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Nonmonogamy and mental health

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

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What is nonmonogamy?

In a recent US survey, most adults (55%) went on record as preferring monogamy, meaning having just one romantic or sexual partner at a time.1 But around a third of participants (34%) expressed some interest in relationships that aren’t entirely monogamous.

Nonmonogamy involves having more than one partner at the same time. It’s a relationship approach that requires communication and consent, meaning everyone involved knows about and agrees to the arrangement. It can take forms like:

  • Open relationships or marriages, where couples agree they can have sexual relationships with other people. The level of emotional involvement with outside partners may vary.
  • “Monogamish” relationships, where couples are mostly monogamous but allow some degree of sexual activity outside the relationship.
  • Swinging, when couples have recreational sex with other couples or individuals, sometimes via official events or networks.
  • Polyamory, or having multiple romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. People in polyamorous relationships may have sex and form emotional connections with all of their partners.
  • Polygamy, in which a person has multiple spouses. Polygamy is often associated with certain religious and cultural practices.
  • Relationship anarchy, a relatively new approach that values freedom, consent, honesty, and flexibility over traditional relationship structures and expectations.
  • Solo polyamory, which involves having intimate relationships with multiple people but living independently, as if single (for instance, not living with or merging finances with any partner).

Is nonmonogamy a sexual orientation?

Nonmonogamy isn’t considered a sexual orientation. As a relationship approach, it allows you to organize your intimate relationships in a way that lines up with your needs and desires.

What is ethical nonmonogamy?

“Ethical nonmonogamy” and “consensual nonmonogamy” both describe nonexclusive relationships where everyone is open about what’s going on, everyone has enthusiastically consented to the relationship style, and nobody’s being lied to or cheated on. The main idea is for intimate connections to be honest, consensual, and equitable.

Is nonmonogamy healthy?

For some people, nonmonogamy can be both healthy and fulfilling. As with monogamous relationships, healthy nonmonogamy requires communication, consent, respect, and honesty. And like every other relationship approach, nonmonogamy has its own unique set of potential benefits and challenges.

The mental health benefits of a healthy nonmonogamous relationship can include:

  • Fulfillment: Some people find that multiple partners can meet their emotional and physical needs better than a single partner can. Nonmonogamy may also help take pressure off one partner as the sole source of support or pleasure. In addition, witnessing a partner’s happiness with another person can sometimes be a source of joy.
  • Emotional security: Nonmonogamous relationships require trust and understanding. Partners need to communicate openly and have honest conversations about their feelings and desires. This helps create a sense of safety in the relationship and make it easier to be vulnerable with each other.
  • Commitment and connection: When partners respect and care for one another, it strengthens their bond. A positive nonmonogamous arrangement can remind partners how much they value and trust each other—and how much they want to keep the relationship going.
  • Personal growth: Healthy nonmonogamous relationships require strong communication skills, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness. The challenges of nonmonogamy can also be opportunities for self-discovery and learning.

The mental health challenges of nonmonogamy can include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed: A nonmonogamous relationship adds a layer of complexity to many aspects of life, including communication, scheduling, and emotional energy. It also requires managing the dynamics and interactions between different relationships, which can stir up a range of emotions and require tough conversations.
  • Setting and navigating boundaries: It takes time and energy to negotiate limits around sexual encounters, safer sex, time spent with different partners, and emotional investment. This can be challenging if people have different ideas about what those boundaries should look like.
  • Difficulty communicating: A high level of open, honest communication is needed in nonmonogamous relationships. Managing this can be stressful, and failure to do so can lead to misunderstandings, resentment, or hurt feelings.
  • Insecurity and jealousy: Even when both parties in a relationship agree to be nonmonogamous, jealousy can still be a factor. Wanting to practice nonmonogamy doesn’t necessarily mean a person or couple is emotionally prepared for it.
  • Shame from judgment or disapproval: People who are open about their nonmonogamous relationships may face backlash from friends, family members, and even strangers. One study showed that people who were made to feel uncomfortable with their nonmonogamous relationships felt less satisfied with their overall relationships and less committed to their partners.2

Stigma around nonmonogamy

Nonmonogamy has been practiced for centuries, but it continues to be misunderstood and stigmatized. A common misconception is that it’s essentially the same as cheating.3 Because many social, cultural, and legal traditions treat monogamy as both normal and morally superior, people in nonmonogamous relationships often face discrimination, confusion, or erasure.

When a group of people in consensual nonmonogamous relationships were interviewed about their experiences, they said the personal judgment they faced was emotionally draining and that they felt society often disregarded their type of relationship.4 This meant having to carefully decide when to reveal or hide their relationship status. They also had to deal with their own internalized judgment, unlearn societal biases, and find supportive friends.

Despite these challenges, the interviewees firmly believed the benefits of their nontraditional relationships outweighed the challenges. They were determined to keep living their lives in a way that felt right for them.

Is nonmonogamy right for you?

Deciding if nonmonogamy is the right fit for you requires a lot of self-reflection and honest communication with your partner (if you’re in a relationship). You may want to ask yourself:

  • Why am I interested in nonmonogamy? Is it out of curiosity, a desire for more intimacy or variety, dissatisfaction with my current relationship, or another reason?
  • How do I handle jealousy? Can I be comfortable knowing my partner is intimate with someone else?
  • Am I able to communicate openly and honestly about my feelings? Do I need to work on this area before taking on nonmonogamy?
  • Do I have the time and energy to devote to multiple partners? What would my schedule look like, and will it be realistic to manage?
  • Can I set and respect boundaries? Do I understand what is and isn’t acceptable in a nonmonogamous relationship?
  • Am I prepared to handle social stigma or potential judgment from others? How might that affect my self-esteem?
  • How will this impact my current relationship? Can my partner and I both agree to move forward with nonmonogamy—and if not, should we consider ending the relationship?
  • What are my expectations? Am I being realistic about what nonmonogamy might entail, or am I trying to fulfill a fantasy?
  • How would I handle potential conflicts? Conflicts can arise in all relationships, but nonmonogamous ones can present unique challenges.
  • Am I pursuing nonmonogamy to try and fix a strained relationship? Is there a possibility that I could be using it as a bandage for existing problems?

How to find support

Nonmonogamous relationships can be fulfilling and affirming, and they also come with challenges. If you’re considering or currently in a nonmonogamous relationship, it’s important to educate yourself and seek help as needed.

Nonprofit organizations such as OPEN (Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Nonmonogamy), Loving More, and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) offer support for people in consensual nonmonogamous relationships. You can also find local support groups and events by searching platforms like Meetup and Eventbrite.

Individual therapy can help you gain insight into your own values, beliefs, and motivations, while couples therapy can help partners work through issues like insecurity or jealousy. There are many counselors who specialize in nonmonogamous relationships, so be sure to find one you feel comfortable with. Visit our therapist directory to look for a licensed professional near you.

Whatever your relationship status, identity, or orientation, remember that you have the right to pursue connections that make you feel safe, fulfilled, and respected.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.