We learn from birth that there’s one right way when it comes to romance: meet someone, date, move in together, get married, have kids, and stay together until death do you part.
Although this script can make it feel like we only have one option, there are a lot of different (and valid!) ways to have intimate relationships. But with such a heavy focus on monogamy (having one sexual/romantic partner) in our culture, it can be hard to imagine what those other options might look like.
Here are a few of the more common relationship structures outside of monogamy, though these certainly aren’t the only options for ethical or consensual non-monogamy on the table.
Dan Savage, author of Savage Love, coined the term “monogamish” to describe a relationship that is mostly closed, but allows the occasional outside sexual partner in the right situation — but romance is usually off the table. Exploring a monogamish relationship could look like having a 100-mile rule, where you can sleep with someone else as long as you are at least 100 miles from home.
Swinging is when a committed couple consensually has sex with people outside of their relationship, usually without romantic entanglement. While the word “swinging” probably brings to mind a very specific image for a lot of folk (personally I think of key parties and wife-swapping), the term really covers a broad spectrum. Some swingers stick to group sex with their spouse while others may go off on their own with a lover, and some swingers prefer strangers at clubs or parties while others form long-term, even lifelong bonds with the couple they swap with.
3. Friends with Benefits / Fuck Buddies
These terms both describe ongoing sexual relationships that don’t have a romantic component. Commitment and exclusivity aren’t a part of the deal here, and usually both people are open to being involved with other people, if they don’t already have multiple lovers. While they’re sometimes used interchangeably, Friends with Benefits is also used more specifically to indicate a relationship that is primarily based on friendship, with an added bonus of occasionally bumpin’ uglies.
Polyamory is the practice of engaging in multiple romantic or intimate relationships simultaneously with the consent and knowledge of all parties (or being open to doing so). Poly means many, and amory means love, so this type of ethical non-monogamy usually focuses on having multiple loving relationships, which may or may not include sexual activity. Not to be confused with polygamy (the practice of having more than one spouse), polyamory comes in a lot of different flavors and forms from “this is my husband and this is our girlfriend and we don’t date anyone outside of us three, but if anything goes wrong we will protect our marriage” to “this is my partner and this is my girlfriend and this is my girlfriend’s other boyfriend and this is her boyfriend’s boyfriend and we all live separately.”
Poly-fidelity looks a lot like you’d expect a monogamous relationship to look, just with more than two people. Sometimes referred to as “monogamy +1” (or +2, or however many) in poly communities, members of the relationship agree to only date and have sex with each other. Most often this is a “throuple” or triad (three people dating each other), although quads (four people) and larger closed networks can and do exist.
6. Open Relationship
While monogamish, polyamory, and swinging are all types of open relationships, if someone says they’re in an open relationship, it usually means that they are pursuing sexual connections outside of their “main” or “primary” partner, but not romantic ones.
7. Relationship Anarchy
Relationship anarchy is more of an approach to relationships than a structure. Basically, relationship anarchists believe that all forms of intimacy are valid and don’t necessarily prioritize their lovers or romantic relationships above their friends or family. Relationship anarchy explicitly rejects assumed hierarchies between different kinds of relationships and erases the distinction between partner and non-partner.
8. Queer Platonic, Co-parenting, and Chosen Family
Not all intimate relationships involve sex or romance. Choosing to build a life and family or otherwise do things more traditionally associated with romantic partners with your friends is also a valid option. This could look like two best friends or even former partners living and raising their kids together, a group of friends buying land and building tiny houses near each other, or so many other things. The key trait here is a level of life entanglement that is above and beyond what someone would normally have with their friends.
When it comes to your relationships, why would you buy off the rack when you could get it tailored — or even made exactly to your measurements? Unlike a perfectly fitted suit, it costs you nothing but honesty, communication, and a little self-reflection.