What Are Monogamy and Polyamory?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 08, 2023
6 min read

Monogamy is a relationship with only one partner at a time, rather than multiple partners. A monogamous relationship can be sexual or emotional, but it’s usually both. 

Many modern relationships are monogamous. But even if they want to be with just one partner, some people have trouble staying monogamous. This can lead to infidelity, separation, breakups, and divorce.

Studies in animals have shown that certain genes may be linked to monogamous behaviors. This could mean humans have evolved to prefer monogamy, seeking out one partner with whom we share most of our lifetime.

You might also hear monogamy called:

  • Long-term relationship
  • Marriage
  • Matrimony
  • Partnership 

But these terms could also reflect more nontraditional arrangements, such as an open relationship, in which one or both members are not monogamous and have other sexual or romantic partners. The word “exclusivity” may be more accurate than “monogamy,” since it suggests that both partners are seeing only each other.

Terms like “faithful” or “loyal” can also describe a partner in a monogamous relationship who hasn’t been unfaithful to the other person.

Polyamory is a type of open or non-monogamous relationship that follows certain guidelines. 

Polyamory specifically refers to people who have multiple romantic relationships at the same time. It doesn't mean any type of open relationship that may include more casual sexual partners. In many polyamorous relationships, each partner is aware of the other ones. Partners may also have relationships or friendships with each other.



There are a few different polyamorous relationship types, including:

Solo polyamory. This includes people who don't have primary partnerships but date multiple people. They remain mostly independent in their personal lives.

Polyfidelity. This describes a group of three or more people who have a committed relationship with each other and do not date outside of the group. 

Hierarchical polyamory. This refers to people who have primary partnerships to which they devote the most time and attention, and secondary and tertiary partnerships that receive less time and attention. The primary partner may have more power over important decisions.

Non-hierarchical polyamory. Thisrefers to people who don’t have a hierarchy of partners. It is also called egalitarian polyamory or relationship anarchy. Each partner may receive equal time and attention. They may also have equal input on important life choices.

Misconceptions about polyamory include:

  • Polyamory is just cheating.

  • Polyamorists are just avoidant or afraid of commitment.

  • Polyamorous relationships don't have true intimacy.

  • Polyamorous people don't get jealous.

  • Parents having multiple partners is damaging to their children.

  • Polyamorous people just want to have a lot of sex.

Both types of relationships have advantages and drawbacks. 

Many religions support and sometimes require monogamy. The U.S. government and all 50 states require that marriages be monogamous. For many couples, monogamy brings a feeling of security. Yet some people in monogamous relationships feel they need to sacrifice certain goals or aspects of their personalities. They may feel bored with their partner or have a hard time staying faithful. 

People in polyamorous relationships tend to have more freedom. With more than one partner, they may be more likely to have their relationship needs met. But these relationships can be more complicated. Issues of jealousy and insecurity may be trickier to resolve.  And polyamory carries a social stigma that can lead to discrimination in daily life. 


 Polyamory is having more than one sexual or romantic partner. Polygamy is having more than one spouse.

There are a couple of types of polygamy. Polygyny is when a man has more than one wife, and polyandry is when a woman has more than one husband. Neither type is legal in the U.S.

If you want to have a monogamous relationship, talk about it with your partner.

To avoid confusion and uncertainty, you should both be able to set expectations about what you want from the relationship and what you’re comfortable with.  

Monogamous couples may sometimes want sexual encounters with other people. Polygamous partners may often long for a more committed, exclusive relationship. There’s no right answer, so it’s important to talk about these issues so both partners can agree about what they want from one another. 

If you know you're polyamorous, you should be open about it before you get involved in a new relationship. If you already have a partner and are interested in exploring polyamory, the first step is an honest two-way conversation.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Choose the right time and place. Don't surprise your partner with the topic or bring it up during an argument. You may want to tell them beforehand that you'd like to have a serious discussion. Then you can both decide on the timing and location. 

  • Know your goal. Do you just want to find out how they feel about polyamory, or are you ready to tell them you want a polyamorous relationship? Being clear on your goals ahead of time can help you decide what to say and how to say it.

  • Be realistic. Be prepared for the possibility that your partner will react with anger or sadness, or reject the idea of polyamory out of hand. If that's the case, respect their boundaries. Reassure them that your desire to explore polyamory isn't a reflection on them or your feelings for them.
  • Practice active listening. Your partner may have lots of questions, or they may just want to share their emotions. If they express concerns, listen to what they say with an open mind. 
  • Follow up. If your partner is open to the idea, you'll need more discussion to arrive on an arrangement you're both comfortable with. Understand that they may need time to process the idea. When the time is right, you can continue the conversation. 


Sometimes, it will be clear that monogamy isn’t working from the beginning of a relationship. Other times, it may take years to understand the issue. These red flags may signal a problem:

  • One partner feels strongly about exploring other or multiple relationships.
  • One partner has been unfaithful.
  • The couple can’t agree on boundaries.
  • One or both partners aren’t bothered by the thought of the other being with someone else.
  • One or both partners feel limited or trapped. 

These issues can often be resolved, either in couples therapy or alone, but they could also be signs that you need a change.

Polyamorous relationships can have some of the same problems as monogamous ones, and they can have unique challenges, too. Here are some of the main ones, along with suggestions for dealing with them:

  •  Being unclear on what's expected. When partners don't agree on the rules of romantic involvement, or haven't discussed them thoroughly,  this can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. To help make sure everyone is on the same page, consider a written relationship contract. It can set clear boundaries and clarify what each person is agreeing to.
  • Jealousy. This can affect any relationship, including polyamorous ones. If you have feelings of jealousy, take ownership of these feelings and discuss them with your partners. Counseling can help, too. If jealousy becomes a problem, you may need to revisit your relationship agreement.  
  • Time management. When you have more than one partner, it gets harder to schedule quality one-on-one time. Yet it's essential for satisfying relationships. Your agreement should address how much time you'll have available to spend together. But you'll also need to keep communicating about this as issues arise.