Mononormativity is a word to describe the way that many cultures normalize and even give privilege to people in monogamous relationships. Monogamous relationships are those in which two people agree to emotional and sexual fidelity (and maybe more) for as long as their relationship lasts. The alternative to this would be consensual non-monogamy (CNM; others may refer to as ethical non-monogamy/ENM). Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term used to describe various relationship styles in which two or more people agree to be non-monogamous - aka have romantic or sexual (or both) relationships with others outside of the two of them.
The Umbrella of CNM:
The umbrella of CNM can cover a wide variety of relationship styles. Some of which would be:
- Swinging: couples who have sex with other couples. This could involve soft swap, where a couple has sex in the same room as another couple but do not have sex with someone else besides their partner. It could also involve full swap, where both partners “swap” partners (for example, in a cisgender/heterosexual situation, husband 1 would have sex with the wife of husband 2 and husband 2 would have sex with the wife of husband 1).
- Polyamory: having multiple partners in which each person could experience romantic love. Polyamory is an umbrella in of itself. It could look like:
- Hierarchical: you and your partner are primary partners which may also mean you’re nesting partners (nesting partners are two people living together). Often your primary partner is your spouse. You may then have secondary partners: someone you are in a relationship with but don’t live with and may not share as many facets of life with (such as finances, kids, etc.) - some people will call these girlfriends or boyfriends. You could then have tertiary or “comet” partners - someone like a friend with benefits or that you see every so often for sex or dates but not giving as much time or emotional energy to.
- Non-hierarchical: there are no primary partners. The amount of connection a person has with each person they’re in a relationship with may fluctuate from time to time but basically, no one person has priority/favor over others.
- Monogamish: couples who define themselves as monogamish are mostly monogamous but may be okay with each partner flirting with, kissing, or whatever level of intimate contact they define, with other people.
- Open: open relationships can have a wide variety of definitions. It’s often defined by the couple. One person may be monogamous and the other may have sex with other people. Both people may have a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy when they are out of town/away from each other. The definition of people who describe their relationship as “open” will vary from one relationship to the next but the main understanding is that they are not monogamous.
- So many more! There are so many other ways of practicing CNM that would take too much time to define here. These are the most common that I see in my therapy practice, but if you’re interested, take the time to research the wide variety of open relationship styles that are out there. Options abound!
Why is Mononormativity a Problem?
So now that you know about the wide variety of relationship styles that exist, you can start to appreciate that for many people, monogamy for life may not feel like the best option. Research supports that many people contemplate some form of CNM in their lives. It doesn’t always mean they actually want to engage in it - for some the fantasy is more exciting than anything - but there are plenty of people who find that they identify as CNM (not feeling like it’s just a preference). The problem with mononormativity is that it makes anyone else with even the thought of CNM seem “wrong” or “immoral,” and is oppressive of others for whom monogamy doesn’t feel like the right fit.
The result of this is that for some people who feel like CNM is an identity, because we are in a mononormative culture, they will conform and perhaps be in unhappy long-term relationships because it feels like the only socially acceptable way to be in relationships. Many people living CNM lifestyles have to closet themselves for fear of losing their jobs, close relationships, family, kids, etc. There are also legal repercussions to mononormativity. Custody battles, lack of legal recognition, discrimination and more can occur. Imagine how complicated this could be:
If three people are in a relationship and decided they wanted to have and raise a child together - who would be listed as the parents? Just because two people are biologically the parent, does the third person get the short end of the stick and be unable to be part of any parental rights related concerns? If the three of them end their relationship, how does custody get decided? All three took an equal part in raising the child - does person three yet again get left out?
Basing our laws and cultural expectations around monogamy can create a lot of challenges and leave space for discrimination amongst those for whom monogamy does not feel like a good fit.
At the heart of it, if all the people in the CNM relationship truly consent to it and there is no harm being done, what is wrong with them being able to live their lives happy and connected with a community of loving people? CNM can be so expansive in deepening long-term committed relationships. It can also offer a community of support to people who otherwise do not have friends or family nearby to help with childrearing or general life challenges. CNM has many benefits that are often overlooked because of the fear that “it’s different” and somehow threatens monogamy. Hence mononormativity can be very limiting and oppressive to those who don’t fit within the confines of monogamous values.
Mononormativity and Intersectionality:
Mononormativity can become even more oppressive in light of intersectionality. For example, queer folx are often already discriminated against for not being straight or cis-gender. Someone who is queer AND in a CNM relationship can open them up to even more possible discrimination.
Economic disparities may influence access to resources, support networks, and the ability to openly practice CNM without fear of negative consequences. Individuals with higher economic privilege may find it easier to challenge mononormative expectations.
Religious beliefs can intersect with mononormativity, as certain religious doctrines may strongly advocate for monogamous relationships. Individuals navigating both religious and non-monogamous identities may face conflicts and challenges related to societal expectations and community acceptance.
There are so many other ways that intersectionality can play a role in the influence of mononormativity - these are only a few examples. But recognizing that someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation, SES, etc. can be a privilege that makes CNM easier to live out is an important consideration in why challenging mononormativity is critical.
How to Deal with Mononormativity
First things first - do you identify as monogamous or non-monogamous? How do you know? Did you explore the values behind each of these relationship styles and determine that one or the other aligns with you, or did you simply assume monogamy was for you because that’s what culture/religion/family told you was “right?” Doing the inner work to explore your own relationship with monogamy and non-monogamy is a great first step to being more open to others’ experiences and your own.
Explore why CNM seems “bad” or “wrong” if you think it is. If it’s not something you personally align with, can you explore why it might actually work for someone else? For some people in long-term relationships, engaging in CNM is a great way to keep their own relationship and sex lives interesting. Love is not a zero sum game where we start our day with 100% of love and we give 25% to our spouse, 50% to our kids, 30% to our pets and oops, we’ve already run out. That’s not how love works. It’s possible to have sexual and emotional connections with multiple people and if done well and ethically, can yield great results for long-term relationships. So take the time to learn and understand why someone might feel in alignment with CNM. It doesn’t have to be for you, but before you cast judgment, make sure you better understand it.
Lastly, notice ways in which you might be engaging in mononormativity. Our culture is structured to only support people in coupled relationships (be it taxes and insurance or sponsored “date nights” that assume just two people are the “date”). In reality, you probably know someone (without knowing it) who is practicing some form of CNM. So be mindful of how you talk to other people about relationships. Use words like “partner” or “relationship” when first learning about new people and their relationship structure, rather than assuming they are in a marriage or that their spouse is their only partner. Reserve judgement if a person does share that they are practicing CNM and ask them about their partners (not just their primary, if they have one). Don’t assume that because someone wants to open their relationship up, they’re just looking for an excuse to cheat. Reserving judgment and curiosity leaves space for people to be open and vulnerable and helps them to feel like you are a safe person/space for them to be their authentic selves.
The more that you make small changes that push against mononormativity, the more space you leave for all relationship styles to be present and can prevent people from feeling judged or shamed.
So Are You Anti-monogamy?
Absolutely not! As someone who has explored both CNM and monogamy, I’ve personally found that at this current time in my life, monogamy works best for me. But I went on a journey to make sense of that for myself and am wholeheartedly supportive of both monogamous and CNM relationships, knowing that different relationship styles work for different people at different times in their lives. I think monogamy can have tremendous value, just like CNM does. Both relationship styles are valid, and they both have their own benefits and drawbacks. Both take work and dedication to maintain whatever relationship agreements are in place and intentionally is the name of the game for anyone engaging in relationships.
Learning about mononormativity is important for all of us. It’s good for us as a culture to explore the ways we consciously and subconsciously judge and suppress others for issues that have little bearing on our growth and well-being as a whole society. Whether it’s two, three, or four people in a relationship, if all are in agreement and no one is getting hurt by it, there’s no reason to exclude anyone from the joys of experiencing love and acceptance.
So remember: take the time to educate yourself about different relationship styles, pay attention to and question your own assumptions, and challenge mononormativity when you see it coming up within yourself or others.
Image credit: Photo by Kumar Saurabh