Unpacking the Definition of Nonmonogamy | Nonmonogamy Academy

Nonmonogamy is an umbrella term that includes a variety of relationship structures, like “monogamish” and “relationship anarchy”. The word is often used interchangeably with polyamory – which is really just one type of nonmonogamy.

You may have heard the terms Consensual Nonmonogamy (CNM) and Ethical Nonmonogamy (ENM). People generally use them interchangeably as well, but they mean slightly different things. In academic circles, CNM is used to differentiate from cheating or widespread but unspoken affairs – whereas ENM gets thrown around in day-to-day conversation. I’ll explain more about this difference and why people need to stop calling nonmonogamous relationships “ethical” in a future post. For now, let’s talk about what exactly is a nonmonogamous relationship?

The Nitty Gritty of NonMonogamy

As I was writing this post, I was struck by a thought. At the risk of sounding cliche, I thought it would be fun to use a quote from Dictionary.com. Imagine my shock and awe (sarcasm intended) when all the definitions they offered for relationship, nonmonogamy and monogamy only took me in referential circles or felt outdated! So I decided to explore what sociologists have to say about monogamy. After all, when it comes down to the basics, nonmonogamy is simply whatever monogamy isn’t.

Taking Sex Out of the Definition of Nonmonogamy

Abbey Willis wrote in a 2016 paper that “…monogamy can be studied as a normative, institutional and compulsory relationship formation which, even outside of state sanctioned marriage, can be viewed as a social expectation that serves to uphold the primacy of coupledom, longevity, and exclusivity, while also privileging romantic love over other forms of intimate connection.” One thing that I like about this definition is that it doesn’t talk about sex, which at least feels realistic. As a sex therapist, I’m amazed at how many couples come to me thinking that a relationship doesn’t exist without sex. Whether or not you choose to have a sexual relationship or one without sex is up to you. Your romantic partner might have very different thoughts about this though, so it’s a really good idea to talk about that…but I digress just a little bit.

When I talk to most people in relationships who are looking to open up them up, they often start by saying something along the lines of “a relationship where we’re allowed to have sex with other people.” If that’s what they want, that’s fine. The trouble is that this definition excludes people who are asexual or aromantic, people who may not be having sex in some or all of their relationships, or people who may not be “dating” their sexual partners. Let’s put an end to treating sex and intimacy as one and the same! And let’s recognize that intimacy doesn’t only happen through sex. There are actually six components of intimate relationships: spiritual, physical (not sexual!), mental, energetic, emotional, and sexual. I’ll go into a deeper discussion of this in a future blog post, so keep an eye out!

Distinguishing Monogamy From Nonmonogamy

I like to think of nonmonogamy as anything that starts to blur the lines between the traditional, relationship escalator monogamy and whatever other form of relationship you want to engage in. This could potentially allow for as many (or as few) people as you want in to be involved (or uninvolved) in whatever capacity you want to allow. Really, there are countless options. Even looking at the definition of monogamy from a sociological perspective, the only things I would toss out from it to distinguish it from nonmonogamy are the ideas of exclusivity. Even that is on shaky ground.

Many nonmonogamous people still prioritize coupledom, prioritize long-term relationships, impose various forms of exclusivity (like not taking your dates to “our” special place), and oftentimes give romantic love priority over friendships. Those who practice closed triads, or throuples, implement exclusivity as well. It’s important to note that nonmonogamy seeks to break these established norms in order to move away from them!

There are also plenty of people who practice forms of flexible exclusivity that would otherwise call themselves monogamous, or even monogamish. Some romantic couples engage in swinging, or giving hall passes for specific people or events. The main point I want to make in saying this is that people get to pick the label that suits them. It isn’t your place to police them on it, even if you disagree. The label of monogamy can give people the security and societal acceptance they need to feel okay with what they are doing. It’s not your job to take that away from them.

A Few Useful Definitions

Now that I’ve given you a general idea of what nonmonogamy is and how it differs from monogamy, it’s time to give you some definitions (that is what you came here for after all). Of course this is nowhere near being an exhaustive list. There are as many different types of relationships out there as people can imagine up. These relationship styles all have different degrees of emotional connection, levels of exclusivity, levels of intimacy (sexual, emotional, or other). 


Monogamy is a relationship model where two people are exclusive with each other. This can include emotional and/or sexual exclusivity.


Nonmonogamy is a term that encompasses a variety of relationship structures and practices. It can mean different things to different people, but generally it means an agreement to not be sexually or romantically exclusive with one partner. There are many different ways to practice nonmonogamy, so it’s important to respect the choices each person makes for their own relationship.


Polyamory is all about having relationships with multiple partners. These connections can be romantic, emotional, or sexual. Making sure that everyone in the relationship is respected, they can communicate with each other openly, and everyone gives their consent are super important in polyamorous relationships! The main pairing (primary relationship) are commonly referred to as primary partners and anyone else who joins this pairing might be called secondary or tertiary partners!


I also want to introduce you to the word novogamy. This term was coined by Dr. Jorge Ferrer in his book Love and Freedom: Transcending Monogamy and Polyamory. I personally really loved the book, though it does tend to read more like a dissertation with the number of citations and endnotes listed. One of the reasons I really love the book is that Ferrer does a great job of breaking down the lines between monogamy and nonmonogamy, and suggests people come to a place of relational freedom and fluidity. Ferrer suggests that people be free to not choose one or the other style exclusively, but move between them as circumstances and needs call for. Overall, I think this is an ideal scenario for people to be able to reach this level of sovereignty and awareness in their lives.

Some Science About Romantic Relationships

Because I love my statistics, let me just throw a few fun facts at you. A not so recent study a national survey of North Americans found 20% of people have engaged in nonmonogamous relationships at any given time. A much more recent survey indicated that about 5% of North Americans are currently identifying as nonmonogamous. Most interestingly, it did not matter what your age, education level, religion, region, political affiliation or race was in identifying who was likely to have ever been in a nonmonogamous relationship. The only demographics that reported higher engagement in nonmonogamous relationships were men and LGBTQ+. Chances are, no one was quite as nuanced on what constitutes non-monogamy as what I’ve indicated in this post, but it does give us an idea of who is likely to have ever engaged in a nonmonogamous relationship.