is seasonal.

The bottom line is, monogamy is not an identity. It’s one option on the broad spectrum of relationship styles. And monogamy is not inherent for everyone.

So while your partner may be in a monogamous relationship with you — that does not mean that they are intrinsically monogamous. And this is why it’s essential to examine what monogamy means for both of you.

How are you defining monogamy in your relationship?

If you happen to be in a monogamous relationship that works for you and your partner (emphasis on AND) — that’s fantastic! But you still need to get clear and make sure that you both agree on the meaning of exclusivity in the context of your relationship.

What does it mean to be exclusive? Are we talking about sexual exclusivity? Emotional exclusivity? Or both? And more importantly, is your partner in agreement?

Again, there is no wrong way, only the right design for you and your current partner. It is a good idea to revisit your definition of monogamy, especially if either partner has been in a non-monogamous (yes, cheating is a type of non-monogamy) entanglement in the past.

“Today, monogamy is one person at a time.” — Esther Perel

Loyalty and fidelity are not mutually exclusive.

Many of us, myself included, have been conditioned to believe that infidelity is a breach of loyalty. But the truth is, there are plenty of people who are unwaveringly loyal to their partners but engage in activities that may otherwise be considered unfaithful.

What if a person frequents a strip club for visual stimulation but never has any physical engagement whatsoever — is that cheating? One could argue that without touching, there is no infidelity. And they could further reason that by abstaining from sex outside of their relationship, their loyalty remains intact.

Then, of course, there are people who stray sexually but remain fundamentally loyal to their union. These people are capable of having sex with someone other than their partner while doggedly pledging their allegiance to their beloved.

I cast no judgment if you or your partner enjoy or partake in these activities. The point I’m making is there are no straight lines when it comes to loyalty and fidelity.

“…find out where sexual exclusiveness begins or ends. When do you feel that boundaries have been stretched too thin and therefore the relationship is being threatened?” — Esther Perel

Whether you are married or otherwise committed, do not assume that your partner defines monogamy (or nonmonogamy) the way you do. Your love and the things you have in common do not make you the same.

Regular check-ups are required.

Fidelity used to be a lot easier to define. As technology has evolved and granted many conveniences, it has also blurred the lines of infidelity. You can now have sexually explicit conversations with a stranger on the other side of the planet — which was inconceivable fifty years ago.

But times have changed. Fulfilled desire is literally at your fingertips, and this means that you need to be as comfortable talking to your partner about boundaries and agreements as you are swiping right.

Clarifying expectations should be addressed from the start; it is imperative to revisit these topics even after the relationship has progressed.

Your beliefs are informed by the information available to you at any given moment. The more data you collect by way of experience and proximity, the more your views evolve. So your definition of exclusivity, loyalty, and fidelity may shift as you grow. The same holds for your partner.

Getting clear on where you and your partner fall on the relationship spectrum may feel daunting at first. But remember, practice makes better. Again, there is no right or wrong way — only whatever works right now for both of you.

Should your views change in the future, that’s okay. Change is constant, and even the sturdiest relationships are subject to change. And while the uncertainty can be frightening, if you cultivate a relational environment that includes honesty, love, and respect — the rest is “figure-out-able.”

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Intimacy & REALationship coach, writer, and creator of The Sensuality Project. I specialize in Relationship-ing (it's a verb).

Los Angeles County, CA

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