What Is Monogamy?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on March 31, 2023

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:

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 does not 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 types of polyamory:

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

Polyfidelity refers to 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.

Monogamy means exclusivity in a relationship. Many religions support and sometimes require monogamy. The U.S. government and all 50 states require that marriages be monogamous.

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

There are 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 lay out 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. 

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.

Show Sources

IMAGE CREDIT: Ruslan Huzau/Dreamstime


Dictionary.com: “Polygamy.”

Institute for Family Studies: “Is Monogamy Unnatural?”

Merriam-Webster: “Polyamory.”

Sexual Medicine Reviews: “Monogamy and Nonmonogamy: Evolutionary Considerations and Treatment Challenges.”

Scientific American: “Monogamy May Be Written in Our Genes.”

The Cut: “8 Signs a Monogamous Relationship Isn’t for You.”

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