Poly/Mono or Mono/Poly

SDC Dr Eli Sheff Polyamory NonMonogamy Monogamy Relationships
SDC Dr Eli Sheff Polyamory NonMonogamy Monogamy Relationships
When polyamory and monogamy coexist in the same relationship.

Like other mixed-orientation relationships, poly/mono or mono/poly relationships include people with differing identities or practices, in this case, one monogamist who is sexually exclusive with one partner, and one polyamorist who has or is seeking multiple partners with the knowledge and consent of all concerned. From the polyamorist’s perspective, the relationship is poly/mono, and from the monogamist’s perspective it is mono/poly — either way, it means negotiating relationship boundaries that seem unusual at least, and possibly bizarre, to people who are accustomed to conventional (serially monogamous) relationships.

What is It?

In most (if not all) poly/mono relationships, the monogamous person has the option to have additional partners and chooses not to do so for a range of reasons. Often they just do not feel like it, some because they are monogamous by orientation and simply do not desire multiple partners, and others because of specific life circumstances. The unifying factor is that the monogamous person knows about and consents to the poly person’s outside relationships but chooses not to have outside relationships of their own.

This is not the same as a polyamorous couple in which both people are open to or have already had polyamorous relationships but currently appear to be monogamous because they are only dating or married to one person at the moment. Much like a lesbian is still a lesbian even if she is not currently dating anyone, these folks are still poly even if they are not currently seeing others. Rather than a mono/poly relationship, it would be poly/seeking (or rebounding, or whatever).

When it Works

  • Matched emotionally but mismatched sexually: Sometimes, people who deeply love each other and click on emotional, intellectual, creative, spiritual, and/or political levels make wonderful partners in many ways but do not click sexually. When a high-desire partner is paired with a low-desire lover, it can be a tremendous relief for both of them when the high-desire person has access to other lovers. Similarly, when a kinky person and a “vanilla” person fall in love, a poly/mono relationship can allow the kinky person to have sex that involves pain or power exchange with others who also enjoy those practices. The arrangement also relieves the vanilla person from the burden of either having a kind of sex they do not like or feeling like they are not meeting their partner’s needs.

  • Long-distance relationships: People who travel a lot or live far away from their primary partners sometimes successfully negotiate a mono/poly relationship. This can mean an additional partner to keep the person who is left at home company while the other person is on the road or an additional partner in a remote location for the person who spends time out of town.

  • Disabilities and illness: Some couples who have one partner with an illness or disability that makes sex difficult or impossible will negotiate an agreement that allows the other partner to have sex with people outside the marriage or relationship.

When it Doesn’t Work

The worst way to begin any poly relationship is by having sex outside the relationship before negotiating non-monogamy, what I think of as the “Newt Gingrich Approach.” Saying, “Honey, I’ve been cheating, and now I think we should be openly non-monogamous” hardly ever works out well because Honey is already feeling betrayed by the cheating and lying. Starting out with a lie undermines the trust that is fundamental to functional polyamorous relationships.

A common duress negotiation would go something like this: Chris prefers monogamy but agrees to Kacey's request for access to extra-marital sexuality because Kacey implicitly or explicitly threatens to leave if Chris demands monogamy. Negotiated under the duress of threatened abandonment, Chris’s agreement will most likely be brittle and prone to splintering when tested. Polyamorous relationships can be complex and have an uncanny knack of stressing already-inflamed points. If and when the inevitable complexities of emotions and time management begin to disturb the network of relationships, Chris will have a meltdown and reveal that the relationship structure is not now and, in fact, never was actually acceptable at all. Such mono/poly relationships negotiated under duress are not generally resilient, durable, or happy.

Dr. Elisabeth "Eli" Sheff

"Dr. Elisabeth “Eli” Sheff is a researcher, expert witness, coach, speaker, and educational consultant. With a PhD in Sociology and certification as a Sexuality Educator from the AASECT (the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists), Dr. Sheff specializes in gender and sexual minority families, consensual non-monogamy, and kink/BDSM. Sheff is the foremost academic expert on polyamorous families with children and her 20+ year Polyamorous Family Study is the only longitudinal study of poly families with children to date. Sheff’s first book, The Polyamorists Next Door (2014 hardback and ebook, 2015 paperback and audiobook), details the findings of the first 15 years of her research on polyamorous families with children. Her second book, Stories from the Polycule (2015), is an edited anthology of writings by polyamorous folks. When Someone You Love is Polyamorous (2016) is Sheff’s shortest book that guides family members and significant others who are trying to understand a polyamorous loved one."
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