Consensual non-monogamy
August 27, 2021

Monogamish: What It Means And How It Works

“It’s mostly monogamy, with a little squish around the edges.”
Written by
Elizabeth Kirkhorn
Published on
August 27, 2021
Updated on
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When it comes to alternative relationship structures, there are a few hot-button terms you might already know: open relationships, swinging, polyamory, etc. While each of these relationship structures come with their own unique benefits, none of these labels are quite right for someone who wants to explore multiple partnerships, but still identifies as mostly monogamous. If this describes you, then you may resonate with being “monogamish.”

What it means to be monogamish 

Partners who are in monogamish relationships have agreed to a mostly exclusive relationship, but with flexible boundaries that allow for connections outside the relationship occasionally. Those boundaries are defined by the couple and can be adjusted or re-evaluated over time as each partner continues to check in with themselves and each other. 

Justina Hinterberger, a therapist who specializes in non-traditional relationships, tells that “monogamish relationships have a really great, mostly monogamous dynamic, but they keep an open and active communication with each other so that if and when a sexual opportunity presents itself elsewhere, they can talk it through.” 

Dan Savage coined the term 

The term “monogamish” was popularized in 2011 by leading sex-advice columnist Dan Savage. He practices it in his own marriage of 20 plus years. According to Savage, he and his husband are “monogamish” since they are in a loving and exclusive marriage that still allows for occasional infidelity. “It’s mostly monogamy,” he says, “with a little squish around the edges.” 

Monogamish relationships are not open and polyamous relationships 

While the meaning of monogamish may be often jumbled up with open relationships, polyamory and the swinger lifestyle — they do share some key traits — the labels do matter, especially if you’re trying to determine which relationship style may be right for you. 

Swinging involves partner swapping between two couples that already exist,” Hinterberger explains. “Open relationship typically means partners may date or have ongoing consensual, sexual relationships with other people. Polyamory is a broad term that may loosely encompass all of these things,” she explains. Meanwhile, in monogamish relationships, participants are almost given a “hall pass,” meaning that under certain circumstances clearly communicated between parties, one or both partners can be free to sexually or emotionally “step out.”

A monogamish relationship can feel less restrictive than monogamy, but less relaxed than something like an open relationship, where there is a shared understanding that infidelity is an ongoing norm as opposed to a special circumstance. 

Why some people choose to be monogamish 

There are plenty of valid reasons why people choose a monogamish lifestyle and go on to have successful, fulfilling love lives. Here are just a few of those reasons. 

A desire to explore with people of other genders

Hinterberger points to an example where a man and a woman might be in a heterosexual relationship, but one or both partners wants to explore other aspects of their identity or sexual orientation. “Let’s say a couple has been monogamous for six months, but one partner doesn’t identify as fully straight. They have sexual desires towards other genders,” Hinterberger explains. “Knowing this, their monogamous partner might say, ‘Hey, if and when the chance presents itself, or if this is something you want to explore, I’m open to discussing it.’ 

One or both partners identify as asexual 

A monogamish relationship structure could be a great fit in relationships where one or both partners are asexual. A more flexible relationship structure can create a guilt-free environment for partners to make connections with other folks, whether those connections are sexual or not. 

A desire for more sexual experiences or partners 

Cassandra Lange, counselor and owner of Queer City Therapy, tells that couples who met when they were young and therefore haven’t gained a lot of sexual experience can really benefit from a monogamish dynamic. 

Partners have mismatched libido 

According to Lange, “being monogamish can also be useful for couples where one person has a higher libido than the other, or if one person wants different things sexually. A whole slew of reasons.”

5 monogamish ground rules 

If you’re thinking about being monogamish, communication is key. Be honest with partners outside your primary relationship about your relationship status. You also should consider establishing strong ground rules with your primary partner. Consider discussing the following boundaries:

1. The sexual limit

One of the first bases to cover should be what types of sex it’s okay to have with other people (if your monogamish relationship includes sex with other people at all). Don’t be afraid to get into the nitty-gritty here: are you comfortable with oral sex? With penetrative sex? With exploring kinks outside of the relationship? Are both partners open to having sex with other people, or will only one be pursuing alternative sexual relationships? 

Make sure rules are in place so that both parties can trust the other to use safe sex practices. Setting checkpoints where one or both parties get tested for STIs can be a good strategy to manage this. Know that limits and boundaries can change or be adjusted at any point, so it’s important to continually check in. 

2. The emotional limit

Hinterberger says that when it comes to having partners outside of your relationship, sometimes it’s about sex, but a lot of times it isn’t. “A lot of people just want to establish connections with others, and not feel like they’re betraying their loved one, and that’s okay.” 

Monogamish relationships can become sticky when emotional boundaries get involved; it’s one thing to be okay with your partner having a random one night stand, but another to wrap your head around them developing an intimate connection, or even falling in love, with someone else. Plus, emotional boundaries are much harder to control. Hinterberger suggests curbing this grey area by setting up a solid contingency plan. Discuss in advance what will happen if one partner catches feelings for someone else, and how you’ll respond to this together. 

3. Who it’s okay to be with 

While you don’t want to infringe on a partner’s independence, it’s perfectly valid to set reasonable limits on who each partner is allowed to explore external connections with. 

“I think this comes into play when one partner wants to date or have sex with someone that’s in your life already,” says Lange. “It makes a lot of sense to set some limits like: ‘Okay, nobody in my family. Nobody who is a close friend.’ ”

If your partner is interested in someone who you have an established relationship with, keep the lines of communication open. You can really discuss it if the opportunity presents itself, and if it’s very important to one party or the other. 

4. How much time can be spent with outside partners

“Be really mindful of how much time you give to your primary or nesting partner, and talk about how much time you’ll spend with the outside person, if there is an outside person in the equation at the time,” Lange explains. “Talk about things like: ‘is it important that we have a weekend night together? Do we want to make sure that we have a certain number of sleepovers a week?”

As with all things in a monogamish union, these things can stay open to change or compromise as things move forward, as long as both parties are honest and communicative about their needs. 

5.How often to check in

While guidelines are important to keep both monogamish partners aligned, they need to leave enough room for feelings to change. This is why, when deciding on how often to check in on the relationship, you want to choose a time increment that’s small enough to make both partners feel regularly heard, but wide enough for thoughts and concerns to develop. For some partnerships, this could be monthly, but some might want to create weekly time to air grievances, and others might not feel the need to touch base until six months have passed. 

“To make a monogamish relationship work, you need to be prepared for difficult and honestly sometimes boring discussions about where you are, how you’re feeling, what you each need, and whether anything needs to change,” says Lange. 

How to ask your partner to be monogamish

Are you currently in a monogamous relationship, but interested in broaching the topic of opening it up a bit with a partner? Hinterberger advises caution when teeing up this conversation so that your motives in wanting a more flexible relationship don’t come across as hurtful.

“If you come in and convey to them, ‘You aren’t addressing this need for me so I need to see someone else,’ that won’t fly. It’ll put your partner on the defense,” she says. “Use ‘I feel’ or ‘I believe’ statements to make your reasons for wanting a monogamish relationship very clear.” 

Lange adds that, during this conversation, it’s always good to lead with what both people need to feel safe, and not to be afraid of tricky questions like, “What happens if one of our boundaries is broken?”

Bear in mind before running headfirst into this conversation that you should never convince or persuade a partner to open a relationship if this makes them feel unsafe. The same way it is okay for you to align with monogamish-ness, it is okay for others to believe a relationship should stay between two committed parties. Hinterberger suggests opening a dialogue with your partner about their beliefs on monogamy. If they are firm in wanting a traditional and monogamous relationship, and seem unlikely to change their mind, this may be a non-starter. Whether this means the partnership should end is up to the individuals. 

“The biggest work is with the individual who wants to explore that type of monogamish relationship, or may potentially want to,” Hinterberger explains. “Really do that work, either with yourself or with a therapist to figure out what needs aren’t being met, or what your motivation might be for wanting this. Then, share that with your partner.”

The bottom line 

If you’re just getting started in discovering this part of yourself, the work is only beginning, and this is cause for excitement. For further reading on being “monogamish,” Lange suggests checking out The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, or Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Relationships by Tristan Taormino.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Elizabeth is a graduate student from New York, New York. She writes personal essays about identity, womanhood, and love.

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