Things Monogamous People Could Learn from People in Open or Consensually Non-Monogamous Relationships

Things Monogamous People Could Learn from People in Open or Consensually Non-Monogamous Relationships

Katherine Frank

After researching swinging and other forms of consensual non-monogamy for years, and attending hundreds of erotic events, I often find myself thinking that there are some things that people in monogamous relationships could learn from these sexual pioneers—even if they intend on being monogamous forever.  After all, it wasn’t simply having multiple sexual partners that made people in these types of relationships different, it was the beliefs and attitudes they held that shaped how they practiced sexual relationships more broadly.

Here are five things that I am grateful to have learned during my research:

  1. Sex can make a relationship unique and special. Love can make a relationship unique and special.  But there are many other ways to make a relationship unique and special as well.

Swingers, for example, believe there is a difference between recreational sex and the love that develops between long-term, committed partners.  Many couples who play with others in the lifestyle want to reconnect with each other afterwards, because they believe the experience brings them closer together.  Some couples save certain acts—like kissing or orgasm—only for each other or create other boundaries to help them maintain a feeling of “specialness” about their relationship.  Others do not feel a need to do so.  For polyamorous individuals who maintain intimate emotional relationships with multiple partners, each partner becomes unique, though not necessarily through the sex or the emotional connection.  Some polyamorous individuals categorize their partners hierarchically (primary partners and secondary partners, for example), legally (a spouse and a girlfriend), or in other ways.  The value of any of these ways of conceptualizing why a relationship is unique and special, and how to keep it that way, can be debated—and certainly is—within non-traditional sexual communities.  But consciously thinking about this issue might be useful for more traditional couples as well, such as those who have ceased having sex or been touched by infidelity but do not wish to break up.

2. Attraction to someone besides your regular partner does not necessarily mean something is wrong with you, your partner, or the relationship.

People in consensually non-monogamous relationships recognize that feeling sexual attraction for someone other than a regular partner can be natural, even healthy.  Obviously, many monogamous individuals also realize this!  But at the same time, many people try to safeguard their relationship by preventing even the possibility of attraction to others.  When I interviewed people about their marriages, I listened to men who would never allow a female coworker in their office alone or consider having a female friend or confidante.  I interviewed a woman who became distressed because she noticed that her boyfriend had an erection while he slept; she assumed that he must be dreaming about someone else.

But with consensually non-monogamous couples, I was struck by how calmly and productively this conversation could unfold.  Like monogamous people, consensually non-monogamous people do not always want or need to act on such attractions (despite stereotypes that consensual non-monogamy means promiscuity).  If a consensually non-monogamous person chooses to act on an attraction, they also (ideally) choose to do so openly and honestly rather than betraying their partner’s trust.  Being able to admit to oneself that one is attracted to others can be a relief—it doesn’t mean that you are failing in your relationship.  Further, being able to discuss such a possibility with your partner can spark important conversations about what monogamy means to each of you, where your boundaries are, and how to reassure each other over the years when faced with situations or individuals who feel threatening.  In a study comparing monogamous and consensually non-monogamous couples, I found that while consensually non-monogamous couples frequently discussed what they meant by “cheating” and what the rules were for their relationship, the monogamous couples simply assumed they already knew the boundaries (and their assumptions did not always match up. Frank and DeLamater 2010).

3. “New relationship energy,” or NRE, is scary but doesn’t last.

NRE is a term used in polyamory communities (and sometimes among swingers as well).  If you’ve fallen in love, you’ve felt NRE in those early days of a relationship—the butterflies in your stomach, the obsessive thoughts about someone, the lack of concentration that comes from fantasizing about the next moments you will spend together.  Other people in your life can feel it, too.  If you’re in a consensually non-monogamous relationship, it can be hard to watch your partner become enthralled with a new lover.  Jealousy can arise as your partner spends time or money on someone else.  Sometimes, your sex life takes a hit because their energy and interest is channeled elsewhere.  Watching someone else be idealized can cause some of us to fear abandonment or the loss of our spouse, home, or life.  These feelings and fears are normal, but do not need to overwhelm us.  (Although sometimes they do overwhelm us, even those of us who have years of experience in consensual non-monogamy!)

But NRE will fade.  Newness doesn’t last forever, and idealization fades, even if an emotional connection can last a lifetime.  Sometimes it takes just a few weeks, other times it takes longer.  Eventually, though, the emotional and chemical effects of newness are replaced by a comfortable (but less threatening) bonding between partners or the interest fades away altogether.  Understanding NRE could help monogamous people who experience feelings of anxiety, fear, or loss when a partner cheats or even develops a crush on someone else.  An understanding of the emotional and physical “high” associated with NRE could also be useful for people who repeatedly end relationships after the honeymoon phase and continually pursue new partners because they believe that love is only found in such intensity.

4. It’s ok to be a highly sexual woman, and to love one.

Women with multiple partners can’t suddenly escape the “slut” stigma that pervades society, and sometimes feel the weight of social judgments even after a beautiful non-monogamous experience.  But consensually non-monogamous communities are places where women (ideally) can embrace their sexual desires and identities.  Sexual double standards have a drastically limited place in the lifestyle, for example, where many women finally feel accepted after years of put down for how they dressed, who they had sex with, and for enjoying it.  A man who cannot accept that one of the basic tenets of lifestyle sexuality – whether or not it is actualized in every situation – is women’s freedom to consent to multiple sexual encounters is not going to find the lifestyle pleasurable or welcoming.  But for men who do accept this fact, sexuality can transform from an experience of scarcity to one of abundance.  The atmosphere at erotic couples’ events tends to be respectful, cooperative, and focused on ongoing, explicit consent.  Many female swingers consider themselves bisexual, bi-curious, or interested in women in certain situations.  Even among those women who identified as straight, other women were often approached as potential allies, not as competition.

5. You can learn how to have better sex by developing skills.

Very few people—except those who go to sex parties or sex clubs—have the opportunity to actually watch others have sex except in pornography.  At one party that I attended, a male porn star taught the men how to make a woman ejaculate, using his willing girlfriend as the model.  Couples stood around the queen-sized bed, trying to get the best view and asking questions.  Sometimes the lesson was serious, as when he guided another man’s fingers inside his girlfriend’s vagina to help him find the correct spot to stimulate.  Other times, people made jokes (“Wear your goggles if you want a closer look”).  The cooperation between men was fascinating, as was the response of some of the women who had felt ashamed by “squirting” in the past but now saw it as a desirable occurrence.  Also interesting was the fact that he taught a sexual technique to the audience as straightforwardly as if he were teaching a class on yoga or massage.  Although ejaculation isn’t something that every woman will necessarily enjoy, it isn’t a complete mystery, either, and everyone who tried it was able to do it.  In other settings, I heard people share tips and techniques through conversation or demonstration as well—and even ask for feedback.  When sex is not shrouded in shame and secrecy, it becomes a potentially pleasurable activity that one can become educated about and skilled at.  Certainly, individuals in monogamous relationships also aim to become better lovers in a variety of ways.  What they don’t usually have, though, are friends who are watching!

Katherine Frank and John DeLamater (2010) ‘Deconstructing Monogamy: Boundaries, Identities, and Fluidities across Relationships’ in Meg Barker and Darren Langridge (eds) Understanding Non-Monogamies. London: Taylor and Francis.


Katherine Frank is a cultural and psychological anthropologist, sex researcher, and life/sex coach. Her academic research focuses on the symbolic and emotional power of sexuality, and the process of sexual meaning-making.  Her most recent book, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), explores group sex across time and place.  She is also the author of G-Strings and Sympathy:  Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire (2002) and a coeditor of Flesh for Fantasy:  Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance (2006).  Other work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Archives of Sex Research, Deviant Behavior, Journal of Sex Research, Qualitative Inquiry, and Sexualities.

1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 08, 2018

    Wow!….of course all of that is ok. I’m a 62 y old french guy now in Toronto. I moved to Montreal from Paris with my parents at the age of 16. I discovered that Quebeckers have a very relaxed and healthy approach to sex.
    As a young man, I had moved paradise!
    Had a gf for 4 years….then another one for 2 years, etc…….in between casual sex or short relationships….also in my early 20’s, going out to clubs a lot, discovered 3somes, 4somes and more….happy I tried them but sexually nothing ever came close to sex alone with a woman. I’ve always had a very high sex drive and at 62, I still do.
    But as much as I still remember the 1st time with my best friend (hairdresser) and a client of his who was a model, we were there for her fantasy to be with 2 guys, I don’t remember any crazy pleasure or anything…it was ok fun, period.
    I have nothing against swingers, poly, etc…to each their own…I love when people find what makes them happy and works for them.
    But for me sex is something intense, I do not know how to not be passionate, there is no real plan in my head, I get into some sort of a trance, my antennas fully focused on my partner to learn about her likes and what drives her crazy or not, sometimes it’s a constant series of adjustments, there is no specific order, I jump from one thing to the next and can come back to it later, it’s more like a dance, an art and can stop, restart, cuddle, kiss, do something else, come, rest and start again, just a huge exchange of pleasure and humanity that can go on for hours.
    But when in a long term relationship, it goes to another level, its a moment where we add to the rest of our life together by reaching levels of intimacy that can only be reached when we live, eat, sleep, share responsibilities, etc….day after day, going through stuff together and rediscovering each other constantly.
    And when I have such a connection with a woman, my SO, the intense crazy moments where before, during or after sex we look into each others eyes with a passion that burns like crazy, I would feel horrible to live something similar with another woman while in the relationship and do not want to see that look from my SO directed at another man. It would cheapen it.
    I’ve shared gfs in short term relationships, but knew we were only together for a few weeks or even a few months, and the bond between us was based on fun, sex, etc….not very deep, full of kindness, respect, etc….but not very deep.
    Learning other skills, sure, I did that through the years. But once at a certain level I don’t need swinging to learn other stuff and have never been for dating a woman with zero or little experience.
    It is true that a lot of couples once they start swinging experience temporarily a huge boost to their sex at home. I’m very curious about human nature and read a lot swingers blogs. People who think we just started swinging and our sex at home is amazing think they found an everlasting solution.
    That is very naive. Everything changes, everything evolves constantly and though most long term swingers hide the problems or pretend everything is great, some are honest enough to admit that after the huge original boost to their own sex life, eventually, after months or years, they both look forward to the swinging because the best most exciting sex they now have is with the other partners and that at home sex still happens but is quiet and kind of boring.
    To think you can open Pandora’s box and suffer no consequences is either having zero knowledge about human nature or not wanting to look at reality coming through the window because you closed the door. Of course for some people it works because of the kind of person they are. But for how long?
    But don’t write about swingers teaching vanillas about anything. I can have tons of casual sex when I’m single but when in a very committed relationship, sex becomes something special for me, a magical moment I will not share.
    I’ve met tons of people in the LS during my 32 years in Montreal. Most very nice, varying levels of education, jobs, etc…but I found that most were a bit all over the place mentally, I can’t exactly describe it.
    They lacked a certain depth of character….not all though…I’ve connected with some who were deep and women…connected intellectually…..but most of them were just very free spirits and in their case I understood fully why they were swingers.
    I’ve always been fascinated by couples, sex, swinging, etc….I’ve noticed in blogs a lot of swingers claim they have a level of communication and HONESTY vanillas cannot have.That their way is the best one, etc….
    I have an open mind and thought ok, it’s possible, let’s see what they mean by that. And started reading post after post after post, a lot of threads… took me over a year to get a clearer picture.
    Sure, they can talk about what they each did with their partner, liked, loved, disliked, etc….maybe same room or not, talking about mechanics mostly, sex acts, etc….and then reconnect, etc….but then I read threads like, ”do you tell your husband/wife if your latest partner was the best lover ever?” or what do you say if he/she asks you….because you were screaming like crazy, came a lot, etc…and 90% of the responses from mostly experienced swingers, ….was ”honey, he\she is not better than you just different”….and that is not honesty.
    I’ve come to see swingers in a different light. And those that are 100% honest with their SO…..well, it’s very often the beginning of problems.
    Saying that it’s only sex is ignoring the fact that great sex will trigger emotions no matter what.
    Anyway the only thing I learned from reading all that is that swingers are just like everybody else, they lie a lot, avoid the truth a lot, just like the ‘vanillas’. Relationships are difficult for everybody.
    A lot of them do not know that when someone keeps on telling you over and over again how great things are since they started swinging, that the more they try to convince you, the more it is obvious they are unhappy and the only person they are really trying to convince is themselves.
    Again, that’s just human nature.
    Nope, nothing to learn from swingers, poly, etc…..except that it’s fascinating stuff to read and observe.
    Just like more guns is not the solution to gun violence in the USA, more sex partners is not the solution to dead bedrooms.