By Dr Zhana Vrangalova
When I was growing up in Eastern Europe in the 90s, there was only one relationship option available to me: complete sexual and romantic monogamy. This never quite felt right to me. It ran counter to my desires for multiple partners and a variety of exciting sexual experiences. As I would later learn, I was a high sexual novelty seeker, a personality trait partially encoded in my DNA. But at the time, I didn’t know anything about it. Everyone around me seemed to be happily on board the monogamy train, so I spent a long time feeling like a freak, like there was something seriously wrong with me for wanting something different.
Monogamy has its benefits and works really well for some people. But it does not work great for many others. About 20-25% of Americans have cheated on their spouse, and about 50% have cheated on a dating partner. There are millions more who manage not to cheat, but feel frustrated in profoundly unsatisfying relationships. Or who jump from one monogamous relationship to the next as soon as the first one loses its initial luster, hoping that the next one will be The One that meets all their needs.
The reality is most humans were not built for strict long-term monogamy. Many of us can try to do it, and some might even succeed at suppressing our inner desires and needs. But that’s a far cry from the deeply fulfilling and truly authentic sexual and romantic life that most of us want to live these days.
Luckily, as the social stigma around alternative sexualities slowly wanes, as dating apps make finding multiple partners easier than ever, and as honesty and consent become more important to us post #MeToo, people across all demographics are starting to question the monogamous status quo. According to a nationally representative YouGov survey, 32% of US adults (41% of men and 23% of women) in 2020 say that their ideal relationship is non-monogamous to some degree; an additional 12% aren’t sure. The numbers are even higher for Millennials where only 43% consider monogamy their ideal.
Yet entering the world of consensual non-monogamy (CNM), where partners explicitly negotiate having other sexual or romantic partners, is not easy. There are seemingly so many ways to do CNM, and so little guidance on how to choose between them: swinging, open relationships, polyamory, solo poly, poly-mono, monogamish, soft swap, hard swap, Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell (DADT), hierarchical poly, nonhierarchical poly, polyfidelity, kitchen-table poly, parallel poly, garden party poly, triads, Vs, Ws, and Zs, relationship anarchy, etc... How do we even begin to figure out which one is right for us??
No wonder so many of us are overwhelmed and confused, and we either get paralysed by choice and remain stuck in unsatisfying monogamy, or we pick randomly among these options only to have them blow up in our face.
Think about it this way. When we choose a career, we don’t just randomly pick to work at the first company that comes along. Instead, we often go to a career counsellor to guide us in the process. We learn about the various career options and the skills and abilities they require for success. We take a career aptitude test, a career-specific personality test, to figure out our unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Only then do we choose a career that is best suited to us. A sales job or big team projects would be perfect for an extrovert, for example, but would likely make an introvert miserable. The peace and quiet of working as a data analyst or a freelance writer, on the other hand, would be perfect for an introvert, but too lonely and under-stimulating for an extrovert.
Our romantic relationships are no less important than our careers. If anything, they are more important for our overall happiness and wellbeing. Decades of research show that the quality of our intimate relationships greatly determines the quality of our life. And what we do about monogamy versus non-monogamy is one of the most important decisions we'll ever make about our romantic relationships. Committing to the wrong option is a recipe for a lot of pain, frustration, and suffering. Choosing smartly the option most aligned with our true self is a source of joy and authenticity. It’s time to start treating our romantic relationships with the same thoughtfulness and intentionality we treat our careers.
The reality is, we differ from one another in many personality characteristics that are relevant to our relationships. Our personality is an established pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving across different aspects of life that is unique to each of us. How we turn out is partially determined by our genetics, and partially shaped by all of our life experiences and environmental factors that affect us from the moment of conception onwards. Personality isn’t set in stone, but it is relatively stable over the course of our lives and dictates a lot of our preferences and limitations.
The role of biology and personality isn’t intuitively obvious. It wasn’t until I was a doctoral student and really delved into the research on human sexual and relationship personality that I began to get a sense of how to understand myself. It gave me a framework for how to think about what I wanted from my partners, and also why they might want something different. And that’s when I was finally able to start building a life where I could live in accordance with my true self and make smarter decisions about my sex and relationships.
In order to build truly authentic and satisfying relationships, we need to understand the relationship options available to us, then understand our unique personality and how it affects our relationship choices.
After years of working in this area doing research, speaking, writing, and consulting, I’ve developed a smarter way of thinking through all these relationship options, and a science-based system to guide people toward the relationship type that’s the best fit for them. Over a series of blog posts for the next few months, I will share with you a streamlined way to make your way around the world of CNM: I’ll give you the map of the CNM land and a compass to orient yourself by. Specifically, we will go over several key dimensions that distinguish between CNM relationship types, and several key personality traits that determine the best place for you on these relationship dimensions. Are you built for solo CNM or are you better off partnered? Do you want sex only or love too outside your primary partnership? Is it best to play together with your partner or separately from them (or both)? How much information about other partners should you be disclosing to your partner?... Tune in for next month’s post!
Curious to learn more about all the relationship options, your unique relationship personality, and how it affects your decisions around (non)monogamy? Join Dr. Zhana's free virtual Open Smarter Socials series every last Friday of the month. And for a deeper dive, check out the online course, Open Smarter, which helps individuals and couples figure out the best relationship type for them. Use discount code FEELD30 for 30% off at checkout 🖤