People often think of monogamy and non-monogamy as a binary choice – you’re either one or the other and there is no middle ground. But I prefer to think of both monogamy and non-monogamy as a spectrum, with tonnes of middle ground and grey areas to play around in.
If you think you might be interested in some type of non-monogamous arrangement, you might not know exactly what that means. Or perhaps you’re baffled by the array of options on offer!
Today I wanted to offer you a simple (though non-exhaustive) breakdown of the main types of non-monogamous relationships, as well as the type of person who is likely to be suited to each one. Hopefully this will help you make an informed choice and come to an agreement that is happy and healthy for you.
Remember: whatever arrangement you choose, communication and consent are essential.
With that said, let’s dive in and look at non-monogamy relationships.
Swinging is all about casual sex with different partners. It is generally, though not always, something that couples do together. Some swinger couples like to play separately, while others strictly only play together.
Though it’s not essential, most swingers attend events of some kind such as sex parties, swing clubs, swing resorts, and so on.
Suited to: couples who enjoy playing together; people who prefer their sex very casual; people who like group sex, people who like playing in semi-public environments such as clubs
Not suited to: people who need a strong emotional bond to get enjoyment from sex; people who dislike group sex
Progressive swinging is a relatively new term, and I wasn’t able to find definitive information on who coined it. (If you know, please tell us!) It refers to swingers who prefer or need a level of emotional intimacy with partners. Progressive swingers might enjoy hanging out with their casual sex partners as friends, engaging in non-sexual activities with them, and see them repeatedly over a period of time.
Suited to: people who enjoy casual and recreational sex, but also want to be friends with the people they play with and build a form of emotional intimacy; people who like group sex with people they know and trust
Not suited to: people who just want to “swing and go,” rarely seeing the same people twice; people who don’t want emotional connections to come into their sexual dynamics
Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell
While I don’t actually advocate for this dynamic, I have to include it because it’s still fairly common and does seem to work out well in a minority of cases. A don’t ask/don’t tell (DADT) relationship is based on the premise that you can both do what you want outside of the relationship, but won’t talk about it with each other and are expected to be discreet.
Suited to: people who feel very jealous if they know what’s going on but are happy if they don’t have to think about it; people who want to behave ethically but get off on the idea of the “forbidden thrill” of cheating
Not suited to: people who tend to imagine the worst if they don’t know what’s going on; couples who like to share everything with each other
As far as I can tell, the word “monogamish” was coined by Dan Savage. It refers to a relationship that is mostly monogamous, but allows for occasional openness. This can take many forms, from occasional threesomes together with a third party, to the tacit understanding that what happens on a business trip stays on a business trip.
Suited to: people who are mostly happy with monogamy but like to spice things up every once in a while with a different person
Not suited to: people who really value openness and would prefer to be open all the time
If you’re kinky and your partner is vanilla, or vice-versa, what are you to do? One arrangement that works for lots of couples is kink-only non-monogamy. In other words, the kinky person is allowed to get certain needs met elsewhere that they cannot get within the relationship. This can vary in scope from “it’s okay if you want to go to rope workshops and tie up clothed people occasionally,” right up to “you can have a full Dominant/submissive relationship, including sex and romance, with someone else.”
Suited to: kinky people with vanilla partners; vanilla people who don’t mind their kinky partner meeting their needs elsewhere; couples with incompatible kinks
Not suited to: vanilla partners who only grudgingly accept their partner’s kinky side; kinky people who are secretly unhappy in a vanilla relationship and looking for a way out
Polyamory refers to the practice of having multiple committed and loving relationships at the same time with the full consent of everyone involved. In a hierarchical polyamorous relationship, one partner (often a spouse or the person you live with) is “primary,” and other relationships are “secondary”. Not all hierarchical poly people use these exact words, but the principle is the same.
Most hierarchical relationships have rules of some kind, which can be loose and free-flowing or very strict.
Suited to: people who want to preserve one relationship as the most important; people who share responsibilities such as a home or children with one partner; people who thrive in a very clearly defined structure with rules
Not suited to: people who chafe under rules and restrictions; people who reject the idea of one relationship being more important than others
Non-hierarchical polyamory is any poly relationship in which no one relationship is the most important or significant by default. While non-hierarchical people may develop a greater bond or commitment with one person, this tends to develop organically and can change over time. Non-hierarchical polyamory typically involves fewer rules and
Suited to: people who don’t want to prioritise one person over others; poly families or networks who want to live and build a family together; people who dislike a lot of rules
Not suited to: people who need rules and structure; people who need to be prioritised reliably by one partner
Solo polyamory is sometimes described as the “I am my own primary partner” model. A solo polyamorist operates as a free agent and, while they may have one or more romantic and sexual partners, doesn’t want to do traditionally couple-oriented things like sharing a home or getting married. Many solo polyamorists prefer to live alone or with roommates, friends, or family rather than a romantic partner.
Suited to: people who are very independent and like a lot of their own space; people who enjoy living alone; people who reject traditional ideas of couplehood
Not suited to: people who want to share a home and build a shared life with a partner; people who tend to pair-bond closely
There’s No One True Way!
These are just a few of the possible structures available to you – this isn’t an exhaustive list and none of the definitions are intended to be restrictive or limiting. You get to define your own terms and work out what description fits you best. Remember: the label should serve you, not the other way around.
By the way: you can also identify with more than one of these forms of non-monogamy at the same time. Right now, I consider myself both a hierarchical(ish) polyamorist and a progressive swinger.
In short, don’t limit yourself. Use these definitions as a jumping off point to think about what type of non-monogamy might work for you, talk to your partner, and don’t be afraid of things evolving over time. Because they will.
Amy Norton (she/they) is a sex writer, blogger, and pleasure product afficionado who has been running her site, Coffee & Kink, since 2016. She is a polyamorous, queer femme and lives in the UK with her nesting partner, cat, and frankly ridiculous collection of vibrators.